Today’s multinational enterprises are operating in increasingly challenging planetary conditions. The effects of climate change are already upon us, manifesting in natural disasters and humanitarian catastrophes. Resource-rich forests are being destroyed at the pace of 27 football pitches per minute, and more than 8 million metric tonnes of plastic waste ends up in the ocean every year.

While many industries and organizations are looking to technological advances to solve the world’s most pressing problems, they should also turn to each other. Combining the expertise of scientists, governments, academics and non-profit organizations with the scale and reach of the private sector can maximize positive impacts for nature and society.

When it comes to sustainability, good enough isn’t good enough. For businesses to achieve longevity, they require a planet that can sustain them. Acting on this belief will challenge enterprises to transform their operations in ways that support and invest in our natural world.

Fostering cooperation to restore and protect the world’s forests

A business model inspired by nature asserts that it is no longer enough to neutralize harm; instead we must create systemic change that benefits all. This can only begin by inviting businesses, governments, organizations and citizens to work together towards the common goal of creating a sustainable future. We must hold each other mutually accountable for making progress at the pace our planet requires.

Best-practice partnerships are emerging that offer innovative business models to follow. For example, International Paper (IP) and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) have collaborated on ambitious goals for the sustainable sourcing of fibre. The two are also establishing the first ever science-based targets for forest conservation needed across the globe.

Given the critical importance of maintaining healthy forests to moderate the Earth’s climate, HP is building on WWF and IP’s foundation by working to not only align the print industry on responsible forest management, but also take decisive action to contribute to a positive future for forests. In collaboration with WWF, IP, the Forest Stewardship Council and other sustainability leaders, HP is engaging the world’s largest paper producers to help scale their positive impact for forests.

Transforming Markets

During the last 50 years there has been unprecedented progress in human indicators – life expectancy has increased to record levels; infant- and maternal mortality has fallen; more girls are staying in school; more people have been lifted out of poverty than ever before; and inequality between nations has narrowed. The market system has served us well.

But deep fractures are beginning to show: gaping inequality within almost all countries; record environmental degradation and species loss; and the broader impacts of irreversible climate change. Our markets are unsustainable – and we need a new economic model.

To tackle these challenges,Transforming Markets is one of four focus areas at the World Economic Forum's 2019 Sustainable Development Impact summit. A range of sessions will bring stakeholders together to take action that places human and environmental health at the core of market systems and value chains. These include building sustainable markets, responsible supply chains, moving beyond disposability, circularity and scaling solutions of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, among others.

Partnering to tackle plastic waste

In addition to concern for forests, public-private partnerships are finding new ways of tackling the plastic pollution problem. Scientists predict that in 25 years, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Not only does this plastic destroy ocean life, it also turns up in the food we eat and the air we breathe.

Widespread alarm over the state of plastic pollution has catapulted businesses and organizations towards collaboration on eliminating unnecessary and single-use plastics. The New Plastics Economy initiative, convened by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, has united more than 400 entities to stop plastic from becoming waste. With progressive targets and ongoing reporting, the initiative is helping companies to stop producing problematic plastics like straws, bottles and bags.

More than 8 million metric tonnes of plastic waste ends up in the ocean every year.
Image: HP

Following Haiti’s devastating earthquake in 2010, its already weak trash collection system buckled, and tonnes of plastic and other waste piled up on beaches, in waterways, and in communities. HP has worked with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) such as NextWave Plastics, First Mile Coalition and supplier partners to create a scalable ocean-bound plastic supply chain in Haiti to collect and incorporate the plastic waste into its closed-loop plastics supply chain – creating nearly 1,000 jobs for Haitians and providing healthcare and education for their families.

Growth in global plastics production 1950–2014
Image: The New Plastics Economy

Developing new economic models

As consumers become more aware of the environmental implications of their purchases, global brands are also working harder to address climate impacts across their supply chains. Beyond carbon footprint reductions, companies are beginning to work with local partners to drive new economic models.

Clothing retailer Patagonia, which has been an advocate for the protection of public lands for almost 30 years, has placed a lot of emphasis on the actions the company has taken internally to better its own processes. Most notably, the company’s actions to make its supply chain carbon-neutral by 2025 have encouraged other retailers to do the same. For Patagonia, that has meant working with recycled cotton, polyester and down, among other materials, and trying to find more natural fibres to manufacture clothing - while also pushing suppliers to adopt more sustainable practices.

What is the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact summit?

It’s an annual meeting featuring top examples of public-private cooperation and Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies being used to develop the sustainable development agenda.

It runs alongside the United Nations General Assembly, which this year features a one-day climate summit. This is timely given rising public fears – and citizen action – over weather conditions, pollution, ocean health and dwindling wildlife. It also reflects the understanding of the growing business case for action.

The UN’s Strategic Development Goals and the Paris Agreement provide the architecture for resolving many of these challenges. But to achieve this, we need to change the patterns of production, operation and consumption.

The World Economic Forum’s work is key, with the summit offering the opportunity to debate, discuss and engage on these issues at a global policy level.

Another major outdoor apparel business, The North Face, has also emerged as a leader in this area. The company is partnering with small-scale farmers to adopt new farming techniques that draw carbon dioxide down from the atmosphere to enrich the soil. The carbon-positive materials grown are being used in The North Face products.

Driving social impact to combat climate change

The effects of climate change aren’t just on the horizon – they are already all around us. As industry leaders, we must challenge ourselves and invite others to take action for nature and society. Not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it is a business imperative.

Multinational enterprises seeking to thrive in the coming age of value-chain disruption caused by climate change must rethink traditional business models and seek collaborative relationships that bring about positive, lasting change for businesses, people and the planet.