Over the course of this year I have attended and participated in various sustainability forums – on finance and green bonds, on the role of the private sector, on the relationships with NGOs and on the need for a shared vision for sustainable agriculture. At each and every event, the call for businesses to step up to sustainable development was loud and clear. A common theme has been that businesses can do more to partner across industries, join hands with NGOs and work with the public sector. The overriding message is that it is not just the responsibility of governments because businesses must also do their part – individuals in businesses have the economic, social and environmental obligation to ensure our society and the global economy continues to grow in a responsible way.
What is perhaps more energizing is the fact that sustainability and profitability can and should, go hand-in-hand. There are opportunities and business advantages for the private sector to do well by doing right and create “shared value” with the community.
A clear standout for me has been the powerful message delivered by the CEO of Recreation Equipment Incorporated, a US based outdoors cooperative. REI’s CEO Jerry Stritzke is advocate in chief to support REI’s 17 million members to #OptOutside, for their belief that a life lived outdoors is better for everyone and better for the environment. In REI’s most recent report to members, Stritzke says:
“Our view of success has a quadruple bottom line, looking at the health of our employees, our members, our society and the business. The business is in service of broader society, not vice versa.
In today’s language, we are a purpose-led company. We awaken a lifelong love for the outdoors because humankind faces a big challenge.
In The Path Ahead, we present the scary reality that our species is becoming the world’s first indoor species, spending 95 percent of our lives indoors on average. In it, we share more tough truths about the barriers to life outdoors. But we believe those barriers can be overcome—and that our 17 million members play a vital role welcoming others to join us outside.”
REI is living proof that a commitment to sustainability and the environment can go hand in hand with business success.
It’s a lesson that is also being learnt in agriculture. Agriculture is the key engine of growth for much of Asia and Africa’s economic development. It is fundamental to the achievement of food security, social stability and the development of rural communities. Agriculture still provides livelihoods for more than half the populations of Asia and Africa. Agriculture provides more than 4 billion people with employment every year, while many of them are living on less than US$1.25 a day.
Research by the World Bank and on the ground reality shows us that investment in agriculture is up to four times more effective than any other form of investment in enhancing income for the region’s poorest people. But while this investment is needed we face challenges of declining resource availability, with limited land, less water available to agriculture and farm holdings actually becoming smaller. Recent estimates suggest that up to 1 billion people across Asia could be impacted by water scarcity within the next decade.
The challenge of feeding a fast-growing population, while supporting the development of prosperous rural communities and protecting natural resources, is well documented. Only by enabling agriculture to be sustainable can we ensure that rural communities can continue to thrive and through this ensure business longevity for all those who play in the food value chain.
All participants in the food value chain, from input suppliers, to farmers, offtake partners and ultimately food retailers are operating in an increasingly complex environment. Consumers are rightly demanding not just quality products that are safe to eat, but they are also scrutinizing how their food is being produced. A sustainable value chain, that helps support farmers, particularly smallholders who have the greatest potential to grow more food, is essential to ensure that farming can continue in a profitable and responsible way. Partnering with many stakeholders, each brining different skills to the table, is crucial if we are to provide full value back to the farmers for the food they produce.
There is real potential be unlocked by investing in the development of rural economies. In 2015 the EIU issued their report, “Unleashing Rural Economies” in which it was shown that empowering rural communities can generate an additional USD 2 trillion of output annually by 2030 – which is the equivalent of India’s annual GDP. This represents a real opportunity for governments and businesses to invest and create sustainable growth models as part of a holistic approach, which can then drive growth throughout the economy.
The Sustainable Development Goals that were agreed by more than 100 countries in November 2015 provide a clear roadmap for how businesses and different stakeholders can work together. The events I have participated in this year underscore the sense of urgency and keen interest for business, civil society and governments to take action. There is much that is already underway, but to be really successful we have to be able to scale the solutions being developed. The SDGs could provide the platform that brings together different groups and players to join forces and create impact, for the benefit of communities, the environment and ultimately, for the long-term good of the communities and economies in which we all live and work.
And coming back to Jerry Stritzke and REI – when everyone told Strizke he was crazy to launch the #OptOutside campaign through which all REI outlets close on Black Friday – one of the biggest shopping days in the US – because REI believes to be true to its values people should be outside with nature not inside shopping in an REI store or indeed any other store on a long weekend – Stritzke chose not to listen because he believed that business and the environment can make sense commercially, socially and environmentally.
Stritzke said at the time: “In 2015, we decided to close our stores on Black Friday and give our employees a paid day off to #OptOutside. That moment became a movement much larger than us. #OptOutside isn’t just about Black Friday. It’s a mindset. It’s about choosing life outdoors. And it has become a way for people to share who they are and what we believe in… Closing our doors on such a huge sales day in the world of retail is a bold decision—but it’s what the co-op is all about. It’s a choice we make to show the outdoor life we love matters more than a day of sales.”
Now there have been more than 9.2 million Instagram posts with the hashtag #OptOutside, hundreds of businesses have joined REI to #OptOutside and REI’s sales have gone up not down. In many ways, the campaign is the epitome of the SDGs – businesses and stakeholders working together to deliver better outcomes socially, economically and environmentally.
That’s it, I’m off for a run … outside. #OptOutside