COMMENT: With governments lagging on Paris Agreement targets, Xampla’s Jeff Seabright says companies big and small are carrying the responsibility for systemic change and innovating to meet the challenges ahead
Behind closed doors in Davos the most tight-lipped politicians and corporate executives are free to speak candidly. They discuss global crises, they brainstorm solutions, and they express their views on how to lead.
I sat amongst such a group at a Davos meeting of the UN Global Compact when one of the most senior figureheads of the group spoke up. “When I was growing up, the government had both hands firmly on the steering wheel,” he said, “but now businesses are in the front seat, they’re driving, investing, innovating and creating the future.”
We have long looked to world leaders to be our environmental stewards. They set targets, introduce legislation and are trusted with representing our best interests. We saw this in action at the recent Virtual Climate Summit, where President Joe Biden committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. by up to 52% below 2005 levels within this decade. The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, also set a target for Europe to be the first climate-neutral continent in the world, and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson called for those present to “get serious” about climate change.
While world governments may have a hand on the steering wheel, they are not driving the car alone
Yet countries representing 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions are still not on track to meet the targets set out in the Paris Climate Agreement. The UK’s Environment Bill has been on the backburner for months, and is only just set to get going again. And global plastic waste is projected to increase six-fold by 2030, despite plastics now being found in the placentas of unborn babies, the air we breathe and in the food we consume.
We put the fate of people and planet in our leaders’ hands. But while world governments may have a hand on the steering wheel, they are not driving the car alone. Businesses are right there with them, and in many cases it is they who are charting a quicker course towards net zero.
Just a few weeks ago, tech giants Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Facebook and Microsoft launched the Low-Carbon Patent Pledge, giving innovators developing low-carbon technologies free access to hundreds of patents that could help accelerate their technologies. The Climate Pledge, co-founded by Amazon and Global Optimism, now consists of 105 companies, all committed to reaching the goals of the Paris Agreement some 10 years early.
Over a 40-year career in sustainability, I’ve witnessed the power of business – big and small. Incumbent businesses are adapting at pace, and new businesses are driving change too.
When I was VP Environment at Coca-Cola, we worked with Unilever, McDonald’s, Greenpeace and the UN Environment Programme to remove hydroflurocarbons (HFCs) from refrigerators. HFCs are 15,000 times more potent than CO2 in poisoning the atmosphere. Our insistence that the refrigerators used to chill our products should not use such gases led industry and government to a UN commitment made in Kigali to phase them out altogether.
And large companies carry special responsibility for systemic change. I was asked by the Coca-Cola mergers and aquisitions team to fly to Nashville to meet the CEO of a small startup called Honest Tea. A company committed to sustainability, it offered naturally sweetened, organic tea. Coca-Cola was negotiating to buy the company and the founder, Seth Goldman, wanted to be sure that the business he created would continue to be run in a responsible way. He interrogated me for three hours to better understand the sustainability commitments of the vastly larger enterprise that was hoping to acquire his company. He wanted to know that Coca-Cola was investing in new, sustainable packaging formats, and at the end shared that he agreed to the sale in part because of Coca-Cola’s innovation power in the packaging market and recycling. As a multinational, we were investing millions in developing alternatives to plastic packaging, whereas the much smaller Honest Tea was stuck with what was already available in the commercial market.
More recently, I’ve been working with social venture IMAGINE to bring industries together as “courageous collectives” to show what businesses can do if they act together. For example, the Fashion Pact unites CEOs of more than 60 leading global companies from the fashion, sports and lifestyle industries. Representing more than a third of the whole sector, including suppliers as well as retailers, they have agreed common objectives for reducing energy consumption, moving to zero deforestation and eliminating unnecessary packaging by 2025. With the big players agreed on these objectives, we have reached a tipping point such that the rest of the industry will suffer “fear of missing out” and follow suit.
Businesses can do more to address the climate crisis in a day than some governments do in decade
At the other end of the spectrum, I chair Xampla, a UK-based startup that is developing natural alternatives to plastic. These next generation bio-based materials are made entirely from plant protein, based on technology developed over 15 years of painstaking research at the University of Cambridge. Free of fossil fuel content and chemical cross-linking, they’re uniquely able to break down in the natural environment leaving no pollutants behind. This insurgent company’s product will depend for its ultimate success on big business to invest and roll the material out at scale in the products we all buy each day.
I am confident that, as we see more and more global organisations collaborate and engage at scale to accelerate climate action – many with bigger ambitions than those set out by governments – such investment will come.
That delegate in Davos was right. Global leadership is no longer just in the hands of elected officials. With factories, plants, research centres and employees around the globe, businesses can do more to address the climate crisis in a day than some governments do in decade. They have the collective might, ingenuity, agility, resources and responsibility to be the drivers of change. Some have already harnessed this power, others must now follow.
Jeff Seabright is Chair of Xampla and former Chief Sustainability Officer of Unilever
The Climate Pledge Paris Agreement UNEP Low-Carbon Patent Pledge coca-cola Unilver HP The Fashion Pact