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ASCM Insights

Al Gore Talks Sustainable Business

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Editor’s note: Al Gore is former vice president of the United States; founder and chairman of The Climate Reality Project; an independent director at Apple; and chairman of Generation Investment Management, an asset-management company incorporating sustainability values into the financial services world. He will join supply chain professionals from around the world in New Orleans, September 13-15, as the keynote speaker at ASCM CONNECT.

In 2007, Mr. Gore received the Nobel Peace Prize for informing the world of the dangers posed by climate change. An environmental, business and tech visionary, he is recognized as one of the world's leading activists and uniquely in touch with the opportunities and challenges associated with charting a new digital society. Time magazine called him “a businessman who is out to change the world.”

SCM Now Editor-in-Chief Elizabeth Rennie recently interviewed Mr. Gore about the digital revolution, corporate social responsibility in supply chains, key technological advances that can help organizations achieve sustainability goals, and more.

Rennie: You are known for being an environmental activist, but you are also a serial entrepreneur, founding companies such as Generation Investment Management, which is focused on another kind of sustainability — business sustainability. The ASCM Enterprise Certification is the industry’s first and only corporate supply chain designation that measures social responsibility, economic sustainability and ecological stewardship. What specific indicators do you recommend looking for when evaluating business sustainability?

Gore: I believe we are in the early stages of a global sustainability revolution, with the scale and impact of the industrial revolution, at the speed of the digital revolution. This revolution has the potential to reshape the world, transforming our relationship to businesses, to the environment and to each other.

As you noted, there's a range of criteria to define a sustainable company. A few important ones include the following: 

  • Do its practices, products and services drive revenues, profitability and competitive positioning?
  • Does it avoid borrowing its current earnings from its future earnings?
  • Does it operate its business consistent with a low-carbon, equitable, safe and healthy society?
  • Does it not compromise returns, instead realizing the benefits and advantages of sustainable practices in its strategy?
  • And does it exhibit strong [environmental, social and corporate governance] factors, including diversity, worker happiness, et cetera?

Rennie: The networks that connect and enable these businesses are integral to their ability to be sustainable. What are some of the most promising ways you have seen this happening in recent years?

Gore: Companies are reinventing transportation through electric cars and buses and other forms of transportation; agriculture through more precise applications of inputs and alternatives to meat. Applying digital tools reduces energy consumption, better integrates renewable energy into electrical grids and retools workplaces for greater productivity. I see supply chain optimization as a critical pathway to better efficiency and, with it, fewer emissions and improved outputs.

Indeed, the drivers of economic change are not only integrally linked to sustainability factors, but will also continue to be increasingly dominated by them moving forward, ultimately driving investment returns. The entire spectrum of industry — ranging from mobility to food systems to the built environment — are being fundamentally reworked.

Rennie: In the pages of SCM Now magazine, we talk a lot about the power of procurement and recent fundamental shifts in expectations when it comes to corporate social responsibility. Whether you are a consumer buying the weekly groceries or a manufacturer selecting a tier 2 supplier, your choices send a message. In many ways, business leaders seem to be able to make more progress than political leaders. How can supply chain organizations propel upstream action through this type of engagement and transparency?

Gore: Supply chain organizations can develop stringent and achievable criteria for sustainability and emissions reductions, and then base business decisions off that criteria. They can choose to work only with organizations that are committed to solutions to the climate crisis and that have a business plan that accounts for the increasing strain that the crisis is putting on people and the planet’s resources.

Supply chain organizations can also encourage disclosure of [greenhouse gas] emissions that are responsible for warming our planet. Disclosure of emissions is critical to measuring and reducing emissions up and down any supply chain. It gives you better visibility into actions that suppliers are taking. And, perhaps above all, transparency always is critical to building trust across the value chain.

Rennie: Solar power and wind energy are fundamentally changing the marketplace and significantly reducing carbon emissions. In fact, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the fastest-growing occupation is solar photovoltaic installer, followed closely by wind turbine service technician. What should supply chain organizations be doing to maximize the potential of these and other important advances?

Gore: It is true that the biggest source of new jobs is in solving the climate crisis. Over the past five years, solar jobs have grown five times faster than the economy as a whole. In addition to the growth you cited in solar and wind jobs, we can also create tens of millions of new jobs retrofitting buildings with LED light bulbs, better windows and better insulation — and those jobs would pay for themselves with lower heating and cooling bills in just a few years. Innovations in industry, including new business models based on the circular economy, are creating momentum in the private sector for a holistic rethinking of the way we do business.

Rennie: You are also a big advocate of regenerative farming. What can supply chain organizations do to highlight this opportunity for public policy makers, incentivize farmers and help the practice take hold?

Gore: I’m particularly excited about recent advances in regenerative farming, a new movement being led by farmers who are cultivating the land in a way that restores soil health and removes excess carbon from the atmosphere, thereby reducing the effects of the climate crisis. In fact, a recent analysis of nearly 64,000 acres of Midwestern farmland after the flooding in summer 2019 found that fields with more intensive conservation practices — like cover crops and reduced tillage — had a significantly higher success rate of plantings by improving water storage capacity in the soil.

Supply chain organizations can help advance these solutions by sending a clear message to the marketplace that sustainability and efficiency are required for business. That will incent potential partners to build clean energy technologies into their businesses. Additionally, I encourage all organizations to push for local, state and federal policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and that support renewable energy development.

Rennie: What did it mean to you to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for informing the world of the dangers posed by climate change — and more importantly, how have you used that honor to amplify your message?

Gore: Receiving the Nobel Peace Prize was especially significant for me because I had the honor of sharing it with the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change], the world’s preeminent body of improving our understanding of the climate crisis. It also had a big impact on my ability to reach a broader set of audiences and recruit more people around the world to join humanity’s urgent imperative to help solve the climate crisis. For that, I am forever grateful.

Rennie: If you were still in government, what would be the top three items on your to-do list?

Gore: First and foremost, we are long overdue in ending the taxpayer-funded subsidies for coal and other fossil fuels. We need to reform our subsidies system away from bad practices and toward good ones, with flexibility to implement sustainable practices that make sense for each industry and region.

We also need to put a price on carbon. Every day, we spew 152 million tons of global warming pollution into the atmosphere as if it were an open sewer. For too long, industry polluters have been able to pour these dangerous emissions into our atmosphere without any consequence or any accounting of the impact on our health and well-being.

And we must develop policies that account for those disproportionately affected by pollution in minority and low-income communities across America. The statistics underscoring the disproportionate impact on these vulnerable populations should anger every American. Any policy that’s put in place, but especially any that address environmental protection, must also address equity and protection of frontline communities.

Former Vice President Al Gore will present his keynote speech at ASCM CONNECT, September 13-15, in New Orleans. Attend the leading supply chain conference, designed to connect you with the global supply chain community, industry best practices, new ways of thinking, and endless ways to advance your organization and career. Visit ascm.org/conference to learn more and register today. 

About the Author

Elizabeth Rennie Editor-in-Chief, SCM Now magazine, ASCM

Elizabeth Rennie is Editor-in-Chief of SCM Now. She may be contacted at editorial@ascm.org.

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