Insider perspective: World Economic Forum 2019, Davos

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28 January, 2019


WBCSD insights




Last week marked the 49th annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, bringing together 3,000 of the world’s most powerful leaders in government, business and civil society. The meeting’s theme was “Globalization 4.0 – Shaping a Global Architecture in the Age of the 4th Industrial Revolution.”

As every year, the Forum provided the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) with a great platform to engage business, government, academia and civil society representatives across a diverse range of topics.

The WBCSD team in Davos participated in a wide range of side events focused on food system transformation, circular economy, ending plastic waste, mobility, and the future of work among others. WBCSD’s advocacy emphasized business leadership on a broad spectrum of issues, all the while calling for strengthened collaboration across private and public sectors to tackle system transformation challenges in line with the Sustainable Development Goals.
Find below the highlights of the week in writing – for a brief video message from WBCSD President and CEO Peter Bakker with his impressions of the week, please click here.

Accelerating action toward food system transformation

Our future is dependent upon healthy people and a healthy planet. Food and land systems are currently outstripping the planetary boundaries while still leaving millions hungry or at risk of diet-related disease. We must build a common understanding of the opportunities and challenges across the value chain, underpinned by science- and data-supported evidence, in order to provide healthy food for all, within environmental limits.

The WBCSD ‘Healthy People Healthy Planet’ session held on Tuesday drew on the most recent scientific insights, including the newly published EAT-Lancet report and the summaries of recent Science-to-Solutions Dialogues, to identify impactful business solutions needed to achieve a sustainable and healthy food system for 10 billion people, within planetary boundaries, by 2050.  

Speakers included Mauricio Adade, President Latin America & Global Lead for Malnutrition, DSM; David Nabarro, Special Adviser to the UN on Sustainable Development & Founder of 4SD; Johan Rockström, Director, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and one of the leaders of the newly published EAT Lancet Report; Gunhild Stordalen, Founder and President, EAT; Svein Tore Holsether, CEO, Yara and Chair of WBCSD’s Food, Land and Water Program; and Lawrence Haddad, Executive Director, Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN).

The consensus in the room was that there needs to be key solutions along the three critical levers of change identified by the EAT-Lancet report: dietary shifts; food loss and waste; sustainable agriculture and land use.

In-depth discussions highlighted that collaboration throughout the food value chain and multi-stakeholder action are key but also that we need to draw on existing science to develop science-based targets, against which business will be able to develop and scale up solutions. That being said, it is important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all: all actions need to be tailored to local needs and particularities.

Circular Economy

On Tuesday night, WBCSD co-hosted the Circular Economy Dinner with Circle Economy and SITRA, supported by WEF’s Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy.

It was a packed room of over 100 global circular experts, practitioners and policymakers. Key circular economy catalysts shared their perspectives, including CEOs of Royal Philips, OVG Real Estate, Circulate Capital and DSM as well as high-level delegates from the European Commission, UNDP and UNE International Resource Panel.

“Recognizing that the world is only 9% circular, we as the business community have a long way to go. That’s why we’re working with companies to move faster through our Factor10 Project”, Peter Bakker emphasized during his welcome remarks.

The interest and enthusiasm in the circular economy continues to grow. WBCSD looks forward to returning to Davos next year for the next iteration of circular economy themed events.

Alliance to End Plastic Waste

On Wednesday morning, WBCSD convened over 30 executives from along the value chain for breakfast to introduce the Alliance to End Plastic Waste and invite more companies to join the initiative.

Launched last week, the Alliance is the largest value chain collaboration of its kind dedicated to ending plastic waste in the environment. The Alliance has already secured USD $1 billion in commitments from the nearly 30 members and is aiming for USD $1.5 billion.

Jim Fitterling, CEO of The Dow Chemical Company, and Peter Bakker shared their thoughts on how the initiative is complementary to others on the topic and why business needs to lead.

“The Alliance is committed to taking action on the ground” stated Laurent Auguste, Senior Executive Vice President of Development, Innovation & Markets Director, when speaking to how the Alliance will use the resources committed.

Closing the session, David Taylor, President & CEO of P&G and Chair of the Alliance, said: “No one company is going to solve this problem on their own. Join us and let’s solve this together.”

The same day, Peter Bakker published an op-ed calling for more companies to join the Alliance, “the most comprehensive cross-value chain initiative of its kind to end plastic waste in the environment.“

The Alliance’s launch was well covered in the media and brought more attention to the issue to participants of the World Economic Forum itself, leading the way for perhaps more business collaboration to tackle other pressing environmental challenges.

The topic of plastics came to the fore by several events last year and, as a founding strategic partner to the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, WBCSD brought the business perspective to plastic-related events and happenings around Davos.

An example thereof was the “Plastics at the Poles” event organized at the Artic Basecamp by Gail Whiteman, WBCSD’s Professor in Residence.

Invited to speak at the event, María Mendiluce, Managing Director at WBCSD, shared with leading scientists the need to build bridges between the science, the solutions and the consumers to end plastic waste. Mendiluce most notably underscored that “everybody agrees that plastic has no place in the ocean. The urgency of this environmental challenge has brought together 30 companies to work collaboratively in the largest cross-value chain initiative of its kind.” In her view, “the Alliance proves that it is possible for business to step up and work together to bring investment and expertise and contribute to ending plastic in the environment.”

Business leadership for the future of work

Work is the engine at the center of our economies. However, the shape of work as we know it is facing complex disruption. Effectively navigating this turbulent time is crucial to avoid jobless growth, income inequality and social instability – and we believe business has a vital role to play.

On Thursday, WBCSD held a lunch discussion around the future of work. WBCSD, Fujitsu and Microsoft gathered 16 business leaders and experts at the dedicated Fujitsu venue in Davos to discuss how to inspire and inform business action to shape the transformations ahead. Additional WBCSD members around the table included Ferrero International, Mahindra & Mahindra, Navigator Company, and IFF.

The roundtable was opened by Duncan Tait, Head of EMEIA Region for Fujitsu, who highlighted the importance of investing in the future during these transformative times. For Fujitsu, this means focusing on artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum technology, but most importantly on people, with a human-centric approach to technology.

Tait was joined by Ralph Haupter, President, Microsoft Asia and Corporate Vice President, Microsoft Corporation. He highlighted the need for culture change to support the transition – sharing insights on a suite of approaches to improve corporate strategy, flexibility, innovation and access to training in the face of rapid change.

The ensuing discussion raised three priorities for business leaders:

  • Urgency: all participants shared challenges they are facing now. There was consensus on the need to illuminate the urgency of the issue to avoid responding too late to the impacts of new technologies, social polarization and rising workforce expectations.   
  • Positivity: despite the challenges, the mood at the table was optimistic. Inspiring business solutions were shared tackling retraining, culture change, diversity, inclusion, health and work-life balance. A positive message from business was agreed to be essential to counter the fear-based narrative related to the future of work.
  • Tailored solutions: it became clear that both challenges and solutions vary widely. Issues and examples were shared from Germany, Singapore, Japan, India and Australia – highlighting that while many solutions are transferable, recommendations for action would derive value from being tailored by country or even by city.

Peter Bakker shared WBCSD’s vision for a future of work where people, business and societies thrive, and highlighted 17 case studies from WBCSD member companies implementing responsible and transformative business solutions. He called on attendees to be vocal in advocating business action to enable an equitable, diverse, inclusive and empowering future of work, with people at the center.

The event was drawn to a close by Nobuhiko Sasaki, Vice Chairman of Fujitsu, who urged that if business is to survive in this changing world, human resources and human education should be at the core of our efforts.

Mobility: last-mile logistic to zero emissions

On Thursday night, Leaseplan, alongside WEF and WBCSD, organized a dinner on last mile logistic to zero emissions. The event proved popular with representatives from the urban freight value chain, in particular RNM, DHL, IKEA and SAIC.

The discussions focused on the challenges and opportunities in last mile delivery and the need to collaborate to solve increased urban congestion derived from growing e-commerce and rapid technology advancement.

Also at the dinner, Bernd Heid (McKinsey) and Christophe Wolf (WEF) introduced a new partnership with WBCSD to develop an analysis of impacts and trends on last mile delivery and a roadmap of solutions to transition to a more efficient and sustainable system. María Mendiluce concluded that “to reduce urban congestion and improve the liveability of cities, co-leadership and collaboration is fundamental to overcome the current ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ and move to win-win solutions for business, cities and citizens.”

Looking ahead

WBCSD has had a productive start into 2019, and the team looks forward to building on the insights gained in Davos to better enable business contributions to the Sustainable Development Goals through the transformation of six economic systems – Circular Economy, Cities & Mobility, Climate & Energy, Food, Land and Water, People, and Redefining Value.

Through our science-based approach and targeted business solutions, we aim to scale up business impact, enabling companies to be better placed to unlock market opportunities, consolidate an enduring license to operate and better manage risks – in line with our mission to accelerate the transition to a sustainable world by making more sustainable business more successful.