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Reflections on the Pathways to Impact conference

A personal perspective from a young sustainability professional

Ten years ago I attended a premiere viewing of “Inconvenient truth” – a movie that created a legacy and formed an entire new generation of climate activists. This was my first encounter with climate change and the dire consequences it brings. This emotional experience would steer me to seek rational and professional solutions to save the Earth. As I began this journey, it seemed an uphill battle…unlikely that business was willing or able to consider much beyond profit.

Today, as a Master in Environmental Management graduate from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, I feel truly empowered.  My once improbable hope for businesses to look beyond profit is inspiringly the core of existence at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and the US Business Council for Sustainable Development. Participating in the Pathways to Impact conference in mid-June was, among other things, a justification of my career choice.

The presence of diverse stakeholders from the private and public sectors, academic institutions, financiers and investors all in one room can provide a true roadmap to how responsible business can be conducted. Brainstorming and collaborating on common solutions to the challenges of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, reusing materials and incentivizing investments in natural habitat preservation and conservation is a steady step forward toward collective impact, although there is still a long way to go.

Some key insights I took away from the event:

--It is certainly an exciting trend that in many companies, the C-suite is on board with combating climate change and operationalizing sustainable practices.  However, creating company-wide awareness and engaging employees is challenging, and so is implementing a bottom-up approach in persuading top decision makers. Additionally, it is clear that sustainability and finance departments of big companies need to engage more deliberately: meet more often, communicate more clearly and work together to achieve material progress.

--Companies are truly global and many are successfully achieving transparency in the supply chain.  But bringing suppliers into the dialogue on sustainable practices is another milestone for the business leaders of today and tomorrow to reach. To help move companies in that direction, Sustainable Leadership Purchasing Council and EcoVadis presented their initiatives at the conference, which will be instrumental in creating more transparency in supply chains.

--To me, Pathways to Impact presented a holistic view of the sustainability scene. Investors are an indelible part of the effort to move toward a low-carbon intensive economy. Aligning the understanding of risk, return and value creation is a crucial step to bring in private capital to support innovative initiatives.

--Expanding the investable universe and creating projects that quantify the value of nature is a key milestone toward incentives alignment.  Building on positive examples such as the Louisiana Water Synergy Project, championed by USBCSD, can scale private investments in green infrastructure and resilience.

--Last, but not least, the academic community has the role of educating business and policy leaders alike in the postulates of sustainability. Yale University, in the unique role of a dialogue convener, is already pioneering efforts of integrated sustainability curriculum.

Each part of the puzzle will hopefully continue to come together at events such as the “Pathways to Impact” conference. The growing expectation to fully embrace environmental, social and governance aspects into the DNA of business comes through in a global collaborative survey among top business schools.  Facilitated by the Yale Center for Business and the Environment, results indicate 64% of MBA students want sustainability integrated into both core curricula and careers services at business schools.  Furthermore, future leaders intend to work for businesses with strong environmental performance - 44% of business students are willing to accept a lower salary to work for a company with better environmental practices.

I believe that this next generation of leaders is poised to propel climate action and environmental practices to meet and exceed the COP 21 Paris agreement commitments. Building upon recent progress and learning from missed opportunities around us, I boldly dream that after another ten years, sustainable business will not be the exception, but the rule.