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Interview with Rob Cameron – The Possibilist

For Rob Cameron, population expansion and rising sea levels are just another day in the office. He confesses that in his darker moments it can be depressing. But as Executive Director of think tank and advisory firm, SustainAbility, he has made it his business to work to promote change.

He talks to Inline about the urgent need to transition to a more sustainable way of living and the opportunities this transition creates for the business community.


Why is there a need for sustainable  development?

We know that the world's population is going to increase to between 8 and 11 billion. We can reasonably predict that there are going to be around two billion new middle-class consumers in the developing world. We also know there's a huge rise in urbanisation. In fact, a city of one million people is being built every five days. From a business point of view, that creates lots of possibilities. But the current footprint of our consumption pattern is too great for the earth. We're beyond the capacity of the earth to sustain us. By 2030 we need 35% more food, 40% more water and 50% more energy. That's the stress nexus.


How is this being addressed?

At SustainAbility, we see three broad constituents who can drive progress towards sustainability: civil society and NGOs, government and business.


How are they doing?

Civil society is doing well. NGOs such as WWF and Greenpeace do an amazing job of raising the profile of these issues. Governments, however, are generally not stepping up to the mark. One of the problems is that while there are some good long-term commitments such as the UK's 2050 Climate Commitment, governments' day-by-day delivery is poor. In the US, the Obama administration is stuck in a log jam where it's impossible to make progress.


Business has done better perhaps than many people might think. Sometimes it doesn't get all the credit it should. But it's too often simply an engine of economic growth and we continue to see the domination of capital over people. The business community needs to take more leadership and show initiative. And many businesses are already doing this in terms of their direct impact and through collaboration.


If we look at the beverage  industry, which comprises can,  glass and PET, what are the  sustainability issues it faces?

If we take materials, it's hard to disagree that PET is a good material. On its own terms, PET is great. It reduces bottle weight, has been developed into plant-based PET and its recyclability is clearly fantastic. However, the question is to what extent does the considerable resource reduction and increased recycling perpetuate what is otherwise an unsustainable business model. We have lots of people in the developed world who live alone and who need a lot of single-serve packages. But is this desire for 'convenience' sustainable? Let's think about it: how many single use plastic bottles do we really need? Is it really the right thing to make plastic bottles more sustainable or should we be reinventing the business model for the way we drink water on the go?


Which messages would you like  to address to INLINE readers and  the industry in general regarding  sustainability?

We need to get the sustainability message out everywhere. And that's why it's great to see a magazine like this featuring sustainability. For a business audience, I'd especially like to stress the importance of collaboration. We have to move out of the competitive mindset we grew up in and start thinking about how we can collaborate in the business community to drive change. No business can do it alone. The kind of collaboration we're seeing now within and across sectors is very exciting.


For example, Coca-Cola is working with Ford, Nestlé, Nike, Heinz and Procter & Gamble to accelerate development of plant PET technology. These are companies from different sectors working together on one challenge.


Our industry is focused on issues  such as recycling, bio-materials,  packaging lightweighting and  energy reduction, can we go even  further to raise consumer awareness?

That's the biggest challenge. Collaboration is starting to happen and there's growing evidence of this behind the scenes but the imperative that drives it is not coming through. So I can see a movement towards more collaborative communication where companies get together to get their message heard.


Take packaging. If I spoke to 25 consumers on the street, the majority would say that there's too much of it and it's a bad thing. But we know that the amount of waste and environmental loss is far greater through poor packaging, which results in a loss of food, than overpackaging. With increased pressure on food resources, there's a real need to protect food and not waste it. There's an opportunity for the packaging industry to get this message out. And it needs to be a collective message.


There are already some collaborative  initiatives in the industry  regarding sustainability, for  example the Marine Declaration for Solutions on Marine Litter.

Yes, that seems to have a high level of commitment from a particular section of the business world and commitment at senior level. That's important because without that, you won't get far. But here's my concern: there are countless sustainability initiatives that were kicked off with lots of good intent but then every one goes home and commits to their day jobs. The only way this will work is if companies put infrastructure behind it, an executive secretariat and resources. If it's just intent and volunteerism, it won't work. I learnt this in the standards and certification world. Someone once said: It's not your commitment I'm concerned about, it's your commitment to your commitment.

"The reality is that the only way we can transition to a sustainable future is if we appreciate that the economy is a sub-system of the ecosystem."

How do you feel about the future?

Microsoft's Stephen Emmott gives a pretty bleak assessment in his recent book 10 Billion, much of which I agree with - the scale of the challenge ishuge. But I have a little more faith than he does in human ingenuity. I see myself as a possibilist. I believe that everything we do creates possibilities and if we focus on them, we have a chance of transitioning to a world where we can live satisfactorily. But it will be a painful transition, I am pretty sure of that.


Can we invent our way out of  the challenges?

We need massive advances in technology and also huge shifts in business. We have to stop the current skewed market where subsidies are given to fossil fuels. It's insane that we subsidise this industry to the extent that we do. We need to move on from oil as a principle source of energy and turn to renewables.


We also have to pay attention to people like Jeremy Grantham, an investor who is one of the most strident voices for change. His April 2013 newsletter titled The Race of our Lives points out the problems that our capitalist system has in a world of finite resources. The reality is that the only way we can transition to a sustainable future is if we appreciate that the economy is a sub-system of the ecosystem. The mistake we're making is that we see the economy as a higher, more important concept than the ecosystem. We have to flip the thinking so the ecosystem is the primary system.All others are subsidiary and have to operate within it. If we have an economy that has superseded the ecosystem, by definition it's an unsustainable situation.


The environmental movement of the past three decades appreciated this. But one of the big mistakes the environmentalists made was their focus on saving the earth. Let's be clear: the


Rob Cameron CV

1985-2007: Founder of Flag, a communications agency based in Cambridge, UK and one of the pioneers of CSR reporting.

2007-2011: Chief executive of Fairtrade International, a global organisation that works to secure a better deal for farmers and workers.

2011-present: Executive director of SustainAbility, a think tank and strategic advisory firm.


About SustainAbility

Working out of London, Washington D.C., San Francisco and New York, SustainAbility is a think tank and strategic advisory firm working to catalyze business leadership on sustainability.


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