Progress toward environmental sustainability has stalled in the global political arena, but companies are increasingly getting involved. Often they’re working with nongovernmental organizations, and perhaps the biggest of these is WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) International. As the organization’s director general since 2005, Jim Leape has overseen a shift toward encouraging these partnerships. WWF’s goal is both to move the political needle and to generate innovations that will drive major gains in sustainability. Knut Haanaes, a BCG partner and managing director in the firm’s Geneva office, spoke with him at the organization’s global headquarters in Gland, Switzerland.
What changes do you see in the role of business on the issue of sustainability? Why do you think certain companies are stepping up and moving aggressively into this area?
I think we’ve seen quite a pronounced change over the last several years. Several years ago, most companies thought of sustainability or environmental issues as issues of compliance, in terms of regulations and laws, of course—but beyond that as issues of corporate social responsibility. What you see now is a growing recognition that sustainability issues are actually a core business concern, fundamental to the future of the business.
That comes, as I talk to CEOs, from a variety of motivations or insights. One is that a growing number of their customers care about these issues and will prefer companies whom they see as responsible. Another is frankly the recruitment and retention of talent. To get the best talent coming into the market, they need to be a company that people are proud to work for. Sometimes it’s about security of supply—how do they make sure there will be fish, or cacao, or soy for the long term, to meet the needs of their business? Sometimes it’s about social license to operate. Are they seen as responsible members of the community in the places where they have their factories and facilities? And often it’s a combination of those things. But you see a recognition by many leading CEOs that this is about business and not just about philanthropy.