Last week, I joined the World Environmental Center’s colloquium on sustainable development as a driver for innovation, which gathered an impressive panel of leaders from both business and civil society. Speakers included Jeff Seabright (Coke), Andrea Thomas (Walmart), Claus Conzelmann (Nestle), Bob Langert (McDonalds), Gavin Neath (Unilever), Albert Cho (Cisco), Jason Clay (WWF), Jane Nelson (Harvard), Peter Schnurrenberger (Roche), and many more.  

Considering the companies represented on the panels, it was no surprise to see the discussions focus predominantly on food and agriculture. But the key “calls to action” cut across industry lines:

  • Tackle the really big challenges first
  • Collaborate and build pre-competitive platforms
  • Plan for an uncertain (and different) future

Tackle the really big challenges first
Walmart’s Andrea Thomas’ message was clear: “Don’t wait until you can do it all.” Walmart’s approach, we learned, has been to understand the first “20 percent across the entire business—whether that’s by product, geography, ingredient” and then use that foundation of understanding to identify where the company has its greatest sustainability impacts. For Walmart, this process of tackling the big challenges first is paying off in dollars and cents, since “taking out the really big chunks of costs is something that [their] store managers feel in the bottom line every single day.”

Collaborate and build pre-competitive platforms
In the discussion of new business models, Harvard’s Jane Nelson pointed out, “We’re moving from stakeholder engagement to co-creation models whereby companies are working with competitors, suppliers, customers to transform the core business and develop new products.” Ultimately, the sustainability challenges we face are too global, too cross-cutting to be pursued by a single company, and more collaborative initiatives, such as the Sustainability Consortium, are needed to addresses the systems challenges inherent in issues like climate adaptation.

Plan for an uncertain (and different) future
“I don’t know what we’ll sell in 10 years, but it will be a lot of it,” said McDonalds’ Bob Langert. Given the scale at which companies like McDonalds operate—McDonald’s served 60 million customers today—it is imperative that businesses prepare now for a future that will look remarkably different. And Nestle’s Claus Conzelmann made a similar point by commenting on the hugely disruptive change that businesses will experience as externalities like clean water are eventually priced into the cost model.  

Today, companies benefit from a cost structure that simply is not sustainable as we look out 20, 30, and 40 years. Jason Clay from WWF provided some sobering statistics, “studies show that over the next 30 years, we will need to produce the grand sum of all food produced in the world over the last 8000 years.” The future will indeed look very different.