Sustainable Consumption: Redefining Business as Usual at CGI 2011

This afternoon at CGI, the plenary session was abuzz with excitement as attendees were anxiously awaiting U.S. President Barack Obama’s remarks. Amidst the anticipation, former Prime Minister of Norway Gro Harlem Brundtland moderated a panel discussion on the topic of sustainable consumption. “Transformational change in production and consumption is absolutely necessary”, Brundtland said, “but the question is how and by whom?” Indra Nooyi, Chairman and CEO of Pepsico, Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, Viviane Victorine Kinyaga of the Desert Research Foundation of Namibia and Bob Diamond, Chief Executive of Barclays, took a stab at explaining what initiatives they are leading and how these translate into the transformative change that is so badly needed to meet the needs for healthy nutritious foods of a growing world population without compromising the future of the planet.

Indra Nooy spoke briefly of going “beyond corporate social responsibility.” Having worked closely with large corporations on CSR initiatives in a previous job, this is a topic that is very near and dear to my heart. When Nooy mentioned “performance with purpose”, and creating shared value for consumers, shareholders and society, it resonated with me. The question is, of course, for a giant corporation like Pepsico, how do you build these elements of sustainability and responsibility into the core of your operational processes? I think this is something that is much easier said than done, especially when shareholders are focused on the single bottom line and expect high returns. Nooy mentioned that Pepsico is one of “the largest seed-to-shelf companies in the world,” attempting to source products as close as possible to production sites and destination markets.  She mentioned the example of working with Mexican farmers to produce the oil necessary for their “heart-healthy salty snacks” in the Mexican market. “We’re always finding ways to build sustainability in farming systems”, Nooy said, adding that “what’s good for business should be good for society” and vice-versa.

Building on these remarks, Paul Polman said that the growth of consumer markets in emerging economies was both a huge opportunity and creating pressure on resources.  He noted that while consumers want good prices and good quality products, they are also well-aware of the risks of short-termism and are driven by wanting “things to be a little bit better.” Polman spoke of the need to start sourcing in a way that “ensures we’re not stealing from future generations.” He noted the Global Consumer Goods Forums where big retailers and manufacturers gather to discuss strategic initiatives had agreed to stop sourcing materials linked to illegal logging by 2020. You might think “But 2020 is almost a decade away – can’t we move faster?” As far as corporate giants like Pepsico or Unilever are concerned, it takes a long time for processes and procedures to align with policy – I’m willing to give these companies the benefit of the doubt that they can’t do this faster, but I think we – as consumers, potentially as shareholders – should exercise pressure and insist on sustainable business practices. As both President Clinton and Gro Harlem Brundtland noted, individuals must also be part of the solution to these complex societal issuess.

Viviane Victorine Kingaya came from a completely different perspective. Her organization acts as an interface between the business sector and the farming communities they work with. “When we talk about sustainability and food security, what it really means is that people are able to do things for themselves and make choices,” Kingaya said. Unlike her other co-panelists, Kingaya doesn’t come from global corporate perspective, and I thought that statement was a powerful one, reminding us that improved consumer markets in the global South will require improving the agency of the individuals and communities in these countries – so they can make choices between products and practices.

Perhaps what Bob Diamond mentioned, Barclays financing mobile tech R&D to help advance mobile banking outside of urban centers in Africa, begins to answer this question of agency. But to give people and communities the opportunities to become efficient producers and responsible consumers, to give them the ability to make choices for themselves, will require financing large scale initiatives to create the conditions necessary for markets to be both sustainable and fair.

After the session, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Derek Yach, Senior Vice-President of Global Health and Agricultural Policy at Pepsico to discuss their brand new private-public partnership in Ethiopia, Entreprise EthioPEA. The initiative seeks to increase chick pea farming productivity and output in Ethiopia, both to provide a reliable source of chick peas for Pepsico products, but also to go towards developing food supplements for emergency situations. A fascinating initiative indeed, which seeks to bring principles of sustainability and responsibility right to the core of Pepsico’s operations.

Check back for the video interview with Derek Yach and more analysis of the Entreprise EthioPEA initiative!

Photo credit: Cibele_Vieira / Clinton Global Initiative