Can a business be sustainable and still make money? You'd better believe it, says world-renowned environmental commentator, Professor David Suzuki. Interview by Peter Hughes
David Suzuki is a member of that unusual breed, the celebrity environmentalist. Thirty years of writing and broadcasting have made him a household name in his native Canada, yet inside the talking head is a formidable scientific mind.
Suzuki, now 66, holds no fewer than 15 honorary doctorates from Canadian universities, has written more than 30 books, and until last year was a zoology professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC). He is currently professor emeritus at UBC’s Sustainable Development Research Institute and his CV boasts a UNESCO prize for science and a United Nations Environment Programme medal.
Suzuki shares his name with the environmental foundation that he set up in 1990, whose purpose is to promote sustainable lifestyles via education and awareness programmes. The business community plays a central part in his green vision. But be warned: he is not inclined to waste breath on warm words or platitudes.
“Unfortunately most businesses now don’t think beyond the box, in which the bottom line is profit,” he says. “And so the driving force is to maximise profit in the shortest period of time. To the banks, if you’re not growing, you’re dying. And that’s madness. It’s the creed of the cancer cell. No one ever asks: how much is enough?”
Suzuki speaks with the experience of a sexagenarian, yet argues his case with youthful vigour. In his view, many of the current ills of the corporate world are fairly recent afflictions. “Businesses today won’t hesitate to downsize by firing a thousand people – not in order to survive, but in order to increase profitability,” he says.
“There’s no sense of responsibility towards those employees. It used to be that the annual report was the critical thing. Now it’s the quarterly report. Companies on the stock market are literally living and dying on the basis of their quarterly results.”
And short-termism, Suzuki argues, inevitably leads to environmentally damaging decisions. He recalls the case of a Canadian newspaper publisher which three years ago was advised by an energy expert that it could cut its energy bill by 30%, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars a year – not to mention thousands of tonnes of carbon dioxide. “I went back to that same company three years later, and asked them if they had done it,” says Suzuki. “They said no – because the accountant had told them it would look bad.”
On the basis of experiences like this, Suzuki has no time for claims that the private sector is highly efficient. “The private sector is very inefficient, because it doesn’t have the real world factored into it,” he counters. “It can use air, water and soil as an externality: they are free.”
Encouraging the private sector
Judging by his rhetoric, it would be easy to categorise Suzuki as anti-business. But to prove otherwise, he recently wrote a bestselling book setting out examples of environmental best practice by companies worldwide, entitled Good News for a Change.
“I was worried about whether I could fill a book,” he admits. “But in the event, I could have written volumes. There’s lots of good news, from global warming to mining to fisheries. The bad news is that our so-called leaders in business and government don’t seem to be interested in finding out about them.”
One of Suzuki’s favourite good news case studies is Interface Carpets, the largest manufacturer of floor coverings in the world. Its founder, Ray Anderson, has become a passionate advocate of sustainable business practices, and has committed the company to the lofty, if nebulous goal of becoming “the first sustainable corporation”. Its mission statement includes the phrase: “Leaving the world a better place then when we began.” A top priority is eliminating waste, by creating floor coverings that can be recycled into new materials at the end of their useful life. The concept of biomimicry – product design based on nature’s models – illuminates much of the research that Interface carries out on environment-friendly materials.
Suzuki is also an outspoken fan of an organisation called The Natural Step, which uses a scientific, systems-based approach to assess how sustainable individual companies are, and then to suggest improvements. Among Natural Step clients are household names like Ikea, Sainsbury’s, Nike and GlaxoSmithKline, proof that with encouragement and education, the private sector is capable of making changes to the way they operate in regard to the environment.
While these sorts of initiatives are cause for optimism, Suzuki still feels that a massive change in operating philosophy is still required. Not surprisingly, the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol is among Suzuki’s top concerns at the moment – even though it is, in his words, “just a tiny step in the direction we ultimately have to go”.
He is surprisingly sanguine about the hostility that the climate change proposals have generated on the part of some business leaders, particularly in the oil industry. As far as he is concerned, he has seen it all before.
“The pattern of response to Kyoto from the business sector has been absolutely predictable,” he says. “When Rachel Carson wrote The Silent Spring in 1962, warning about the dangers of pesticides, the chemical companies immediately denied it all. They trotted out their paid scientists to say it wasn’t true, and their PR companies to say she had no credibility. But then, as the evidence continued to mount, they began warning that they’d go out of business and have to fire thousands of people. The whole point was to delay, delay, delay.”
And for pesticides, read cigarettes, cars, logging or nuclear power. “We’ve seen it with the tobacco industry; we’ve seen it with the automobile industry and airbags; we’ve seen it with the pharmaceutical industry; we’ve seen it with the forest industry; the mining industry; and the nuclear industry,’ says Suzuki.
“It’s always the same. Whenever a concern is raised about a particular industry, first they deny it, then they bring out their scientists, then they hire PR companies, and then they threaten that they’ll go out of business. And then in the end, when governments finally force them to change, they suddenly discover that they can make money doing the right thing.”
And in exactly the same way, he says, there are already people in the oil industry who are breaking away from the mainstream opposition to Kyoto, and seizing the opportunities that it presents.
But does the decision of the Bush administration to ditch Kyoto mean the agreement is now fatally flawed? Far from it, says Suzuki – after all, the Protocol can still be brought into effect without US participation. Nevertheless, does the decision leave European companies at a disadvantage relative to their US counterparts? Again no, he insists. Despite the anti-Kyoto rhetoric of George Bush, the US is investing heavily in alternatives to fossil fuels.
“President Bush and [vice president] Cheney are both oil people, and they have no choice but to say what they’re saying,” says Suzuki. “But the entrepreneurs and the visionaries in the US can already see which way we have to go.”
He continues: “Where the big savings are going to be is in energy. Companies are going to save money by becoming more energy-efficient. And in the process they’re going to meet the Kyoto targets. So what’s the problem? Where’s the lack of competitiveness?”
At the moment, too many businesses are presenting Kyoto as an impossible burden rather than as an opportunity, says Suzuki. “What they do is add up all of the initial investment in energy-efficient equipment and so on, but they don’t include the savings they’ll get 5-10 years down the line. It’s all costs – the advantages are never factored in. If you ask me, that’s dishonest accounting.”
For an example of the kind of company that is looking to reap rewards from becoming more sustainable, look no further than BP, he suggests. The company that now likes to be thought of as Beyond Petroleum predicts that its revenues from solar energy will reach $1bn/year by 2007.
“Kyoto is going to happen,” asserts Suzuki. “And the leading companies are going to be out there making a profit.”