Sara Boettiger is an economist and leading expert in corporate sustainability, global agriculture, and food security. Previously, at Bayer Crop Science, she was Senior Vice President, Global Head of Public Affairs, Science & Sustainability. She currently advises companies, foundations and governments, and sits on the Advisory Committee of the Export-Import Bank of the US. She is passionate about helping people, organizations and governments navigate the rapidly changing sustainability transition toward lower greenhouse gases, adapting to climate change, improving biodiversity, and creating a more resilient food system. Formerly, she served as Deputy Director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, taught economics at UC Berkeley, was a faculty fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, co-led the McKinsey Center for Agricultural Transformation, was a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Councils, served as Chair of the international agriculture center, CIMMYT and co-founded three non-profits. She is a published author (Nature Biotechnology, Scientific American, MIT Innovations Journal, Journal of International Biotech Law) and has been an invited speaker at The White House, G20, US Federal Reserve, Harvard Business School, Harvard Law School, World Food Prize, Summit Series.
If the sustainability leader drives an exercise with the executive leadership team about what success looks like overall in sustainability, you will come up with a solid dashboard of commonly agreed metrics that can be used to charge progress over time. Some companies pick more process-oriented metrics. These can be OK, but often don’t tell you how effective the company has become in navigating the rapidly changing sustainability landscape, or what still needs to be worked on. Building on the list you give, I do think all senior leaders being able to identify where sustainability impacts their performance is a milestone that can be difficult to reach. At the same time, it drives ‘integration’ below. I have seen companies track how familiar their employees are with the sustainability progress of the company, which can be a powerful driver of change. You also mentioned disclosures and reporting. I used to think a big goal was for a company to get to the point where the data collection and management for reporting is strategically structured. However, the reality is that the data required, the disclosure requirements across different geographies, the options for tools to manage the data – they all keep changing. Instead, I now have seen successful companies think about how to manage this function in a lean way, understanding the changes that are coming. I think the hallmark of integration at its core is pretty simple. You know you’re doing a good job when there are fewer surprises in sustainability issues, and fewer unknowns – you have good decision-making, you’ve selected priorities and created strategic plans, and you have a hypothesis about how to finance the transition.
This is a deep question about disruptive innovation. I am sure there are economists who have studied this as it relates to sustainability, but my understanding is that when the innovation required is fundamentally disrupting existing business models, big companies are sometimes not all that great at seeing around corners. But when the innovation required is less disruptive, large-cap companies have the edge. Large companies often have a broader range of innovation access tools (in-house corporate VCs, sufficient M&A budgets, or more options for JVs structures that exchange strategic assets), but it’s still a struggle to create room for disruptive innovation. The current era requires both types of innovation. For example, beyond the era of sustainable packaging (sustaining innovation), for instance, may well come an era of re-use that requires fundamental shifts in business models (disruptive innovation). If we look at the single-use plastic challenges that will dominate the next generation, the first (and important) innovations are in recycling and bioplastics, but the really big innovations that we have to get to are about the single-use part more than the plastic part.
I am a fan of transparency initiatives. I think there are usually ways to create much higher levels of transparency in many parts of a company. These initiatives take resources to do well and they often have a lot of internal pushback. But when they are done well, they build trust without compromising the work of the company. The relationships between companies and academics are particularly important to shine a light on through transparency initiatives. Companies need the independence and integrity of academics in regulatory, policy, and legal processes to be the voice of evidence-based, science-based progress.
That’s a great question. If you fast-forward to a few years from now when non-electric vehicles will be banned from some major markets, will our discussions about ‘sustainability’ in cars shift to battery qualities, or small particle pollution from tires? Will there be no more “Chief Sustainability Officers” because everyone in the company will be fluent in tackling these issue? If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say the terms won’t go away, we’ll use them as shorthand and just shift their meaning over the years. GHG reduction, slowing biodiversity loss, improving marine stewardship – these and many other sustainability issues will continue to dominate the policies that are made in the next decades, the markets that companies cater to, and the choices investors make. I don’t think these terms will be phased out.
Many additional thoughts! But one important perspective to include, I think, is the equity aspects of the changes we’re talking about. Climate change already disproportionately effects the poor. We hear this in the critical voices raised to move forward on climate finance for developing countries, or environmental justice legislation for low-income communities. But we also know that the disparities between the haves and have-nots will become much greater as we travel on the path toward three degrees. Climate migration issues, working condition issues, recovering from the damage done by increasing extreme weather events, and slowed economic growth for lower-income countries are all hallmarks of the changes ahead. In addition to the exciting shifts that are happening in advanced economies’ banks, governments, and companies, we all need to be doing more to support solutions that keep social equity front of mind in this new era.