Circular approaches to plastic waste, renewable energy procurement, and moving beyond audits to address human rights risks were highlights during last week’s thought-provoking conference in London, which focused on solutions to some of companies’ greatest challenges
1. Supply chains will be key in allowing companies to deliver against initiatives such as the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris climate change agreement, because the changes that are required are so big that no one company can do it on its own. “Individually, we can do good things, but it’s not going to shift the needle,” said Sarah Schaefer, global policy director at Unilever. But building coalitions is not easy, not least because there is widespread distrust of businesses and their motives, she added.
2. There is now a fierce urgency in the business community to tackle the issue of plastic waste, but disagreement about the best ways to do so. Coca-Cola European Partners and Ecover, which took part in a two-hour panel discussion on circular approaches to plastics, are looking at solutions including deposit return and reverse vending schemes, refill stations and bioplastics. This last option remains controversial, with Greenpeace International’s senior scientist, Melissa Wang, saying that bioplastics can displace food production and contribute to deforestation, while biodegradable plastics can often only degrade in specific conditions. There are recycling options all along the value chain, from chemical recycling by refiners such as Neste, using waste plastic as a feedstock, to carpet manufacturer Interface collecting discarded fishing nets and turning them into reusable carpet tiles. But the problem is so big that this is a prime example of the need for collaboration.
3. The publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 1.5°C report the day before the conference highlighted the importance of companies playing their part in the energy transition and Kirsten Dunlop, CEO of Climate-KIC, pointed out that there are now a number of tangible examples of success. These are being driven by government targets, the increased competitiveness of renewable energy technologies (the cost of solar power has fallen 80% in the last seven years) and a helpful regulatory framework – feed-in tariffs are being replaced by auction systems, which have helped to drive costs down, said Giovanni Tula, head of innovation and sustainability at Enel Green Power.
4. Initiatives such as RE100 are helping companies to procure renewable energy, although progress is uneven. It is very difficult for corporate buyers to source clean power at scale in Japan, for example. However, when 13 Japanese companies joined the RE100 initiative and demonstrated their demand for clean energy, it opened up conversations with ministers about how to make it possible, said Sam Kimmins, head of RE100 at The Climate Group.
5. Companies are moving beyond audits in their attempts to address human rights risks in their supply chains. “Information from auditing is vital, but it’s not stand-alone,” said Anita Househam, senior manager, decent work and supply chain sustainability at the United Nations Global Compact. “Companies need to understand their suppliers and take a more engaged approach, building capacity and helping them to understand the issues their customers are concerned about.” It is no longer enough to focus just on Tier 1 suppliers as human rights violations are more likely to happen beyond that, added David Lawrence, CEO of AIM-Progress. “You need knowledge much further down the supply chain.”
6. Supply chains are changing – in the past the relationship between supplier and customer was often antagonistic. Today, there is much more partnership, with sustainability at the heart of this co-operation and increasing demands for transparency from consumers. This requires increased collaboration between procurement and sustainability departments, said Lazar Armianov, business development manager for UK and Ireland at EcoVadis. “Procurement departments are being asked to deliver added value for businesses, and sustainability is a key way of doing that. Many of a company’s impacts are in its supply chain, so procurement professionals need to talk to their suppliers.”
Giovanni Tula of Enel Green Power. Credit: Jennifer Moyes