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Sustainability: The new normal for business

Today, the World Economic Forum will host what is billed as “the world’s largest brainstorming meeting” – the Summit on the Global Agenda. Eight hundred leaders from the world’s business, political and academic communities will discuss ways to foster sustainable business practices to help build a “greener and socially more inclusive world.”

The topic of focus at this year’s forum underscores how far the concept of sustainability has come in business circles. OPIC President and CEO Elizabeth Littlefield spoke about this progress last month when she told the Global Corporate Citizenship Conference that sustainability was no longer the “new kid on the block” in emerging markets. Rather, she said, it was “the new normal.”

Littlefield, who delivered her speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Business Civic Leadership Center in October, noted that major companies and small businesses alike are taking a forward-leaning posture on sustainability because they understand it is not only good for the world, but for business.

Littlefield offered statistics about population growth to make her point. When a child born today reaches the age of 18, there will be 3 billion people in the world’s middle class. Many of those people will be pursuing occupations and consuming goods that are far more energy – and resource – intensive than any other generation in the history of humanity. In fact, energy consumption will be as much as 35-45 percent higher than it is today. Agricultural production will need to double in order to feed everybody.

She said that while businesses may not be able to solve the world’s sustainability issues, they can become part of the solution. OPIC supports many U.S. businesses investing in sustainable economic development in emerging markets. Recently, the agency forged a partnership with Marriott International Inc., to build new environmentally sustainable hotel development in growth markets in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean – regions of the world in which water and energy resources may be limited. In the long-term, this project will create opportunities for people to build lifelong careers, support local businesses and offering a multiplier effect in the local community by protecting and sustaining the resources in the area.

Protecting the world’s resources often means protecting and saving the lives of those who need the support most. Currently, 3 billion people in the world use inefficient stoves to cook their food. In many developing countries, where there is no access to power or not enough money to buy an appliance, cooking often entails the most basic of instruments – an open flame and a makeshift stove. These are difficult to manage, dangerous and bad for the environment, in addition to being a major global health problem. According to the World Health Organization, indoor air pollution kills 2 million people every year and even more are harmed by accidents. Collecting fuel for these stoves involves time that could be spent getting ahead through education, or developing small businesses for additional household income.

Through The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a public-private partnership led by the UN Foundation, OPIC was able to provide a $10 million loan to Seattle-based MicroEnergy Credits to help assist qualified microfinance institutions launch and expand clean energy lending programs. The programs aim to significantly increase the availability of microfinance capital for low-income populations to afford quality clean energy products, such as energy efficient, clean cookstoves.

In her October speech, Littlefield stressed that commitment to the kind of sustainability that enhances the long-term shareholder value, and the health of the planet and its people, needs to be intrinsic, not coincidental. Rather than talking about a “triple bottom line,” businesses, she said, should focus on a single bottom line that encompasses social, environmental and financial activities as one linked goal.

“If we care about sustainability, we need to think long and hard about how to address short-term thinking in a world where you can track stock prices by the second and CEOs come and go according to quarterly financial reports. We need to think long and hard about how to address human impatience and our society of immediate gratification,” Littlefield said.

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