In July 2008, a year after I became Chief Executive of WWF-UK, I travelled to Colombia to see some of our work there. One of the visits I made was to Bavaria, where the SABMiller company that has around 98 percent of domestic beer production. I was impressed with the interest the company had in the reliability and quality of its water supply, and in engaging with the local communities. Here’s what I found out…
We initially worked with SABMiller through jointly pioneering water footprinting techniques, which identified where water is used within the company’s value chain, and improving the stewardship of water as a critical resource.
Since 2009, our joint Water Futures Partnership has broken new ground in terms of active stewardship of water in order to reduce business and environmental risks. But our work on water with SABMiller was just one part of a wider programme of work undertaken by the company through its ‘Ten Priorities: One Future’ sustainability plan, set in 2007. As part of ‘ten priorities’, in addition to the target to reduce the amount of water required to produce its beers, the company sought to:
- Reduce waste – towards zero
- Improve packaging and encourage re-use and recycling; and
- Reduce energy use and the carbon footprint of emissions across its value chain.
… This was in addition to setting itself targets to contribute to the wellbeing of communities – and on transparency and ethics – and respecting human rights.
Based on SAB’s own ‘Sustainability Assessment Matrix’, it has delivered on these targets, achieving ‘best practice’ or better across the ten priorities, which deserves congratulations. But those 10 priorities were structured around many of the usual sustainability subjects: carbon emissions, water usage, etc. So, in that context, it was particularly encouraging to hear today about SABMiller’s new framework for their thinking and action: ‘Prosper’. For me, I’d like to respond in three ways to ‘Prosper’ – to recognise its ambition, appreciate its scale and pose the challenge of commitment.
I see that the journey from ‘ten priorities’ to ‘five worlds’ hasn’t involved any reduction in SABMiller’s ambition – quite the reverse. As well as the environmental and social benefits, I’m confident that there is clear business opportunity to be grasped by improving sustainability.
But I’m particularly struck by the imperative – the drivers – behind the plan’s ambition: an awareness of the risks and pressures that impact their business, coupled with a desire to become more efficient, and to lead among peers.
SABMiller is a global business, but one that is closely tied to local communities – socially, economically and environmentally. ‘Prosper’ recognises the opportunity, and the imperative, of achieving ‘impacts at scales’ (and I use the plural deliberately), from being able to improve the livelihoods of an individual vendor, to the community in which she lives, to the economy-level within her country. This is a truly local-to-global vision – essential in an increasingly interconnected world.
So, in warmly welcoming the ambition of ‘Prosper’ and the scales at which it seeks to make an impact, I wanted to pose a challenge.
From Sir Ian Cheshire at the Kingfisher Group, Paul Polman at Unilever, Muhtar Kent at Coca-Cola, Sir Stuart Rose and now Marc Bolland at M&S, there are an increasing number of business leaders who recognise that sustainability is not just a niche pursuit of Corporate Sustainability managers, but is also good for business. Or more to the point, good for the triple bottom lines of true sustainability: economic, social and environmental.
I’m delighted that SABMiller has embraced this approach and articulated a strong vision – and commitment – to sustainability through ‘Prosper’. But this plan will need the active commitment not only of the CEO but also of the whole of the Executive Committee and Group senior management, as well as many thousands more throughout SABMiller’s global operations, to achieve the ambitious targets SABMiller have set themselves.
But SABMiller’s track record to date gives me confidence that they will be able to deliver on this vision. And I’m confident that they will see real business benefits – as well as social and environmental returns – in doing so. This is a vision that recognises that sustainability is central to delivering prosperity – for businesses, as well as for people and nature.
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