Stakeholder Capitalism

Why sustainability isn't just for green companies

Employees move packs of electrical cable waste at a recycling plant in Santiago, Chile.

Employees move packs of electrical cable waste at a recycling plant in Santiago, Chile. Image: REUTERS/Rodrigo Garrido

Karen Quintos
Chief Customer Officer, Dell
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • 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.

Have you read?

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:

  • Public-private collaborations, such as the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE), which is focused on advancing the circular economy by creating systems change at speed and scale.
  • Cross-industry partnerships, such as Nextwave, a consortium of global companies that are scaling the use of ocean-bound plastics.
  • CEO-led associations, such as the Business Roundtable, which is made up of US companies working together to demonstrate how to simultaneously promote environmental sustainability and achieve economic growth.
  • Individual company commitments and results, such as 2 billion pounds of recovered used electronics and 100 million pounds of sustainable materials used in packaging.
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

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.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Stakeholder CapitalismForum InstitutionalClimate ActionSustainable DevelopmentCircular EconomyNature and Biodiversity
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