Leadership & Management

Carter Roberts: Environmental Challenges are Profit Opportunities

The World Wildlife Fund CEO says he's focused on corporate sustainability and conservation politics around the world, not just on saving animals.

October 01, 2007

| by April Neilsen

“Companies still thinking about the environment as a social responsibility rather than a business imperative are living in the dark ages,” said Carter Roberts, President and CEO of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Roberts delivered the annual von Gugelberg Memorial Environmental Lecture at Stanford GSB on October 23, describing how a new era of global threats is changing the work of the world’s largest conservation organization, an organization that represents the concerns of its 6 million members in 100 countries.

What started as a mission to save animals — associated with the widely recognized panda bear logo — has morphed, by necessity, into a broader mandate to address the economics, the science, and the politics of conservation around the world, Roberts said.

Increasingly people’s livelihood needs and the consequences on the environment of global warming and resource scarcity have to be considered along with measures for species preservation and biodiversity, he said.

Conservationists used to worry about getting people’s attention and keeping it, said Roberts, “but now the facts are in: Climate change and increased resource scarcity will likely be one of the most disruptive forces in business since the Industrial Revolution.”

Many businesses commit to do the right thing environmentally, and then under pressure to enhance the bottom line they see initial steps fade away unless confronted by regulation. Roberts said, “My vision for saving the planet holds that you not only need to work with communities and governments but also the forces … that are driven largely by business. We will fail if we don’t change the behavior of business and how it touches the places we care about.”

Under Robert’s leadership, the WWF is partnering with Wal-Mart, Google, Coca-Cola, Ikea, and others to work with government institutions and indigenous communities to address environmental challenges and sustainable growth needs. With large corporations controlling 70 percent of the choices consumers make, such partnerships are the source of greatest leverage, Roberts said.

“The world is finally waking up to the fact that our lifestyle (choices) are threatening the very fabric of the planet.” The WWF’s most recent Living Planet Report estimates that current demands on the earth’s resources are outstripping what the planet can sustain, Roberts said.

“Most people don’t know it but deforestation and land degradation contribute about 20 percent of all C02 emissions. Ironically at WWF, we realize if we want to save the Amazon, we need to head to China.”

“If China catches up to U.S. standards of consumption it will require two planets to sustain our livelihood for the long run, and if the rest of the world catches up, it will require eleven,” he adds.

Instead of pointing fingers at countries such as China and India, the better choice is to help them invest in technologies and practices that will reduce their respective footprints. “The developed world is going to have a difficult time telling the developing world that they won’t be allowed to enjoy the same fruits of economic success and higher living standards,” he said.

The United States needs to view its own behavior in the mirror, Roberts said. “Consider a simple cup of latte. If we think about Starbucks’ footprint, we have … the amount of water to grow the sugarcane to make the sugar, process the milk, harvest the coffee, make the cup, the lid, and to produce the wrapper. If a company looks at the actual numbers, the water to produce a latte adds up to 208 liters per cup.”

“Add energy to transport the raw materials, electricity to grind the beans, brew the coffee, power the lights, the WiFi internet connectivity (in every Starbucks), the gasoline burned getting customers and employees to the store, and the message for companies is clear. They cannot just consider their own business operations when it comes to environmental impact. The way any business buys and sells products has repercussions around the world,” Roberts said.

“It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, the supply chain will include products from all around the world,” Roberts emphasized. “Whether we’re talking about fabric made in China, soybeans grown in the Amazon, palm oil harvested in Indonesia, biofuels created in Africa — companies will have to know how their products and the raw materials they use in their operations are affecting places, people, biodiversity, and the environment.”

These facts underscore the solid business reasons why sustainability is no longer just a nice thing to do, Roberts said. More importantly, conservation is a way of protecting business. “The smartest, most strategically focused companies are calculating climate change and resource risks into their operations. True visionaries know that if their business practices aren’t sustainable long term, their businesses aren’t either.”

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