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Force of nature

By Susan Smith | August 4, 2016

David Miller starts the conversation with a stunning fact: Some wild animal populations tracked by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) have decreased by more than half over the past 40 years.

“It’s an incredible statistic and very sobering,” says Miller, who has been President and Chief Executive Officer of WWF-Canada since 2013. “We look at that and ask, ‘Who do we engage in order to help solve these problems?’ Our approach is to bring together all of the different entities that are relevant and try to find a solution.”

Gorillas are threatened by palm oil plantations, he adds. “Who do you engage? Partly the landowners, partly people who consume these products and partly the businesses that are using palm oil.”

Miller, who served as mayor of Toronto from 2003 to 2010, is skilled at bringing people together to solve problems. One example he likes to share is WWF-Canada’s work with Loblaw Cos. Ltd. on sustainable seafood. It has meant engaging the supermarket chain, consumers, the fishing industry, distributors – all of the stakeholders. Toronto-based Loblaws’ goal was to sell 100 per cent sustainable seafood, and it got to 94 per cent in core categories. “That’s an incredible achievement,” Miller says. “We were really proud to be part of that, and this kind of thinking is what we’re going to see more and more of going forward.”

The reason for his optimism in the face of widespread environmental degradation? More businesses are realizing that making money and caring for the environment aren’t mutually exclusive. Rather, the two go hand-in-hand.

“The economy exists within the environment,” Miller says. “It can’t exist without it. We have to have both. It’s not an issue of balance for me; it’s that you have to have both. You have to find things that work for both.”

A big change that Miller sees is a move away from thinking of corporate social responsibility as an obligation to be a good neighbour – donating to support the community and participating in recycling programs, for instance – toward the recognition that a sustainable environment is an economic necessity.

“There is a business need as well as a moral and ethical need,” Miller says. “The positive thing about that is if you can build on the business need, you can have really quite incredible results that move much faster than simply a philanthropic or good-neighbour kind of approach.”

Take seafood at Loblaws: If a product is not sourced sustainably, in the long run the company won’t have that product to sell. That’s the reality in many other industries, Miller notes.

Consumer demand is another force working to align the goals of sustainability and profitability. The WWF educates people about what their everyday choices mean for the health of the planet. When consumers start making better choices, companies listen.

“One of the factors that’s motivating and driving business is reputational,” Miller says. “The consumer is very powerful. A company that wants to source products sustainably will benefit economically if consumers are properly educated and knowledgeable.”

He cites working with a cod fishery in southern Newfoundland and Labrador. With the help of its companies, as well as other industry stakeholders and government partners, the fishery gained sustainable certification, which has made its catch more marketable, particularly in Europe. “There’s an economic case for them because consumers don’t want to eat fish that isn’t sourced sustainably,” Miller says.

Besides joining forces with the Marine Stewardship Council to help protect the world’s oceans, the WWF helped to create the Forest Stewardship Council’s certification process, which Miller says has also worked well in Canada.

Here and abroad, the WWF is collaborating with beverage giant Coca-Cola Co. on issues related to water. “This matters to them, of course, because it is a core part of their business,” Miller says. “Their goal is to replenish as much water as they use.”

The ability to hire the best and brightest is another place where business interests and corporate responsibility intersect. That’s because young people have a high degree of environmental awareness and want to work for companies that share their values.

“Sustainability is right at the top of that,” Miller says. “I think that’s a really fantastic thing, because it’s going to mean that the consciousness of sustainability is at the core of every medium-to-large business in this country, because those employers want to recruit really good employees. To get the best, they have to be honouring these values in their everyday business operations. Once you get that cycle going, there’s no telling the potential difference it can make.”

Cutting-edge technologies that help companies to measure greenhouse gas emissions and other activities that impact the environment will go a long way toward creating transparency and accountability, Miller contends.

“I'm absolutely convinced that not only can we reach our climate goals while having a strong economy, we can actually reach them in a way that makes the economy better and allows us to have better places to live,” he says.

Reliable verification of environmental initiatives is crucial. In addition to assuring the public that reporting is accurate, it helps businesses to innovate by assessing their environmental impact in a measurable and transparent way.

This is especially important today, given the ubiquity of social media: An environmental misstep can go viral in minutes and cost a company millions in lost business.

“From the narrow perspective of shareholders, there’s a real risk here if a business isn’t conducting itself to the highest sustainability principles,” Miller says. “The role of ensuring the public that those principles are being adhered to, that the measurements are proper and real and that they are being conducted using the best available technology is essential. They won’t be credible without it.”

Despite recent high-profile setbacks such as false emissions claims by car companies, Miller believes more companies are seeing the light.

“If you look at the bigger picture, it’s a path up,” he says. “If you think back 25 years, businesses didn’t have a sense that sustainability was part of their mandate. It didn’t mean that some weren’t environmentally conscious, but I think far more today it’s been internalized with the help of organizations like ours. That makes progress possible.”

 

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