Sustainability must go mainstream: Interview with Peter Bakker

Business cannot succeed in a society that fails - that is the personal mantra of Peter Bakker, president of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. He takes time out to tell Zeljka Davis why

Peter, please tell us about yourself and your journey.

I have worked in business for almost 30 years, the last 10 of which were as CEO of TNT, the third largest global transport company in the world. Over that period, I gained an increased understanding of the growing concern of sustainability and how it is part of a larger perspective rather than just the bottom line of an individual business. Whether that relates to poverty or the environment, it’s clear to me that every business makes an impact on these things and that this is reflected in our annual business results.

What I discovered while being a CEO is that if you aim to address these issues you create very powerful mechanisms that can tangibly improve the state of the world. What’s more, in so doing, the relationship between the company and its employees can change for the better. I have seen with my own eyes the good that can be achieved within a company when it gets serious about sustainability and environmental issues.

However, while I have discovered the power that sustainability can have on business, I have also discovered what the limitations are in implementing it. While the CEO may strive to push a sustainability agenda, he or she must also answer to shareholders, who may sometimes have a completely different agenda.

At the point when the company I was leading decided to split into two parts I decided that 10 years as CEO was long enough. The same summer I resigned, I also turned 50, which is a nice milestone at which to stop and ask oneself, ‘What am I going to do with the rest of my life?’ The opportunity to be president of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) came up just at that time, so I was pleased to take on the responsibility, especially as it provided the ideal position for me to continue working on sustainable solutions for business.

Tell us a bit about the WBCSD.

The WBCSD is an organisation made up of members that are businesses with an interest in sustainability. Two years ago, it produced a document called ‘Vision 2050’, which was a highly significant statement as it was the first time that a business organisation plainly stated that the way business was being conducted globally was no longer sustainable.

The planet as we know it literally cannot sustain the effects of modern business practices: a radical transformation of almost everything we do is needed. There can be no more ‘business as usual’. This document described a vision with nine pathways to develop the world as we know it now into a world that is sustainable. This vision is summed up comprehensively in one phrase: 9 billion people all living well within the boundaries of the planet.

The WBCSD recognises that the planet we live on now is going to have to cater for the further growth of the world’s population, estimated to reach 9 billion by the year 2050. However, to do so will require eradicating poverty and giving everyone access to healthcare, education and energy, while also recognizing that we all need to respect the environmental boundaries of the planet, which we simply are not doing well enough today. We need to find a good balance between economic, social and environmental growth.

What are you currently focusing your efforts on at the WBCSD?

What I realised over the course of last year is that while it is great to have the Vision 2050, for most people, thinking about 2050 is too far away, too abstract. So, to address this, we have decided to create more pragmatic targets for 2020 that are linked to the vision of 2050.

So three of our top priorities for the coming years are biodiversity loss (which is not exclusively related to ecosystems degradation), nitrogen cycles (which are related to agriculture and food, affecting things like the development of fertilizers) and climate change (related to fossil fuel use and therefore to our whole system of energy production).

While we are still to confirm all priorities for the ‘Action 2020’, it is very unlikely that energy, ecosystems and aeroculture won’t be part of the focus. We will be emphasising the importance of considering financial, environmental and social factors as well into business management.

What are your personal goals for the years ahead at the WBCSD?

I want to play a key part in the establishment of global processes that lead to sustainable societies, collating the evidence and increasing the recognition that businesses are the leading part of the solutions that are needed to achieve this, rather than being seen as the cause of all problems, which is how some conservatives still tend to see them.

Secondly, I would like to build on creating a real momentum in business for embracing the change that is needed for making a more sustainable world and help more businesses see it as an opportunity rather than a cost.

Thirdly, I hope to be one of the architects responsible for the complete redefinition of the way we account for the corporate performance of business. It’s time we valued the performance of businesses across all impact areas – in terms of financial, environmental and social profits and costs. Integrated reporting is vital.

If you could give one key piece of advice to a business looking to become more sustainable, what would it be?

The first step is always to think about running your business more efficiently from an energy perspective and increasing resource performance productivity. Doing this will create an immediate cost saving, and will help reduce negative environmental impacts at the same time. The fact is, however, that there are many sustainability measures that almost any business can implement that make economic and environmental sense.

Every company has to ask itself some pertinent questions. Do we want to make the change and be a leader in sustainability, or do we want simply to be a follower? Do we really want to be seen as one of the laggards that are going to be forced to change our ways only by environmental and social legislation? There is still a real advantage in being an early adopter.

In the times we live in now, we are very close to seeing our whole society recognise that the way we are living as a species is not sustainable. This is why I reinforce the following powerful statement whenever I can in my work with the WBCSD: Business cannot succeed in a society that fails.

This is an edited version of the original full-length interview which can be viewed here

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