Q&A on the business of conservation: Coffee, greenwashing, storytelling

Singapore skyline at night

Singapore skyline. Ensuring sustainable economic growth worldwide requires working with corporations in places like this city-state, which is a global business hub. (© Lucian Teo)

Going “green” is not an extra feature for businesses — it’s now mainstream, according to a leading conservation scientist who emphasized the need for businesses to tell their sustainability stories in a more compelling way.

Speaking in a Q&A session at the eighth annual GreenBiz conference in Arizona earlier this month, Conservation International (CI) Chief Scientist and Executive Vice President M. Sanjayan shared his experiences with host Joel Makower about CI’s work with businesses — and about future trends in the business and sustainability world.

Edited highlights from Sanjayan’s discussion:

On how a conservation organization engages with businesses

[CI’s] Center for Environmental Leadership in Business focuses on sustainability and, for us, the concept of sustainable landscapes and seascapes is a fundamental building block for the work that we do. When we look at the world, we try to view [it] in sustainable landscapes where we can bring governance, communities and businesses together to save [species] — but also give people a better life.

Why going green makes good business sense

[Sustainability] has become so mainstream that it is no longer a differentiating factor for companies. If you look at Starbucks, you look at Walmart, you look a company like HP or Disney, the way they are thinking about sustainability and the environment and conservation isn’t about trying to be a differentiator in the market.

The reason you sit down and have coffee at Starbucks is because of taste, because of social pressure, because of convenience. It’s for a lot of reasons — but it isn’t because you’re [thinking] “that’s a green company, so I am going to go there.” And yet, they are really on the forefront of sustainability for coffee. They have basically [made] their entire supply of coffee sustainable. That is 400 million pounds of coffee — a pretty remarkable achievement.

That has been an amazing shift, where companies are now really equating sustainability with availability. They are doing it because they need to be able to sell coffee for the long run. So if you are Starbucks, now you think, “How do we get [coffee] to be the first sustainable commodity on the planet?” And [Starbucks is] willing to have that dialogue, because they truly believe it is one of those cases that lifts all boats. For me, that’s been dramatic.


Further reading


On why storytelling is critical for business

One fallacy is that people make decisions on a rational basis. They don’t — which is why [we] buy US$ 200 sneakers that don’t help us run any faster, or why we smoke or what have you. So, clearly companies understand storytelling: that stories are about convincing people, changing their hearts, their minds, etc. It’s really important not to forget when you’re working in sustainability [that] there is a story to be told.

[For example], I was at Ohio State University, and I told a couple of stories about the standard that McDonald’s uses for fish, or the standard that Walmart uses for fish, and how it basically is equivalent to what you would get at Whole Foods, and … people [were] looking at me incredulously, because they couldn’t believe that. So, I think there is a real need for big companies that have massive ad budgets to tell their stories and really try to bring the consumer to [their] level.

On why storytelling is sometimes hard

I understand the reluctance. [They] don’t want to get accused of greenwashing. [They] don’t want to draw attention to a different part of [their] business. It’s a delicate line to walk. That is actually where I think the non-profit world can help. We can see effective avenues for storytelling that might be more difficult for a company that serves its customers based on taste or convenience or price.

On what’s next for businesses and sustainability

I am really excited about three ideas. The first is that you can take the storytelling to the next [level] … You know that immersing people in nature is a place we can go. We are working on something very exciting [related to] that. I can’t tell you about it, but maybe at the next conference we can preview some of [it]. So that is one idea: increasing our capacity to tell the story.

The second thing that we are really keen on is airline industry. There is a big gap here, right? You’ve seen the EPA finally getting around to sort of managing emissions, although the mandates for 2020 and 2028 most of the airlines will meet anyway because efficiencies have been driven by cost. There is a carbon neutrality that is going to, I believe, become [not] optional any more, and I think you are going to see a fairly big play with airlines and REDD+.

The other [thing] I am really excited about is blue carbon.

Right now, we are just starting to play with it. It’s about how to capture carbon in the oceans through seagrass, mangroves, etc. Everyone knows how to do the above-water stuff. It is the low-soil stuff where a lot of the carbon is, and no one has been quite able to quantify it and make it work.

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