Sustainable companies need nature to thrive

How do we rise and adapt to the challenges of a rapidly changing world -- and what role can business play to help lead the way?

These are just some of the pressing questions that fueled the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference in Laguna Niguel, California, last week. This was my second consecutive year attending the event, which has become a signature gathering of corporate leaders, journalists, environmental groups, and technical and policy experts, all with a common interest in solving the most pressing problems facing the planet.

More than ever before, I came away amazed by how corporate attitudes have changed in recent decades. When we founded Conservation International 25 years ago, we predicted that engagement with the private sector would be essential to achieving our mission. But at that time we had no idea of the size of the transformation that was in store. The array of leading companies represented at Fortune Brainstorm Green -- Coca-Cola, Walmart, Cargill, Disney, and Dell, to name a few -- is a powerful indication of how sustainability is moving from the sidelines to the core of business strategies and actions.

The conference highlighted the challenge of meeting the food, water and energy needs of a rapidly growing world population that is projected to exceed nine billion people by mid-century. I was encouraged by the sense of urgency in the room, and the consensus that we need to pick up the pace in our collective efforts to combat world hunger, poverty, climate change and resource degradation.

I had the privilege of speaking on a panel session with Fortune Managing Editor Andy Serwer and Rob Walton, Chairman of Wal-Mart Stores and board member of Conservation International. We recalled early discussions in 2004 with Walmart’s executive leadership and BluSkye Sustainability Consulting about the extraordinary opportunity to harness Walmart’s influential position as the world’s largest retailer to generate business value and catalyze green innovation.

Today I remain convinced that we have only scratched the surface of possibilities for mobilizing the power of Walmart -- with its 10,000 stores, two million employees, and 100,000 suppliers -- as a global agent of positive change. In his remarks, Rob Walton highlighted Walmart’s 2012 Global Responsibility Report, which details important progress the company has made toward meeting its long-term goals for waste minimization, renewable energy and sustainable products. To its credit, the report also provides candid acknowledgment of how much work remains to be done.