Research: Commentary

A New Year's Wish: More Tree Hugging CEOs

Huffington Post, January 22, 2015 | Article

By Jeff Horowitz

With the close of yet another UN climate meeting (this last one in Lima), we have more than a little hope that this year's gathering in Paris will result in a truly global consensus on climate change actions. But though there has been some progress on the geo-political front, the stark reality is that any agreement will take time to implement, and time is a luxury we cannot afford. More and more, many of us find ourselves searching for solutions that don't require a worldwide accord before we can begin to save the planet. It turns out that one such solution comes from a rather surprising place: the corporate boardroom.

Yes, you read that correctly, and no, this is not just another greenwashing effort. A significant number of multinational corporations are prioritizing environmental practices to ensure their bottom line, and it may not be hyperbole to claim that we're seeing a new kind of environmental ally. These companies understand that, as climate change takes its toll on the environment, it's also threatening their profits. While they may be known more for their interest in increasing earnings than in reducing greenhouse gases, for the first time these CEOs are making a big difference in saving our climate and our planet.

Over the past few years, a group of visionary corporate leaders have teamed up with environmental groups to take a hard look at what's left of our planet's natural resources. Together, they agree: We are past the point where our land and oceans can meet the food, energy and commodity demands of our planet's seven billion inhabitants, not to mention the projected nine billion by 2050. It's clear that, for businesses that rely on finite resources such as water and forests, "sustainability" is no longer a matter of choice, but of economic survival.

The new practices of corporate conservation may be most visible in the forestry sector, where deforestation causes significant resource depletion. We lose tropical forests to logging, plantation agriculture, cattle ranching and mining at the alarming rate of an acre per second. Every year, forestlands the size of New York state go up in smoke, and this has a huge impact on our climate. Bulldozed and burning forests represent over a billion tons of carbon emissions annually, or about 15% of all global emissions -- that's more air pollution than all the vehicles of the world combined. Until recently, it seemed that deforestation would continue unabated, as companies focused on extracting the raw materials needed to keep pace with the ever-increasing demand for consumer goods. But all that is changing with some unlikely corporate conservationists.

In 2010, the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), a global association of 400 leading retailers and manufacturers, pledged that their agricultural-based product supply lines would become sustainable and deforestation-free by the year 2020. Though this was an amazing coup for the tree-huggers of the world, the mainstream media paid it little attention, perhaps because of a general perception that corporations cannot always be trusted when it comes to fulfilling environmental pledges. Many of us have been waiting to see whether this is just a public relations strategy.

With combined revenues of over $3 trillion, the CEO-driven CGF is a powerful and influential collective that includes Unilever, Cargill, Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, Kraft, Proctor & Gamble, General Mills, and Nestle. Their pledge to stop deforestation represents a profound shift in retailers and manufacturers' purchasing practices and has the potential to redirect market forces toward sustainable agricultural practices -- and ending deforestation.

As the founder of an environmental group that advocates for international forest protection, I've been watching this group closely to see if they can close the often unbridgeable gap between promise and performance. Along with many other environmentalists, policy experts and government leaders, I am very encouraged by what they have accomplished so far.

CGF leaders have personally brokered "deforestation-free" deals with major palm oil suppliers and processing companies, and have encouraged their members to step up their timetables for their deforestation-free policies. They are also turning around other big consumer product makers who once thought nothing of burning down millions of acres of rainforest. By all recent accounts these companies, working in parallel with governments and NGOs, are well on their way to dramatically reducing deforestation, if not shutting down the practice completely.

While the world waits for the results of the next global climate change meeting in Paris, let's encourage other companies to stand with these "tree hugging CEO's" as our unlikely environmental champions. Though they may be motivated less by altruistic impulses than by their bottom line, it's nice to know that robust efforts to save the world's forests and our climate have a real chance at changing the game in the earth's favor.

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