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After holding a series of sustainability-focused events over recent years in its hometown of London, The Economist magazine came to Austin, TX, earlier this month to host its first U.S. Sustainability Summit. The summit aimed to bring together “business executives, policy makers, investors, and critical thinkers to discuss the technological adaptations that a sustainable future require” and featured speakers with a diverse range of backgrounds and perspectives: from a Bulgarian poet and an Olympic gold-medalist to a Presidential advisor and an expert on farming in Ghana.
Uniting the attendees was a belief in the possibility, if not the necessity, of creating an environmentally and socially sustainable global economy. There was widespread optimism for a sustainable future, which could benefit businesses and investors at the same time as it improved the lives of billions around the world.
Austin joined over 1400 U.S. cities that have pledged to achieve the goals laid out in the Accords, regardless of federal policy changes. Many of the Summit’s speakers lauded the importance of these moves by local communities as well as the evolving role of business leaders.
The Bay Area is poised to take a leading role in the sustainable future. Speaking on a panel title, “What Capital Wants,” Jay Lipman, co-founder of the San Francisco-based sustainable investment startup Ethic, posited that “The government is not going to step in and make sure the environment is ok, so people are now seeing a personal accountability that they never saw before.” Another SF-based panelist, Cynthia Ringo of DBL Partners concurred, claiming that “states and municipalities are still committed,” and, just as significantly, “Corporate America, for the most part, is still highly committed, and for really good business reasons as opposed to regulatory requirement.”
California businesses figured prominently in discussions of sustainable development, although not always for positive reasons. Responding to a question about the net impact of Uber on the transportation networks of cities, a major source of carbon emissions, panelist Ion Yadigaroglu noted that “you get different answers from different mayors.”
Richard Waycott, president of the California Almond Board, defended the state’s almond growers, who have come under attack for their water-intensive farming practices. Agriculture stands “at the nexus of nutrition and sustainability,” he claimed, and will necessarily take the lead in future innovation. Pointing out that, by 2014, almonds had become California’s most valuable agricultural export and accounted for 82 percent of the world’s crop, Waycott emphasized the impossibility of separating growth and profitability from questions of sustainability.
At least one local business won unambiguous praise. Featured speaker and former Chief of Staff to President Clinton, John Podesta, called out Marin-based Equator Coffees & Teas as a sterling example of a successful and effective “B Corp” or benefit corporation. While still seeking to turn a profit, a benefit corporation adds targets for making a positive impact on the environment, workers and the community to its legally defined goals, and in 2011, Equator was the first coffee roaster in the U.S. to become a certified B Corp.
The next Sustainability Summit will be held this November in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, evidence of the global interest in sustainability issues. But no matter what or where technological, economic or political developments around sustainability occur, Bay Area companies and thought leaders are certain to be on the leading edge.
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