• Sustainability has become a business imperative for all companies.
  • Businesses can make progress through public-private collaborations, cross-industry partnerships and CEO-led associations.
  • Businesses should work to source responsibly, minimize their footprint, innovate around the life cycle of a resource and be transparent.

By now, we all understand the importance of investing in sustainable business practices. What was once considered a company mission to do social good is now a business imperative.

The proof is easy to see. There are a lot of thriving industries that are economically viable – and at the same time, they’re doing good for the world. Take solar and wind energy, for example. Those industries are among the fastest growing and contributing to an expected $2.15 trillion global renewable energy market by 2025.

This opportunity to do good isn’t reserved for green companies. We’re increasingly seeing this today in the way the public and private sectors are coming together to leverage the greater visibility of public platforms and resources of private companies. In fact, total sustainability investments across sectors and industry types actually exceed some of the fastest growing sustainability markets. Today, total sustainable investments now top $30 trillion – up 68% since 2014 and tenfold since 2004.

2019 Global Sustainable Development Report
More than 20 countries have reduced emissions while growing their economies.
Image: United Nations

Sustainability's 'secret sauce'

After studying the impact of these efforts, we know investment opportunity in sustainability is only growing bigger. The projects and programmes being led by individual businesses are moving the needle. This is especially true when you combine sustainability investments with the unique products or services of your business, the talents of your people and the capabilities of your customers and partners. I call this your company “secret sauce.” By bringing these resources together, today’s businesses have made significant progress in recovering materials, cleaning oceans and reducing our footprint.

And companies have brought that success to life by forming:

Starting with the stakeholder

This is important work, and our entire stakeholder community wants to see us win. Our customers, employees and investors all expect us to be committed and deliver results. This is likely why many employees are more engaged when they’re driving positive change. The expectation for businesses to leverage their resources also helps explain why 81% of global consumers feel strongly that companies should help improve the environment.

When it comes to investing in sustainable business practices, opportunities are vast. Take e-waste, for example. Approximately 50 million tons of electronic scrap are produced each year, but only 20% is recycled, according to a PACE report, by the United Nations E-waste Coalition. This problem is growing at rates that are hard to keep up with – by 2050, the amount of e-waste will more than double to 120 million tons, making it the fastest growing material stream in the world.

So, where should companies start, and where should we hold them responsible to deliver?

  • Source ethically and responsibly by working with suppliers who are committed to sustainable environmental practices and protecting the health and safety of people and the planet. Hold suppliers accountable to your own code of conduct and partner with them to achieve goals around reducing greenhouse gas emissions or delivering future-ready skills development for their workers. And when issues are found, confront them; investigate misconduct, remove intransigent offenders and drive responsible practices deep into your supply chain.
  • Minimize your footprint by increasing energy efficiency, reducing energy consumption and moving toward zero waste. Take initiative now to set certain commitments – either small goals or large-scale transformations. Educate your employees on eco-friendly behaviours and encourage them to make positive changes.
  • Innovate around the life cycles of resources. For example, a typical computer contains plastics, metals, metalloids, ceramics, copper, carbon fibre, silicon, glass, steel, aluminium and countless other obscure materials. Each material comes with complexity, but to stem the rising tide of e-waste, it is critical to find ways to reuse and recycle these materials.
  • Set goals and be transparent about your progress. Understand where your company can make a difference on issues that are affecting the planet. Become familiar with what other companies in your industry are striving to achieve. Identify the metrics you want to hit and establish a time frame.

Financing Sustainable Development

The world’s economies are already absorbing the costs of climate change and a “business as usual” approach that is obsolete. Both scientific evidence and the dislocation of people are highlighting the urgent need to create a sustainable, inclusive and climate-resilient future.

This will require no less than a transformation of our current economic model into one that generates long-term value by balancing natural, social, human and financial conditions. Cooperation between different stakeholders will be vital to developing the innovative strategies, partnerships and markets that will drive this transformation and allow us to raise the trillions of dollars in investments that are needed.

To tackle these challenges, Financing Sustainable Development is one of the four focus areas at the World Economic Forum's 2019 Sustainable Development Impact summit. A range of sessions will spotlight the innovative financial models, pioneering solutions and scalable best practices that can mobilize capital for the the world's sustainable development goals. It will focus on the conditions that both public and private institutions should create to enable large-scale financing of sustainable development. It will also explore the role that governments, corporations, investors, philanthropists and consumers could play to deliver new ways of financing sustainable development.

No one person or organization has all the answers. As we seek solutions, we should commit to transparency and open dialogue, because candid discussion and knowledge-sharing will hold us accountable and help us reach solutions.

The impact we’ve already made tells us there is great promise in the work we’ve already done. Our ongoing and collective investments will continue to power progress for years to come.