Big green profit machine: meet the companies making sustainability profitable 
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;
Story

Big green profit machine: meet the companies making sustainability profitable 

Stories/768 , Issues/Environment
Perth WA
27th Jul 2020
Big green profit machine: meet the companies making sustainability profitable 
From water scarcity to educational inequality, business leaders are taking it upon themselves to solve the world’s greatest crises—and they’re making billions while doing it. Rosamund Brennan spotlights the innovators achieving what few thought possible: turning social impact into profit.

“But what’s the business case for sustainability?”

In the decade that sustainability expert columnist Freya Williams spent touring the globe, preaching the benefits of a circular business model to CEOs and executives, this was the question she was confronted with most. Her answer? “A billion dollars.”

This came as a shock to many business leaders, who subscribed to the rigid paradigm that sustainability would come at the expense of profitability. Among their concerns: sustainable manufacturing will require expensive new equipment and processes, developing ‘green products’ will put them at a competitive disadvantage to emerging economies, and suppliers can’t guarantee transparency or green inputs. Put simply, they thought they had to choose between sustainability and financial gain. But this doesn’t reflect the reality of the situation. 

In her training sessions, Williams reeled off scores of companies, including the likes of Tesla, Nike, and Ikea, who rake in more than a billion dollars in annual revenue from products or services centred on sustainability or social good. Indeed, Harvard Business Review reported that between 2006 and 2010, the top 100 sustainable global companies experienced significantly higher mean sales growth than their competitors.

But it’s not just about financial gains. Mounting evidence shows that sustainability brings with it a slew of business advantages, including driving innovation, building risk management, increasing customer loyalty, and attracting staff. It’s about a company’s ability to move beyond short-term growth and to reposition itself for a future where natural resources are not guaranteed. A future where businesses serve both their shareholders and society—through innovation, commitment to a healthy environment, and economic opportunity for all.

Intercorp, Peru

“Desaprender a aprender” (unlearn to learn) shouts a brightly coloured mural, near the cafeteria at Universidad Tecnológica del Perú (UTP). It’s a brazen salute to the university’s commitment to doing things differently. And that they are.

Down the corridor, students are tinkering with 3D printers and shipping navigation simulators. Another class is learning how to design apps, the next is about industrial robotics and machine learning.

With more than 90% of students finding employment just two months after graduation, UTP has earned its reputation as the most esteemed technical university in Peru. But its origin story might surprise you.

UTP was founded by Intercorp, a multi-billion dollar conglomerate specialising in financial services, retail and real estate that makes up 4% of Peru’s GDP. From kindergarten right through to university, Intercorp is rolling out an ambitious plan to improve the quality of education in Peru.

They partnered with design-strategy firm IDEO to launch ‘Innova Schools’, a network of more than 100 private schools which provide international-quality education at an affordable price. And it’s working. Students have doubled the national average in literacy and numeracy.

But why would a 78,000 person, $8 billion corporation want to run a chain of schools?

Well, when Intercorp CEO Carlos Rodriguez-Pastor was looking to future-proof his company, he forecasted what the next 25 years might look like—not only for Intercorp, but for the nation. And it looked bleak.

Peru consistently scored near the bottom of the OECD’s education rankings, and only 5-7% of the country had access to a good education. Tertiary education attainment levels were also remarkably low.

This ‘education gap’ meant the country lacked an aspirational middle class with disposable income, as well as human resources to fill skilled roles, which could spell disaster in the long term for companies like Intercorp.

How could Intercorp’s business grow if it didn’t have the customers to buy its products? How could they develop new technologies if they didn’t have the workforce to enable it? Education was the missing link that would allow their business to thrive while delivering positive social impact for their community.

Of course, the program isn’t without its critics, with some suggesting Intercorp should’ve dedicated its resources to fixing the public system. But going private allowed Intercorp to shape the business model so that it delivered both financial and social gains, which was crucial for the project’s survival.

As Jorge Yzusqui, General Manager of Innova Schools said, “The purpose of InterCorp is to make Peru the best place for young families in Latin America. We need to provide education. It’s about values – how can we do this while developing our business and solving important problems?”

EcoLab, United States

An eight-month-long drought ravaged the state of California in 2019. Verdant green hills faded to brown. The earth was bone dry. At one point, 85.3% of the state was affected.

It’s a trend that is likely to worsen. And its damage will be far-reaching: soil health will deteriorate, fire seasons will intensify, as will biodiversity loss, and agricultural industries will see a downturn.

But the ruinous thread underscoring all of this is water scarcity.

"If climate change is a shark, water is the teeth, and it’s the first thing you’re going to feel," explains EcoLab CEO Douglas M. Baker, Jr. “Over the arc of history, California is going to run out of water. Unless they do something about it now.”

EcoLab has been working with the state of California, as well as hundreds of private companies and legislators, to solve the global water crisis from the inside—by catalysing systemic change within the world’s largest corporations.

The 95-year-old chemical company certainly didn’t start out with this intention. According to Innosight.com, when Baker became CEO in the early 2000s, Ecolab was growing by 10% annually by focusing on its core business: industrial cleansers and food safety technology. But Baker and his team wanted to be world-leaders in business innovation, and this tried and tested formula, while lucrative, didn’t feel bold enough.

The transformation began when EcoLab started talking to its customers. With projections showing that global water demand could outstrip supply by up to 40% by 2030, access to clean water was consistently a top concern.

So EcoLab got to work. They changed their mission statement to ‘clean water, safe food, abundant energy, healthy environment’ and invested millions in developing technologies to decrease industrial water consumption.

Today, their technologies are saving more than 200 billion gallons of water a year. But they are also reducing costs for EcoLab’s vast network of customers, which includes 42 out of the top 50 Fortune companies.

“The less water a company uses, the less energy they use, the less their overheads. It makes sense from a business point of view while delivering positive social and environmental impacts, including decreased greenhouse gas emissions,” Baker explains.

Among the technologies they’ve rolled out include the ‘Water Risk Monetiser’, an online tool that lets any business calculate the risk-adjusted price for the water they use, and a sophisticated alert system to mitigate the growth of legionella in water towers.

“It’s action, not just good intentions, that changes the world,” Baker explains. “We need technology and innovation that is scalable and delivers economic benefits. When there is a marriage of economic and environmental benefits, you start to get big, big uptake.”

Ørsted, Denmark

A little over 10 years ago, DONG Energy – Denmark Oil and Natural Gas - was responsible for more than half of Denmark’s CO? emissions.  

The $154 billion fossil-fuel company drilled for oil and gas in the North Sea, selling and distributing power and gas to end-customers in Denmark and operating coal power stations.

Today, the company is all but unrecognisable to its past self. Not only does it have a new name, Ørsted, named after legendary Danish scientist Hans Christian Ørsted, but it has also completely overhauled its business operations.

Within a decade, Ørsted transitioned from one of Europe’s most fossil fuel-intensive companies to the world leader in offshore wind energy. They reduced their carbon emissions by a staggering 86% and went onto be named the most sustainable company in the world by Corporate Knights 2020 Global 100 index.

The turning point came in 2012 when DONG Energy slid into financial crisis as the price of natural gas plunged by 90%. The board hired a former executive at LEGO, Henrik Poulsen, as the new CEO. Pre-empting the global sustainability movement before it took hold, Poulsen recognised the moment as an opportunity for fundamental change. And so Ørsted was born.

“We saw the need to build an entirely new company,” Poulsen told Harvard Business Review. “It had to be a radical transformation; we needed to build new core business and find new areas of sustainable growth. We looked at the shift to combat climate change, and we became one of the few companies to wholeheartedly make this profound decision, to be one of the first to go from black to green energy.”

When they first made the leap to divest from coal, it created a giant earnings gap that urgently needed to be filled. They explored offshore wind power, but the technology was at that stage too expensive—at more than double the price of onshore wind.

So they made another bold move, implementing a systematic “cost-out” program to reduce the price of offshore wind while achieving scale, as reported in Harvard Business Review. Critics called it mission impossible, but it worked. Ørsted reduced the cost of offshore wind by more than 60%. They built three ocean-based wind farms in the U.K and acquired a leading company in the U.S.

In 2020, their investments in offshore wind power total more than $20 billion. They have more offshore wind farms than any developer in the world, with 39 locations across the US, Taiwan, Denmark, Germany, the UK and The Netherlands.

It’s a transformation that has set the global benchmark for fossil-fuel divestment. As environmental journalist Helen Avery put it, “What I love about the Ørsted story is that when we’re told transition will take decades, it proves that it is not so.” 

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