Sustainable business: 5 top CEOs sound off

Top chief executives of multinational companies gathered at the Clinton Global Initiative's annual meeting to discuss how sustainability affects the bottom line.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

NEW YORK CITY -- Last Wednesday, several chief executives gathered at the Clinton Global Initiative's annual meeting to discuss how sustainability really affects business' bottom line, not just feel-good social responsibility initiatives.

Serving on the panel were Barclays chief executive Bob Diamond, Desert Research Foundation of Namibia director Viviane Victorine Kinyaga, PepsiCo chief executive Indra Nooyi and Unilever chief executive Paul Polman. The discussion was moderated by Gro Harlem Brundtland, former prime minister of Norway (in a way, former chief executive of that Scandinavian country.)

The panelists offered some insight into how sustainability affects their multinational businesses as well as their thoughts on the outlook for pursuing it.

The highlights, in their own words:

Gro Harlem Brundtland

  • "We need to find news ways to meet the needs of the whole population. Otherwise, what we do is just contributing to undermining our natural resources and our long-term sustainability in this world."
  • "Transformational change in production and consumption is absolutely necessary. The question is of course how, and by whom?"
  • "We all need to be part of the solution and thus add to the growing evidence that successful action through innovation really works."
  • "We wish to turn ideas into action."
  • We have to overcome reluctance about public-private partnerships.
  • "We need financing. We know that that is of the essence. Financing is absolutely essential. However, it doesn't make it any easier that we are in the middle of the financial crisis."

Indra Nooyi

  • PepsiCo is a $60 billion company in 200 countries in world. It's one of the largest seed-to-shelf companies in the world (potatoes, oats, fruit).
  • "In every country in which we operate we have to be local."
  • "We're always finding ways to build sustainability into the agriculture in countries in which we operate." For example, in Mexico, salty snacks require oil, which requires teaching farmers techniques in exchange for crop purchase agreements.
  • "Our belief is what's good for society has to be good for business and what's good for business has to be good for society."
  • "There's not enough land to feed the world."
  • "Big companies can actually be a force for good in every society in which we operate."

Paul Polman

  • "Increasingly the consumers -- especially in the emerging markets -- want the answers."
  • "We're living on more resources than this wealth can replenish."
  • "Consumers want price. They want quality. But above all they want solutions that will make [life] better than it is currently."
  • "Increasingly, the burden is on business."
  • Opposite of developed markets, the image of business in emerging markets is positive, because it brings new technology.
  • "We sell our products to about 2 billion consumers a day. Consumers in Egypt can bring down a regime in a day. They can bring down a company like ours in nanoseconds."
  • If we could get people to wash their hands six times a day we could cut infectious diseases in half.
  • "The big retailers and manufacturers are saying that they won't buy anything anymore from illegal deforestation. That sends a tremendous message through the supply chain."
  • We want to ensure that the business model is fine for hundreds of years to come.

Viviane Victorine Kinyaga

  • Sustainability and food security are top priorities. "It is really when people are able to do things for themselves and when they have the ability to make choices."
  • Food needs are important, but there are also health issues, education, and other social issues that feed into this.
  • Example: to stoke agricultural development, they had to look at water infrastructure in Namibia. Farmers were using diesel pumps for groundwater. But they couldn't afford diesel. So they deployed alternative technologies, such as rainwater harvesting and hybrid solar pumps. "There's still a lot to be done."
  • "It's important to build partnerships with others." DRF's role is to be interface between business sector and communities.

Bob Diamond

  • "In the financial services industry, we know a lot of things have to change."
  • "I think about the word sustainability, first and foremost. Creating solutions that are sustainable."
  • "Over the last decade, [Africa's] economy has been growing double the rate of developed countries…with those opportunities come responsibilities."
  • 10, 15, 20 years ago [corporate] citizenship would not have been as high as it is on Barclays agenda.
  • Lots of investments in mobile telecom; many Africans want bank access but aren't near brick-and-mortar branches.
  • "In Africa, it's very, very important what lending can do to create sustainability."
  • Food shortages are coming and going in many nations. Aid can help relieve the problem, but it can also help create sustainable solutions. For example, a price guarantee in Mozambique -- once in place, farmers are willing to take risks.
  • "It's a virtuous circle: the producers, the farmers are willing to invest; the banks are willing to take risks."
  • "The moral of the story here is sustainable solutions are the best for creating jobs, creating economic growth and creating better lives."

Following the discussion, former U.S. president Bill Clinton announced several new commitments that had been agreed-upon earlier in the day.

Among them:

The Global Smoke-Free Workplace Challenge, which aims to enact aggressive anti-tobacco policies in regions where smoking is dangerously on the rise. Backed by HRH Princess Haya of Jordan, Johnson & Johnson, the Mayo Clinic and the U.S. Surgeon General.

"We need to start the fight against the scourge of [non-communicable diseases] right now," the princess said.

The expansion of clothing retailer GAP's PACE program, which supports women in the workplace in emerging markets such as India, Cambodia, China, Vietnam and Sri Lanka.

"We have got to prove that growth can benefit everybody and it cannot happen unless we do more to ensure that women get their fair share of it and girls work their way into it," Clinton said.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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