In memoriam: Erling Lorentzen, sustainability pioneer and visionary

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20 March, 2021




Geneva, 18 March 2021 – Erling Sven Lorentzen, founder of Aracruz Celulose, the former Brazilian pulp and paper company, passed away last week, aged 98. He will long be remembered as a pioneer and visionary of the pulp and paper industry, and holds a special place in the heart and history of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD).

Recognized for his remarkable business and socio-environmental activity, Lorentzen was one of the pioneering members of the Business Council for Sustainable Development (BCSD, now WBCSD) in the early 1990s, and in 1997, founded BCSD Brazil (CEBDS, Conselho Empresarial Brasileiro para o Desenvolvimento Sustentável) with Eliezer Batista. He was an early believer in developing business with social and environmental responsibility, and in realizing the true value of our natural resources.

In 1992, Lorentzen penned the chapter on forestry and agriculture in the ground-breaking book, Changing Course: A Global Business Perspective on Development and the Environmentinvited to do so by Stephan Schmidheiny as part of the BCSD taskforce. The book marked the first time that global business formulated its views on sustainable development, following the 1987 Brundtland report which had laid down the guiding principles for the practice.

Lorentzen had been inspired by the tenets of sustainable development some years earlier, through his own efforts to create jobs and improve social conditions in Brazil in an environmentally sound way. Aracruz, founded by Lorentzen in 1972, is considered Brazil’s first pulp mill.

His commitment to changing business for the better never faltered. At the Rio Summit in 1992, following the publication of Changing Course, Lorentzen urged Schmidheiny and Council Members to reconsider the disbanding of BCSD, which was due to happen after Rio. He recalled what he had said to Schmidheiny, in an interview with Lloyd Timberlake for Catalyzing Change: A Short History of the WBCSD in 2006: “We should see if we can continue to be of value. If we can’t, then OK, let it die. But not at this moment when all of us are the most excited and there is all this momentum. We should try to keep it going. There is so much more to do.”

As a result, a new organization with a commitment to making a difference was founded, and in 1995 BSCD merged with the World Industry Council on the Environment (WICE), and about 120 member companies then, to become what we now know as WBCSD today. Lorentzen’s significant role in charting this course is irrefutable.

He continued to pioneer a path ahead of his time. Through Aracruz, he was dedicated to planting more trees than were being cut down and harvested only planted (not old and ancient) trees. This passion led him to found WBCSD’s first sectoral project for forestry company members – and an independent study into the issue of global forest, pulp and paper companies.

The resulting report by the International Institute for Environment and Development, Towards a Sustainable Paper Cycle, in 1996, returned a series of recommendations and conclusions, covering forest management to recycling. These supported Lorentzen’s thesis about the soundness of plantation strategy. Aracruz had been following most of the report’s advice before it was published.

This, as Timberlake wrote, was the first time that an industry had taken the initiative to have an independent party produce standards and recommendations it could use to police itself around environmental concerns. The report also led to the creation of the Forest Solutions Group, still run by WBCSD today.

Norwegian by birth, but Brazilian at heart, Lorentzen continued to remain active in the Brazilian forest sector long after the sale of Aracruz in 2009, and was still inspiring others well into his 90s, sharing his ideas at BCSD Brazil’s conference, Sustentável (Sustainable), in 2016.

His legacy, and dedication to Brazil and humanity, will live on through the work he inspired throughout his life, as a man able to envision the future and pave a path for change before many others. Both WBCSD and BSCD Brazil continue to look to the future when confronting the challenges faced by business and society. WBCSD extends its condolences to Mr. Lorentzen’s family, his friends and former colleagues.