Tony Juniper: Sustainability will determine business survival by 2050
Businesses that fail to integrate sustainability as a core business principle will struggle to survive by 2050, leading environmentalist Tony Juniper said on the opening day of edie Live this week.
In a keynote speech at the Strategy and Innovation stage on Day One of the edie Live exhibition (23 May), Juniper noted that global trends such as population growth, climate change and resource scarcity have rendered social and environmental issues as “non-negotiable” for the private sector.
But some companies are still failing to recognise sustainability as an increasingly powerful business driver, Juniper said. The former Friends of the Earth (FoE) boss singled out sections of the automotive and soft drinks industry – both of which have suffered recent environmental scandals. He claimed these firms risk being left behind by forward-thinking businesses that appreciate the economics of sustainable development.
“I would argue that companies not taking the long-term view are going to destroy shareholder value,” he said. “Some of them are now wrestling with air pollution, others are struggling with plastic waste. They should have seen that coming. They didn’t, and what that has done is leave the door open for others. And that’s where the opportunity lies. If you can triangulate all of this into forward-thinking, your company will be more resilient, it will be more profitable, and it will be around in 2050.
“And there will be a leadership premium. If you are in the group of companies that have understood this, if you are going to be part of the solution, you will thrive. Expectations are changing at all levels. If you begin to build sustainability into your core business then perhaps you can start to see a different future.”
But a different future will not be achieved unless businesses embrace new concepts such as Net Positive and the circular economy, Juniper said. He praised industry leaders such as DIY retailer Kingfisher - which is working towards having a 'Net-Positive' impact on forests – and Unilever for “raising above the parapet” in these areas.
The environmental campaigner was speaking in a panel discussion which touched upon the importance of managing uncertainty in a post-Brexit world. He said that despite the volatile policy landscape, the underlying case for private sector leadership is stronger than ever.
“It’s about positive advocacy,” he said. “It’s no longer good enough to sit back and say, actually, the policymakers have let us down. This is about being in the driving seat and moving this forward and being a corporation that wants to see things changed.
“No longer is sustainability a trade-off between economic growth on the one hand and trying to reduce CO2 a little on the other. It’s about an integrated approach to economics and business, which is about recognising the need to build a social foundation. It also about recognising that environmental issues are also non-negotiable. Biodiversity, climate change, fresh water - all of these things need to be built into the same agenda. That’s the point where corporate social responsibility becomes core business.”
As a case in point, Juniper highlighted the cocoa industry as a sector “where the penny is beginning to drop”. In a recent visit to the Ivory Coast - the world’s single largest supplier of cocoa - Juniper witnessed smallholder farmers living in abject poverty. Over the past decade, trends such as population increase and drought have resulted in deforestation, cocoa depletion, and increasing levels of migration and social harm.
Juniper said that multinational companies sourcing from the tropical Ivory Coast landscape are starting to take heed. Earlier this year, major firms such as Nestlé, Mondelez and Mars made a joint declaration to end deforestation in the global cocoa supply chain. Juniper said these firms are starting to realise something radical must be done to eliminate risk in the cocoa supply chain, and ultimately, the entire business.
“They know they need to stop deforestation in these landscapes, not because they want to save the chimpanzees or the beautiful birds in the forests,” he said. “They need to protect the forests to protect their business. They also need to be increasing the incomes of the farmers. One way to look at this is the terrible human suffering of the refugees, and yes that’s right. Another way to look at this is to see a workforce being depleted. If you don’t have a large number of smallholder farmers working those small crops, you don’t have much cocoa.
“Social improvement and environmental improvement being put together as one agenda, very much mirroring the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This is no longer corporate responsibility, this is core business. If you want to be in business in chocolate in 20 years time, you have to start dealing with this.”