Partnerships are the fast route to a low carbon future for business: Marks & Spencer and Unilever

Reading time: 6 minutes
30 September 2015

As part of Climate Week NYC, two partners from RE100 - an ambitious global campaign led by The Climate Group in partnership with CDP, to engage, support and showcase influential businesses committed to 100% renewable electricity - Mike Barry Director of Sustainable Business Marks and Spencer and Jeff Seabright Chief Sustainability Officer Unilever who are also Co-chairs Consumer Goods Forum Sustainability Steering Group, write about their low carbon journeys in a three-part blog series. 

A decade ago climate change meant little to business. A few vocally denied the threat to their fossil-based business models, but for the vast majority climate science was esoteric and distant from the realities of their daily marketplace challenges.

Today much has changed. Many more companies are climate literate, taking action to reduce their carbon emissions and making their value chains more resilient in the face of climatic threats.

Crucially companies have recognized that action alone is not enough. It cannot be. The carbon challenge is too great for any one company to tackle by itself. And of course there is the fearful recognition that even if you create your own low carbon business model, it is doomed to fail if the wider economy continues to pump out carbon unabated.

New business partnerships are forming that are powerful sources of advocacy. They demonstrate to governments and civil society that multiple companies and sectors support action by policymakers on issues such as a price on carbon, science based targets and carbon reporting. These partnerships are helping change the perception in government circles that companies are resistant to climate action.

A new narrative is developing that strong climate action is not only necessary to protect the economy, but also that it can be the catalyst for green growth, creating new markets, innovations and jobs.

But these partnerships have their limitations too. They focus on advocating change rather than delivering change. Companies need to form coalitions to reduce their emissions too.

To deliver these collective reductions in emissions, companies need to work with other businesses with common business models, operations and supply chains to tackle their shared carbon footprint. A shared commitment to change across a sector can send a powerful signal to suppliers, employees and customers that change will happen – and that the market will not be distorted for those who commit early to the change agenda.

Developing these sector initiatives is not easy. Competitive instincts and competition law can make it difficult to convene companies who clash viscerally in the marketplace. But increasingly companies recognise that the climate imperative means these competitive anxieties must be overcome.

The Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) representing many of the largest consumer goods companies in the world, recognized this need for sector collaboration in 2010. It set far reaching climate goals to tackle two of the most material climate impacts facing the consumer goods sector globally – deforestation and refrigeration:

  • Deforestation caused by the sourcing of key raw materials (palm oil, soya, beef and paper/pulp) in consumer goods supply chains.
  • Refrigeration from the use of potent greenhouse gases (HFCs) as the refrigerant of choice in factories and shops.

CGF Members committed to achieve zero net deforestation by 2020 and to begin the phase out of HFCs by 2015. Today CGF members have made substantial progress in delivering both goals.

The CGF has supported the development of the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil and the formation of the Tropical Forest Alliance to bring companies, governments and NGOs together to tackle deforestation. Today 90% of globally traded palm oil now has some form of ‘no deforestation’ commitment associated with it.

For refrigeration over 4,000 supermarkets and 4 million ice cream or drinks cabinets worldwide are now using alternatives to HFCs. In both cases, none of the individual members of the CGF, despite their global scale, could have hoped to have changed entire industries alone.

While considerable work remains to be done to complete both the deforestation and refrigeration journeys, the success of both encouraged the CGF to tackle the third substantial part of its collective carbon footprint: food waste. If food waste were a country it would rank third only to China and the US in terms of its greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2015 CGF members agreed to a Resolution to halve food waste in their own operations by 2025 and to support UN efforts to halve per capita food waste by 2030 in supply chains and consumers’ homes.

Like Refrigeration and Deforestation the CGF’s Food Waste work is supported by a clear time bound target, CEO support, sharing of best practice and reporting of progress. The CGF’s ability to bring manufacturers and retailers together allows climate action to be taken across the consumer goods value chain from the forests of Indonesia and the Amazon to factories, shops and ultimately the consumer’s home.

Crucially the CGF is not a ‘carbon coalition’. It is a business association that recognizes the need for climate action and is willing to act as a ‘big tent’ in which its members can take collective action to reduce their carbon footprints.

While cross economy business coalitions will continue to be built to advocate the right policy outcomes to deliver a low carbon economy, they will increasingly be complemented by sector specific pledges to reduce substantially a whole industry’s most material carbon impacts.

So let’s finish with an encouraging call to all business associations: create a plan in 2016 to help your members reduce their carbon footprints – and create the low carbon business models that will flourish in the future.

Proactive plans that share best practice, support companies and look for business benefit will help demonstrate to customers, employees and stakeholders alike that business associations are serious about making a positive contribution.

by Mike Barry Director of Sustainable Business Marks and Spencer and Jeff Seabright Chief Sustainability Officer Unilever, Co-chairs Consumer Goods Forum Sustainability Steering Group


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