Expert Voices

Saving the Planet is Good Business (Op-Ed)

The image of Earth in space like a blue marble highlighted the planets fragility and the beauty of Earth.
Earth science researchers are focused on our planet and beyond. (Image credit: NASA)

Neville Isdell is the former chairman and CEO, The Coca-Cola Co., and current chairman of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and Carter Roberts is president and CEO of WWF-U.S. This article is adapted from an article for the Skoll World Forum published in Partnership with Forbes. The authors contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Twenty years ago, corporate-sustainability programs were about reducing energy use in stores or cutting waste. Their primary objectives were reputation improvement. Engagement with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), if it was part of the equation at all, was only philanthropic.

But this sort of passive engagement has increasingly given way to an entirely new business model — for leading corporate entities and nonprofits.

Doing good has become good for business. And it's time that the laggards took notice.

Nature has its limits. Humanity's growing appetite is fueling an impending natural-resource catastrophe. The math of the planet is simple: as the population grows from 7 billion people to 9 billion, we are currently using the equivalent of one-and-one-half-planets' worth of resources each year to produce the goods and services today's lifestyles demand. People are exceeding the planet's capacity to sustain them, and spending beyond their means. [Overshoot Day: Living too Large on a Finite Planet]

But the good news is that today, right now, more and more of the biggest companies in the world see their ecological footprint in the context of a finite planet with dwindling natural resources — and that has become the focus of not only their corporate sustainability efforts and philanthropic initiatives, but also, in some cases, their corporate ethos.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) isn't enough anymore. Socially Responsible Corporations (SRC) are the new CSR. Smart companies are shifting to SRC and building sustainability into the very core of their business models. Because, when those companies look at the biggest threats to their long-term business success, climate change and resource scarcity are at the top of the list.

No single organization can guarantee a long-term supply of raw materials into the future. This is a shared challenge that will require shared solutions, and forward-thinking companies are realizing this imperative and what's at stake. Moreover, they are realizing no one has all the answers. That's why more and more corporate-NGO relationships are forming, and why companies are investing more money in supply-chain innovations than philanthropy.

For example, when the two of us brought the World Wildlife Fund and Coca-Cola together in 2005, we discovered a mutually beneficial relationship. WWF provided an on-the-ground view into Coca-Cola's supply chain, which was something the company never had before. And Coca-Cola leveraged its market influence in order to reduce the environmental impacts of the commodities it sources in places WWF was working to conserve.

It may seem trite or even too easy to say this couldn't be successful without both parties. But the world has reached a reality point that businesses and NGOs no longer can ignore. There is no choice but to work together. There is more than one horseman in the apocalypse of the planet: society needs to address not only climate change, an undergirding factor in every decision WWF and Coca-Cola make, but also resource scarcity — because in the short term, converting land for commodity production delivers a devastating set of multiple impacts when measuring carbon emitted, livelihoods affected and habitats destroyed.

There are few substitutes for the right regulatory frameworks — to put a price on carbon, or to shut down illegal trade in species. But society can no longer completely rely on government policies. By necessity, WWF and Coca-Cola pursue a more nuanced approach, particularly when considering the limits of two-, four- and six-year election cycles and the corresponding lack of willingness to solve longer-term problems.

By contrast, smart companies looking 20, 30 and even 50 years down the road realize that the supply:demand ratio looks grim for raw materials. To remain profitable, companies understand that meeting growing consumer demand for food and products requires a comprehensive strategy to manage resources sustainably, a strategy that cannot be a company's alone.

Thus, WWF and Coca-Cola believe that in order to bring the planet back in balance successfully, the private sector needs to play a leading role in partnership with NGOs, local communities and other stakeholders and governments. This intersection is where sustainability will be defined and implemented in the years ahead.

WWF and Coca-Cola have sought to define a gold standard for business/NGO partnerships, and combine the strengths of each organization with a focus on shared values and — most important — ensure that organizations believe strongly in a core principle of gold-standard partnerships from the beginning. You only can manage what you can measure.

For WWF and Coca-Cola, this meant collaborative teams that met weekly for years, hashing out — and committing to — hard targets around water efficiency and carbon emissions. By the end of 2012, The Coca-Cola Company improved water efficiency by 20 percent across its system, compared with a 2004 baseline. This enabled a more productive and efficient business, stronger relationships and reputation within the communities it operates — and countless new business opportunities.

Having met those initial goals, some businesses might have stopped there. But under CEO and Chairman Muhtar Kent's leadership, Coca-Cola is now doubling down on those initial targets, and expanding its sustainability efforts across the board.

This leadership reinforces the notion that doing good — while certainly the right thing to do, especially as it relates to natural resource stewardship — is also good for business' bottom line.

Most consumers want to be part of solving the world's big problems, such as climate change and resource scarcity. Now, more than ever, consumers are mindful of the products they buy, and look behind a brand to see what it stands for. This often is where consumers start. This is particularly true in places like China and India, where populations feel more keenly the impacts of resource scarcity and climate change. Engagement on those issues helps define the consumer relationship.

Instituting a transformational shift toward sustainability requires real commitment across the board, starting with the creation of an internal, cultural movement within — both for companies and NGOs. It isn't always an easy sell. WWF and Coca-Cola faced challenges, but both understood that building a case for forging this type of a relationship was critical if both sectors were to survive. Using the power of the marketplace to leverage change on the ground is conservation in the 21st century — a concept everyone can get behind.

But there is one common denominator all people share and must work together to overcome: pain.

Pain for corporations who don't take seriously the need to assess their ecological footprint, measure their consumption and develop a path to sustainability. Pain for nonprofits that work tirelessly for decades to protect species and habitats, but see all that progress evaporate if they avoid the larger drivers of global change. And most important, pain for the planet — and all who call it home — if society can't work together to repair what people, collectively, have destroyed.

Noted theologian John Wesley held this as his mantra: "Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can."

When corporations and NGOs collaborate on long-term, rigorous, innovative partnerships designed to re-align the balance of the planet, it helps bring Wesley's mantra to life.

This article originally appeared as Do all the Good You Can on the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship, a premier international platform for accelerating entrepreneurial approaches and innovative solutions to the world's most pressing social issues. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This article was originally published on LiveScience.

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