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Pure Strategies on 20 Years in the Sustainability Trenches

This month, Pure Strategies celebrates 20 years of providing sustainability consulting to companies such as Stonyfield Farms, Ben & Jerry’s, Seventh Generation and Walmart. Its team has been helping to build leading strategies, improve products and packaging, and shift supply chains toward better environmental and social performance for well over 100 organizations over their years of work.

We spoke with Pure Strategies’ co-founders, Managing Director Tim Greiner and Bob Kerr, Principal, to reflect on the past two decades of their experience and explore what corporate efforts may be needed to drive toward a more sustainable future.

What stands out as high points from the past 20 years in corporate sustainability and do these set us up for success looking ahead?

Bob Kerr**:** The most dramatic change of the last 20 years has been the emergence of companies proactively working to achieve a sustainable environment and society — recognizing sustainability as a vital component of business success. Two decades ago, while there were a few angel brands, most companies still looked at the environment and social responsibility in terms of government regulatory requirements. Even some of the top companies were only focused on increased efficiency in materials or energy use.

This mindset began to reach the masses in 2005 when Walmart announced its three-pillar plan for sustainability that included zero waste, 100 percent renewable energy, and sustainable products. Walmart has since proven to be a top influencer of corporate investment in sustainability because of their reach across many diverse supply chains. Today, many of the largest companies now recognize the critical link between long-term business success and the environmental and social problems we face and are making those issues part of their core agenda.

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Tim Greiner: 20 years ago, we would have been delighted to be on the C-suite radar like we are today. But in the next 20 years, we need to exponentially accelerate sustainability and its role in capital flows, innovation and governance. Climate change, water scarcity, increasing global population, and resource shortages indicators point to a looming collapse of our environment and economic system. Just take a look at Cape Town, South Africa: The city is facing a serious shortage of water due to lack of rainfall and other environmental challenges. Residents and businesses are facing limited or no water supply as they approach “Day Zero,” demanding widespread and significant conservation measures.

Investors see this challenge. Climate impacts, resource scarcity, and other concerns are driving them to push for faster change from companies, elevating sustainability to a Board-level priority. Further, the government needs to step in and raise the bar for the lowest performers. This includes regulatory changes, such as carbon limits and pricing. The leading companies will be ahead of the curve and have a critical role in engaging in government and working across collaborative platforms to help shape these policies. A great example is Seventh Generation’s advocacy on federal and state policy through their ComeClean campaign for safer ingredients and ingredient disclosure. These efforts pay off, since research shows that consumers who are aware of Seventh Generation’s values are more loyal to the brand.

What will it take for companies to have a meaningful contribution to improving our future?

BK**:** There are at least three key areas that companies need to tackle: 1) shifting to renewable energy and shrinking the carbon footprint, 2) delivering safe and effective products in a more circular economy, and 3) building regenerative and fair supply chains. This will require corporate leaders to be open to change and to a different way of doing business.

New levels of supply chain transparency and engagement will also be required from companies to reach the needed levels of change. When Ben & Jerry’s set out to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in line with a science-based climate target, they not only determined the sources of emissions, but also the potential for improvement. Since the majority of their emissions were outside of their operations, this required a deeper understanding of farm-level practices to find solutions and track progress.

Further, collaboration will take new forms to reach the scale needed — from cross-industry market efforts to government engagement. We are already seeing some of the needed change. The Sustainability Consortium is an effort that has notable scale, bringing together global nonprofit organizations and some of the largest and most diverse companies across industries to understand supply chain challenges and work together to align on how to define and track improvement in their markets.

What role do you see Pure Strategies having in the future of sustainability?

TG: Pure Strategies has helped companies bring their new sustainability approaches to the market. From Stonyfield’s first value chain carbon footprint to Walmart’s product sustainability strategy, we provide expertise and tools for corporate leaders to transform their businesses, products and supply chains. Given the need to accelerate the pace of change, we are now focused on achieving these outcomes at scale.

We co-founded the Chemical Footprint Project (CFP) with this aim. The CFP platform provides a common language to evaluate and improve the health and safety of products and supply chains. This effort provided the first way for companies and investors to evaluate action on chemicals management. Notable companies such as Walmart, HP and Levi’s have used this tool. Investors representing over $2.3 trillion in assets also back this shift to sustainable chemicals management.

Further, we have been helping companies adopt the guidance from the Science Based Target Initiative (SBTi). This global collaborative of three nonprofit organizations and the UN developed criteria for greenhouse gas emissions target-setting outlines what the climate data shows is needed over the next 15 years. Over 300 companies are adopting the SBTi approach — a positive sign of scaling the necessary solutions.

What has you optimistic about the future?

BK: The increasing complexity of problems that businesses face today, coupled with demands for change, call for even greater effort and alignment than we have ever seen. We are beginning to see signs of the needed shift. A bright spot is how the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have provided a common set of targets that include the most critical environmental, social and economic changes that companies have been rallying around. The UN reported that 82 out of 100 blue chip companies publicly disclosed a commitment to the SDGs. Climate change was one of the top target areas corporations were addressing. This level of focus provides hope for our future if it is coupled with significant action.

TG: I’ve seen an exponential surge in innovation and creativity in the past three years in our client work that makes me optimistic about our future. The rate of change in sustainable investing, capital flows and business strategy in the next few decades may outpace anything that we imagined possible even just five years ago. Added to that, consumers such as Millennials are demanding more, providing a positive feedback loop for companies taking on the challenge. It is an exciting time to be in the field. I am hoping we look back in 20 years, satisfied that our collective influence helped turn the tide on seemingly intractable issues and lead us down a planetary path of health and abundance.