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Lessons from Ceres: How to expand corporate leadership

Great work from just a few companies isn't enough to combat climate change and build a thriving, sustainable global economy. That was the message from Ceres leader Mindy Lubber when she announced a new report, The Road to 2020, at the nonprofit's annual conference last week.

From the boardroom to the copy room and through the supply chain, Lubber called for more innovation and the ability to scale sustainability at a faster rate. In other words, instead of having pockets of leadership from companies, we need whole bags.

Of course, Ceres isn't all about corporations. The same conference also included plenty of mentions of “kids,” “family” and “community.” Occasionally, at the end of a session where future generations were invoked, there were one too many kumbayas for my taste.

But to focus on that would be to miss the important work being done by what Ceres vice president of corporate programs Andrea Moffat regards as “the social experiment called Ceres.”

Getting from here to there

The sobering analysis presented by Lubber and her colleagues in The Road to 2020 report finds that sustainability leadership is the exception and that below average performance with limited pockets of action is still the norm. The new report is an important reminder of the Ceres Roadmap for Sustainability, a practical framework for embedding environmental and social concerns into a business. 

Sustainalytics CEO Michael Jantzi, who also worked on the report, suggests that companies consider the road map as something like a Rand McNally atlas: “It helps define what the destination looks like, but there are many ways to get there -- it’s not just turn right in fifty meters.”

The Ceres roadmap is just one of the many useful tools the organization provides. From laying the early groundwork for the Global Reporting Initiative to the more recent publication of the Aqua Gauge tool for water risk management, Ceres has provided frameworks to help corporations and investors make progress toward a more sustainable future.

Investor’s voice: trader, raider or owner?

One of the unique aspects of Ceres is its ability to convene a disparate group of investors, corporations and nonprofits. The investor perspective is important and one of the questions that nags many a chief sustainability officer is “why aren’t investors asking about what I do on the quarterly financial analyst calls?”

Anne Simpson is a senior portfolio manager for the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), the nation's largest public pension fund with assets totaling $231.9 billion. During a plenary panel session entitled “Sustainability: The Business Imperative,” Anne explained that there are three types of investors who might be on that call: traders, raiders and owners.

Simpson noted that traders and raiders look to exploit market volatility, ranking environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues very low in terms of importance to their investment strategies. On the other hand owners like CalPERS view this data as critical to their investment decisions. Simpson explained that a company’s ESG data gives investors a chance to take a long-term forward view in terms of understanding whether a company is properly evaluating risks such as climate change and water scarcity.

CalPERS has been working with Ceres and other members of the Investor-Business Roundtable for a Sustainable Economy and will soon be launching an “ESG Expectations Document” for internal and external asset managers.

BICEP continues to flex policy muscle

One of the other valuable roles Ceres plays is coordinating an advocacy group of businesses committed to working with policy makers to pass meaningful energy and climate legislation. Business for Innovative Climate & Energy Policy (BICEP) is a coalition of leading consumer brand companies including Nike, Starbucks, Avon, eBay and many more.

During a BICEP overview session, Levi Strauss & Co.’s senior manager of government affairs and public policy, Anna Walker, stressed that now is the time for companies to keep up a drumbeat for long-term environmental policy. According to Walker, the administration and Congress want to hear the business case for sustainability. In an effort to illustrate by example, BICEP members are sharing their sustainability successes in Europe because of policies enacted there.

On the domestic front, one recent success was reported by eBay, which -- along with the Data Center Pulse Group and others -- worked with Utah’s Republican Senator Mark Madsen to develop new legislation that creates an option for companies to source the kind of energy they want without mandates, subsidies or cost increases for normal ratepayers.

What this means is that with passage of Senate Bill 12, signed into law on March 21, companies can now buy and transmit power directly from renewable energy developers. In a state with 94 percent coal generation, Utah can now lure other high-tech firms with a commitment to renewable energy without requiring deregulation, which was necessary under the old law.

That might not want to make you join hands and sing, but it’s a good reminder of the important role Ceres plays in helping to build an environmentally sound and sustainable economy.

Photo of leadership by Jezper via Shutterstock.

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