3 Takeaways From The Fortune Global Sustainability Forum

By Woody Chan 18 October, 2019

CWR's Chan was impressed by the positivity & action but is still sceptical - is it enough? What's next?

Our Yangtze panel was well recieved with party officials & MNR/MEE reps in attendance plus good coverage by Fortune; we warned Yangtze clean up will have global impacts & biz are capitalising
For food tech Impossible Foods is leading the way while renewables could account for 80% of global electricity supply by 2050; also strong push for redesigning plastics beyond recycling
Tech is clearly here but there are gaps to be filled for green to grow up; consumer education, business awareness of tech & better economics might be the keys to drive business unusual

Earlier in September, CWR was invited to the inaugural Fortune Global Sustainability Forum at the picturesque Fuxian Lake in Yunnan province, China. There was much going on at the forum and we wish we could have covered it sooner but we were busy with releasing two reports on the Greater Bay Area and Yangtze River.

At the forum, we had the opportunity to talk about our Yangtze report at the opening plenary session “Reviving the Yangtze: The Campaign to Clean up China’s Vital Waterway” and also sit on a panel afterwards with Ma Jun, director of IPE and respected leader in China’s environmental community. It was clearly a good place to speak on the topic, as not only were representatives from the Yunnan government present, party officials from the central government and decision makers from the MNR and MEE were also in attendance. All in all, we were pleased to receive extensive coverage from Fortune (see the box below for more) and a lot of interest from the audience.

It was clearly a good place to speak on the Yangtze report…

…as officials from the Yunnan govt, party officials plus the MNR & MEE were at the forum

CWR coverage by Fortune 

If you don’t feel like reading the articles you can also watch the entire Yangtze presentation and panel by clicking here.

Separately, we also moderated the “Future of Water” breakout session. For an hour and a half, the session brought together influential stakeholders who can drive change – from water experts like Prof. Asit Biswas, Cecilia Tortajada and Aditi Mukherji to water sector professionals such as Arnaud Penverne from Veolia and industry leaders such as Marjorie Yang from Esquel. Read more about what they had to say from Fortune here.

The very fact that a big magazine like Fortune is organizing shows how much sustainability has entered the mainstream

On the whole, the feeling of the forum certainly echoed the theme of the forum – “Green Grows Up”. Everywhere we looked there was abundant motivation to push action and exciting innovation, be they in water, climate change, electric vehicles or green supply chains. The very fact that a big magazine like Fortune is organizing also shows how much sustainability has entered the mainstream.

What also stood out was the focus on President Xi’s  mantra of “green mountains and clear water are equal to mountains of gold and silver”. Nowhere is this more important than the Yangtze River Economic Belt, which is not only China’s rice bowl but also its industrial heartland; plus it accounts for over three-quarters of China’s hydropower generation. Its clean up could have global impacts and below are three areas where businesses are capitalizing on the opportunities:

1. Food – tech the way forward but consumers need to come around

Feeding more people with increasingly less resources is one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century. Thankfully, food tech is advancing rapidly, as the founder and CEO of Impossible Foods Patrick Brown was on hand to share. His aim is to completely replace animals in the food supply chain with plant-based meat by 2035.

In particular, he remarks that entering the Chinese market is a challenge and opportunity, as Chinese while consumers’ appetite for meat is strong, a genetically modified ingredient still has to be registered in China.

“The rate at which this environmental catastrophe of the impact of animals in the food system is unfolding is so incredibly urgent that if we don’t completely replace the system by 2035 we are going to be in terrible shape.”

-Patrick Brown, Founder & CEO of Impossible Foods

From robots to big data-driven decision making tools, tech is the answer for more efficient & sustainable agriculture

Elsewhere at the “Future of Food” breakout session, similar sentiments were shared. From farming robots to big data-driven decision making tools, many in attendance believed technology is the answer for more efficient and sustainable agriculture.

The challenge then is for consumers to choose the product. Some believed that consumer education is key to making that happen; while others saw it as less about changing habits but more about attractive sustainable foods.

2. Renewables – positivity from top-down & businesses in China & abroad

There was overwhelming positivity regarding renewables, especially solar PV, at the forum. According to Jiang Kejun of China’s Energy Research Institute, an affiliate of the country’s economic-planning body, the NDRC, solar energy is already cheaper than electricity from coal in certain parts of the globe.

Norwegian hydropower giant Statkraft claimed renewables could account for 80% of global electricity supply by 2050

It’s not just top-down promotion – renewable expansions are business-led. On the opening day, Norwegian hydropower giant Statkraft rebuked Dow Chemicals CEO Jim Fitterling’s pessimism on renewable projections and sees renewables accounting for 80% of global electricity supply by 2050. At the “Future of Energy” breakout session, the chairman of LONGi Green Energy Technology claimed that China could fully sustain itself on clean energy should 50,000km2 of land – representing 3% of the country’s desert area – be set aside for installing solar power capacity.

Meanwhile, clean tech investors shared the optimism, noting that China’s breakthrough in renewables is bringing forth a new asset class that draws significant investments from abroad.

“Renewable energy is moving in a direction where it has stabilised with predictable returns.”

-Priscilla Lu, Managing Director, Sustainable Investment Alternatives, DWS


3. Plastics and waste – early controversy & top down buy-in

Plastics raised early controversy when Dow Chemicals CEO Jim Fitterling countered the backlash against plastic, arguing it is the “most sustainable and environmentally friendly material that’s out there,” and adding that aluminum, steel, and glass all take significantly more energy to produce and recycle.

Recyling is just a stopgap; the next step is to stop making plastics altogether

This unsurprisingly led to an impassioned rebuttal from Tony Fadell, the man who co-developed the iPod and the iPhone. His view was that plastics are not a waste management problem and he argued strongly against commonly proposed solutions to the plastic crisis, such as recycling, incineration, and bioplastics.

The way forward for him? Creating a new, truly biodegradable material that can decompose and the next step: stop making plastic altogether.

Moreover, William McDonough, one of the earliest advocates of the Circular Economy was also on hand to share his ideas. Among other things he argued “we don’t want to talk about products, such as your mobile phone, in terms of end-of-life. We want to talk about end-of-use. Because that begs the question: what is the next use?” Later he also sat on a panel with cutting-edge Dutch artist and designer Daan Roosegaarde, who called for more imagination in creating a greener world.

“People talk about creating a less bad future… being less bad is not being good. We are looking for a future that is good.”

-William McDonough, author of “Cradle of Cradle” on circular design

The good news is that brands are waking up to the problem and taking action. French beverage company Pernod Ricard, the maker of Absolut vodka, is aiming to eliminate plastics from its promotional materials by 2025. Nike, likewise, has launched vegan sneakers made from upcycled sawdust, recycled foam and organic cotton.

“I think that’s really the strong message we’re giving to investors… if you’re building brands for the long-term, and when you’ve got brands like Chivas Regal and Martell that are 300 years old, you have to sustain them and you have to build them in the right way for the future.”

-Vanessa Wright, Vice President for Sustainability, Pernod Ricard

The innovations are here already but something is amiss…

…gaps like consumer education & business awareness have to be filled for green to fully grow up

Clearly there was much going on but is it enough? Yes there were a lot of technologies and ideas on show but does that really make us ready for the new risk landscape we are charging headlong into? The innovations are here already but something is amiss. For some sectors like food it may be a lack of consumer education; for others new tech needs a better economic model and more business buy-in; while some do not even know the tech is possible.

The truth is for green to fully grow up and business-as-usual to change, these gaps have to be filled and we are here to help.

Further Reading

  • “Basin Winner”: A Sustainable Education Board Game – Managing rivers and balancing trade-offs can be difficult but ‘Basin Winner’ makes it a lot more fun. The game’s co-developer Zhiqiang Chen from Greencity shares more on pilots and next steps
  • Blue Peace Index 2019 – Water is a geopolitical risk. What is the real state of transboundary river cooperation? What are the best practices? Economist Intelligence Unit’s Matus Samel & Beth Warne introduce the Blue Peace Index (BPI) which explores these issues in 5 basins across 24 countries
  • Stormwater Recovery For A Healthy Sydney – Every drop counts. Star Water’s tech to clean and reuse stormwater keeps Sydney healthy plus saves water costs. Find out how from their CEO Christopher Rochfort in three case studies
  • Building Flood Resilience For Hong Kong – HK is the rainiest city in the Pacific Rim and with the threat of climate change, it’s heading for a wetter future. The Drainage Services Department’s senior engineer Patrick Chan shares the city’s strategies to improve flood resilience
  • Rising Drought Risks In The Era Of Climate Crisis – With agriculture and power most at risk from drought, what should businesses do? Can individuals push them to action? We sat down with Juliane Vatter from WWF as she expands from their latest report
  • Too Big To Fail! Protect At All Costs – Multiple policy innovations have been unleashed to protect the Yangtze River as it is too big to fail – corporates and investors need to get on top of the YREB to avoid regulatory shocks
  • China’s Renewable Energy Quotas – China is releasing its first ever renewable energy quotas along with Renewable Energy Power Certificates to improve trading; see what these mean for provinces & renewable enterprises with China Water Risk’s Yuanchao Xu
  • Diet, Food Waste & Kids In 5 Graphics – Agriculture emits as much greenhouse gas as electricity and this needs to change. CWR’s Woody Chan sees 3 ways to reduce this, from changing diets and cutting food waste to fewer kids
  • Food Revolution 5.0: Digital Printing Meat – Food Revolution 5.0., clean meat… Hong Kong is there. Get the latest from Professor Kenneth Lee of Chinese University of Hong Kong and hear more on his 3D printed foie gras
Woody Chan
Author: Woody Chan
Woody Chan leads corporate social responsibility and sustainability initiatives at foodpanda, strengthening its commitment to grow sustainably with its ecosystem of riders, merchants, and consumers. As an advocate for environmental sustainability, Woody has also participated in various speaking engagements, from TEDx talks and university seminars to industry forums and panels.
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