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Sustainability Takes Centre Stage at the Special Expo 2020 Dubai Edition of the Canon Frontiers of Innovation Series

Corporate sustainability moves from the sidelines to center stage; Big businesses embracing a triple bottom line see positive business returns; Growing commitment by corporates to helping achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); Increasing scrutiny – how are companies measuring up?

What are big businesses doing to build a better future?

More than you may realize. Although there has been widespread concern that environmental issues and global inequality would be placed on the back burner as a result of COVID-19, it appears many corporates have shifted sustainability from the sidelines to the center stage.

Corporate sustainability in practice was under the microscope at a special Expo 2020 Dubai edition of the Canon Frontiers of Innovation thought-leadership series, featuring Unilever’s Head of Corporate Affairs & Sustainability, Priya Sarma Muthur and Canon EMEA’s Sustainability & Government Affairs Director, Peter Bragg.

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At Unilever, a ‘Sustainable Living Plan’ places sustainability at the heart of business strategy and operations. “More than 2.5 billion people use Unilever products each day,” explains Muthur. “We made a strategic decision to use our scale to help consumers and the planet.”

According to Bragg, the philosophy of ‘Kyosei’, a Japanese word meaning ‘living and working together for the common good’, has been central to Canon’s operations for over thirty years. “Whilst the principles are nothing new, there is a growing sense of urgency to drive the  sustainability agenda, from product development and manufacture to service.”

Ethical Equals Resilient when it comes to Sustainability

The World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Risk Report highlights that the world’s top five risks are environmental – extreme weather events, natural disasters, climate change, human damage to the environment, and major biodiversity loss. To make a real impact, corporate sustainability has to look beyond the core business. “These risks impact our people, customers, and suppliers,” says Bragg. It’s not enough to drive change only for ourselves, we have to drive it across our entire operation. Ethical supply chains are proven to be more resilient.”

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Muthur strongly agrees, “We are working to specifically prevent risk across the supply chain at scale. For example, climate change is a concern for tea production, and we are one of the largest buyers of tea in the world.”

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From a Linear to a Circular Economy

Companies are seeking viable ways to shift from a throwaway to a circular economy. Canon pioneered recycling printer cartridges more than 30 years ago; today every product is designed to be efficient and remain in use for as long as possible, through remanufacturing, refurbishing and recycling. Unilever has committed to be net-zero by 2039 with an ambitious Clean Future Strategy and a billion-euro reforestation program. “We are innovating design so that 100% of packaging is recyclable, renewable or compostable by 2025,” explains Muthur. “Already in the MENA region, 70% of our packaging is ‘recycle ready’, meaning it can be recycled if the infrastructure exists.”

Sustainability Under Scrutiny

Allegations of greenwashing and low consumer trust in brands mean that companies are under pressure to demonstrate credible results. The demand not only comes from consumers – at the G7 Summit, global finance leaders called for standardized measurement of corporate impact on climate and the environment, as well as mandatory disclosure of exposure to climate-related risks.

Until standards are set, corporates adopt different approaches to measure success. “The SDGs are a universal framework and a useful tool to set targets and assess performance,” says Bragg, who is in favor of scrutiny from independent bodies. “Canon invites EcoVadis, and CDP to examine and score our performance. 2021 was the sixth consecutive year we received a gold rating from EcoVadis, placing us within the top 3% of companies globally in terms of environmental practices.”

For Muthur, Unilever’s ambitious targets ensure focus. “Our goal was to be 100% zero-energy by 2020, which we achieved in 2019, followed by recognition with first place in the GlobeScan Sustainability Leaders Report 2021.

What’s Good for the Planet Is Good for Business

It’s official: commitment to people and the planet benefits the bottom line. A recent report from Deloitte found that 46% of businesses surveyed had experienced revenue growth as a result of their sustainability efforts. They also reported more resilient supply chains, increased efficiency, improved interactions between stakeholders and better financial performance.

From a consumer perspective, it’s well documented that people are willing to spend more on eco-friendly products and will stop buying products that are not. Yet, there are some misconceptions about the financial impact of bringing sustainability to the fore, which Muthur is keen to dispel. “Sustainability makes us more competitive,” she says. “Of our 400+ brands, the ones with the strongest purpose are growing the fastest. It also helps us attract the best talent and has been instrumental in forming strong partnerships with businesses, governments and NPOs. It’s a win-win.”

Expo 2020 Dubai – Showcasing a More Sustainable Future

It’s no coincidence the conversation took place at Expo 2020 Dubai in the ‘Terra’ Sustainability Pavilion, which is designed to be 100% self-sustaining. The expected 25 million visitors to the pavilion will be challenged to look at the world in new ways. “We are showing a potential future,” explained ‘Terra’ Director, John Bull. “By helping people reconnect with nature we hope they will be inspired to join us in working to overcome the enormity of the challenges.”

Expo 2020 Dubai and Canon will be hosting Frontiers of Innovation talks every month until March 2022.

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