When COVID-19 lockdowns forced the public and businesses to a standstill, the world saw a temporary respite from pollution, a brief drop in global emissions, and a glimpse at the future we could have if we changed the way we impact our environment. How can we make that future a reality?
On June 30, a subset of the Fast Company Impact Council, an invitation-only group of entrepreneurs, business leaders, and innovators across industries, considered that question.
In a roundtable discussion led by Fast Company senior editor Morgan Clendaniel, business leaders discussed the Future of the Planet—and what businesses can do to create better sustainability policies. The session participants were, in alphabetical order: Caroline Brown, managing director at Closed Loop Partners; Audrey Choi, chief marketing officer and chief sustainability officer at Morgan Stanley; Jonathan Neman, CEO and founder of Sweetgreen; Gayle Schueller, VP and chief sustainability officer at 3M; Troy Swope, CEO of Footprint LLC; and Julie Wainwright, founder and CEO of The RealReal. Excerpts of the roundtable have been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Brown: The trends that we saw going into the pandemic, which were based on express consumer value sets—for more sustainability, for more transparency, for circularity—we’ve actually seen an uptick and acceleration in an interest for companies to acquire and scale these solutions. What we see in certain industries is that the solutions to solve these problems, they’re pretty early stage. They may be living at the pilot level, they may be living in early-stage commercialization, but married to this problem of accountability is also, are there tools out there that can be scaled, so that big companies can take action? I think as we’re seeing people coming out of the pandemic, more and more people are looking at capital flow into that category, to grow those solutions so that they can be valuable to large businesses.
Troy Swope: Large CPG (consumer packaged goods) companies like Nestle, Pepsi, Conagra, they know the ship has sailed on plastics, and they just don’t want to buy it. If they can avoid it, they will. I think there’s some good leadership in those companies that know long term, regardless of what oil prices are doing, where plastic prices are going, they need to get out of plastic. At Footprint, it’s our responsibility to give them the technologies that help them get out of it, and we’ve got to do that at a very price-competitive solution. We’re seeing continued demand, if not stronger, and leadership knows where the world is going and where they want to be, and they’re continuing to march down that path regardless of what’s happening today.
Julie Wainwright: Consumer activism is going to create change. We’re certainly seeing our message of sustainability resonating more than it ever has. But I can tell you, once you get out of the U.S., the environmental concerns resonate very strongly in Europe, but it does not in China and it does not in the Middle East. There are some actors that won’t change until they have to. They certainly see it coming, but even in a downturn they’re doing very well by caring a little less. Consumers aren’t moving away from those brands anywhere, to be honest. If consumers don’t move away, then policy has to force change. We hear it all the time from our base, “Yes, sustainability is critical, that’s why I’m buying previously owned clothes.” But there’s not enough to force change. I think we have a long way to go.
Audrey Choi: We have to make sure it’s not just a conversation for the chief marketing officer or the chief sustainability officer, and that it’s not only about brand. The consumer-facing brands have woken up to that—they don’t want to see their brand in the stomach of a whale in National Geographic. But further up the value chain, we need to be appealing to the chief financial officers, to the chief operations officers, saying this could lower your costs; to the legal officers, this could lower your liabilities down the road because of a product being mismanaged when thrown out. I’m always jumping in to rebut my colleagues when I hear analysts say virgin plastic is cheaper. It’s only cheaper if you keep your blinders on and have no regard for the afterlife. If you look at the full-cycle cost—damage to marine environments, loss of revenue, etc.—we’d have to find a much different price point.
Jonathan Neman: A starting point for all of this is just a standard of measurement, a standard of transparency. I wish the government would make plastic illegal, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. I think about it like a nutrition label. There needs to be a standard, the same way there’s a calorie: Here is the impact on the environment—you choose. But you’re going to have to disclose what the total cost is to the environment and then put it in the consumer hands to choose. I think if we want change, we’re going to have to measure things in a real way.
Troy Swope: Companies are so confused about what is sustainable that they don’t know what to do. They have completely different sustainability metrics and objectives in Europe and the U.S., and they’re both kind of wrong. At some point we need universities or a third party to come and define sustainable metrics we need to go and perform against. Greenwashing and lack of clear sustainable metrics is creating inactivity. We need somebody that aligns metrics globally.
Gayle Schueller: It’s about transparency first, and then the standardized methods. The one thing that I think is so critical on this, and so challenging, is the standardized method may be different if you’re working in a retail versus automotive versus healthcare type of industry.
Caroline Brown: This next phase of business has to completely change the conversation to a true marriage of profits and purpose. It will require the alignment of business, consumer activism, and government policy. It won’t happen without the three of them sort of having some levels of participation.
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