The new way for business to deliver on sustainability

Companies like HP and Levi Strauss use partnerships to bring accountability to ambitious climate goals.

By Mike Walker — February 25, 2021

This story originally appeared on Bloomberg Green. 


When Mindy Lubber started working at the sustainability nonprofit Ceres 18 years ago, she invited executives at top companies to attend a climate-risk summit for investors. Some companies sent an intern instead. Back then, sustainability just wasn’t on their agenda.

Today, she regularly takes calls from CEOs asking for invitations to Ceres’ summits.

“There’s been a sea change in how investors and companies look at sustainability,” says Lubber, who is now CEO of Ceres, which helps CEOs and CFOs at leading Fortune 500 companies achieve sustainability goals. 

The challenge now is turning these commitments into tangible action and creating systemic change throughout organizations and sectors. Despite good intentions, research by Ceres and Vigeo Eiris found that just 2% of the 600 largest companies in the US have set targets that are in step with the latest science and on a path to keep warming to no more than 1.5 ºC.

The Ceres Roadmap 2030 helps companies to set both interim and long-term goals and help navigate the accelerated transition to a more just, equitable and sustainable economy.

“Anyone who just sets a long-term goal is not setting goals,” Lubber says. “Net zero is going to take short-term and medium-term goals, and there needs to be accountability."

Building an ecosystem for accountability

Companies taking leadership positions in sustainability, like Levi Strauss & Co. and HP, realize that alone they can’t make the necessary impact on climate and human rights, and they are building ecosystems with their partner networks to accelerate change and grow their businesses.

HP’s commitment to Sustainable Impact has become a difference maker for the business, driving more than $1 billion in new sales for the second year in a row. For Christoph Schell, HP’s Chief Commercial Officer, innovation in sustainability and social justice is a competitive advantage and a key driver in the company’s goal to be the most sustainable and just company in technology by 2030.

“In the same way that I track production innovation and pricing competitiveness, I am now tracking whether I am competitive, relative to my peer set, on sustainability and on social justice,” Schell says. “It’s become a feature of how we track opportunities and how we track success.”

Today, customers and stakeholders are holding companies accountable for meeting their sustainability commitments across their operations. HP does 88% of its business through its partners, Schell says, and the vast majority of these partners don’t have in-house experts on sustainability and social justice. Ultimately, he says, companies needs to hold themselves and their partners accountable — for the good of the planet and their business.

Green planted tiles with trees and windmills growing on it to illustrate the environment and its need for sustainability.

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Sustainability-directed investing now represents about 45% of all professionally managed assets around the world.

To accelerate progress, HP has launched  HP Amplify Impact, an industry-first partner assessment, resource and training program aimed at driving meaningful change on the company’s three Sustainable Impact pillars of planet, people, and community:

Planet: Drive toward a net zero carbon, fully regenerative circular economy while creating the industry’s most sustainable portfolio of technology, services and solutions.

People: Respecting human rights, enabling people across the value chain to thrive and cultivating a diverse, equitable and inclusive culture. 

Community: Empower communities through the power of technology and help eliminate the digital divide that prevents too many from accessing the education, jobs and health care needed to thrive.

“It’s time for bold action in our industry,” says Schell. “Our goal is to work with our partners to help drive a more circular and low-carbon economy, cultivate a more diverse, inclusive and equitable supply chain and improve the vitality and resilience of local communities.” 

HP Amplify Impact will help partners that don’t have a sustainability plan in place to develop a long-term sustainability strategy. For partners who are already on a sustainability path, HP will helps develop bold, long-term objectives and provide guidance on achieving these goals. The program gives HP’s partners access to HP’s extensive investments and resources to help them optimize sustainability-driven sales and opportunities.

“We are really convinced that the partners who will invest with us on this will win more business.”

—Christoph Schell, Chief Commercial Officer, HP Inc.

Companies that build actions to help stabilize the climate, preserve natural resources and build a more just and equitable economy into their strategic and operating plans will be better positioned for success in the coming decade, according to the Ceres Roadmap 2030.

“We are really convinced that the partners who will invest with us on this will win more business,” Schell says. “If the end customers choose their services because of differentiators around sustainability and planet and people, then our partners will go for it. And we want to enable that.”

‘Unconventional collaboration’ accelerates sustainability

Levi Strauss & Co. has long been a leader in sustainability, introducing guidelines in the early 1990s to support progress on workers’ rights and environmental issues across the apparel industry.

More recently, the company has set climate goals that are among the most aggressive in the industry, and its sustainability innovations in products and processes include its “Water<Less” finishing techniques, use of alternative fibers like “cottonized” hemp and advanced 3D digital design rendering.

Levi Strauss & Co. Chief Sustainability Officer Jeffrey Hogue says these commitments build a stronger supply chain and meet the rising demand of stakeholders, including consumers and employees, for the most sustainable products and socially responsible conduct.

“Our sustainability programming is not only the right thing to do — it’s good business, something that’s being recognized, thankfully, by a growing number of brands and investors alike,” says Hogue.

An ecosystem that includes windmills, forests, water, and solar panels to demonstrate the world's sustainability and eco-friendly efforts.

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83% of Levi’s cotton now comes from more sustainable sources, and the company’s “Water<less” finishing technique has saved more than 3.5 billion liters of water compared to traditional finishing processes.

The growing awareness of the importance of the business value of sustainability and ESG (environmental, social and governance) factors demands more than just announcing new target commitments or joining disparate pledges, and Levi Strauss & Co. is looking beyond its own operations to achieve meaningful progress on sustainability.

“We must reach the intersection between singular impact and unconventional collaboration,” Hogue says. “To create scale and impact in the global supply chain, it’s imperative that we work together with our suppliers, partners and even our competitors to deliver solutions that get us where we need to be.”

The supply chain is the main source of Levi Strauss & Co.’s environmental and social footprint, and the company works at every stage of the cultivation, design, manufacturing and distribution process to introduce more sustainable practices, says Hogue. These include working to source more sustainable cotton while developing alternative materials, and setting water use and carbon emissions targets for suppliers.

Hogue adds that sharing knowledge is a two-way street, and that Levi Strauss & Co. learns from its innovative supplier partners, as well.

“We’ve worked with many of our partners for more than a decade and collaborate intensively,” Hogue says. “That’s critical, because in a supply chain, you need the various pieces working together. The more we do that, the more successful we can be.”

The new baseline for values-driven companies

Ceres’ Lubber says she’s seeing more companies taking a stand in support of sustainability and equality as the pandemic has focused attention on the urgency of addressing these issues.

Companies and their customers are becoming more aware of their responsibility to the planet and their communities, and this awareness is creating a new baseline for sustainability — and a greater responsibility for companies to be values-driven.

In the last year, the number of the world’s largest companies committing to net zero emissions targets — meaning they will eliminate as much of the greenhouse gases (GHGs) as they produce — tripled to 1,500, a clear indication that sustainability is fast becoming a core business concern.

“We still have our work cut out for us, but there’s no question that we are starting in a very different place than even one year ago,” Lubber says. “Covid did teach us about the crushing impact of a systemic crisis, and climate will have an even bigger impact. We’ve got to act as an economy and society or we’ll get crushed again as we are by Covid right now.”


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