Cut out orange and grey shapes of birds, against a blue sky, with trees on either side. This is the view from beneath of a section of the Terra Sustainability Pavilion at Expo Dubai 2020.

Sustainability takes centre stage

What is big business doing to build a better future? More than you might realise. The events of the last eighteen months led to serious concerns that issues of both the environment and global inequality would be largely side-lined, as both consumers and corporates focused their attention and survival strategies on coping with Covid 19. However, it seems that these fears were unfounded. The KPMG Survey of Sustainability Reporting 2020 paints a far more positive picture, one where 80% of the world’s companies now report on sustainability and a significant majority connect their activities with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

But what does this actually mean for their everyday operations? To answer this, Unilever's Head of Corporate Affairs & Sustainability, Priya Sarma Muthur and Canon EMEA's Sustainability & Government Affairs Director, Peter Bragg put big business under the microscope for a special Expo 2020 Dubai edition of Canon Frontiers of Innovation. At Unilever, their Sustainable Living Plan has put these issues at the heart of business strategy and operations. “More than 2.5 billion people use Unilever products each day,” explains Priya. “We made a strategic decision to use our scale to help consumers and the planet.” While Canon’s corporate philosophy of ‘Kyosei’ (a Japanese word meaning ‘living and working together for the common good’) has been central to operations for over thirty years. “Whilst the principle of Kyosei is nothing new for Canon,” says Peter. “There is a growing sense of urgency to drive a sustainability agenda.”

What’s good for the planet is good for business

It’s official: commitment to people and planet benefits the bottom line. A recent report from Deloitte found that 46% of businesses surveyed had experienced revenue growth as a result of their sustainability efforts. They also reported more resilient supply chains, increased efficiency, improved interactions between stakeholders and better financial performance. From a consumer perspective, it’s well documented that people are willing to spend more on eco-friendly products and, moreover, will stop buying products that are not. Yet, there are still some lingering misconceptions about the financial impact of bringing sustainability to the fore, which Priya is keen to dispel. “Sustainability makes us more competitive,” she says. “Of our 400+ brands, the ones with the strongest purpose are growing the fastest. It also helps us attract the best talent and has been instrumental in forming strong partnerships with businesses, governments and NPOs. It’s a win-win.”

The ‘Terra’ Sustainability Pavilion at Expo 2002 Dubai. A mushroom-shaped building, it is photographed at night and lit with white light from beneath. It is made of steel struts and surrounded by smaller ‘trees’ of the same shape, also made from steel.

Linear to circular

As a result, it’s clear that companies are also seeking viable ways to shift from a throwaway to a circular economy. For Canon, this begins at the very conception of new products, with a ‘produce – use – recycle’ approach to development manufacture and service. Canon has been recycling printer cartridges for more than 30 years and all products are designed to be efficient and remain in the economy as long as possible, through remanufacturing, refurbishing and recycling. Unilever has committed to be net-zero by 2039 with an ambitious Clean Future Strategy and billion-euro reforestation programme. “We are innovating design so that 100% of packaging is recyclable, renewable or compostable by 2025,” explains Priya. “Already in the MENA region 70% of our packaging is ‘recycle ready’, meaning it can be recycled if the infrastructure exists.”

Ethical equals resilient

Additionally, the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Risk Report highlights that world’s top five risks are environmental – extreme weather events, natural disasters, climate change, human damage to the environment and major biodiversity loss. “These risks impact our people, customers and suppliers,” says Peter. It’s not enough to drive change only for ourselves, we have to drive it across our entire operation. Ethical supply chains are proven to be more resilient,” Priya strongly agrees, “We are working to specifically prevent risk across the supply chain at scale. For example, climate change is a concern for tea production, and we are one of the largest buyers of tea in the world.”

It’s official: commitment to people and planet
benefits the bottom line.

Sustainability under scrutiny

Of course, the increase in allegations of greenwashing and low consumer trust in brands means that companies are under pressure to demonstrate credible results. At the G7 Summit, global finance leaders called for standardised measurement of corporate impact on climate and the environment, as well as mandatory disclosure of exposure to climate-related risks. The United Nation’s SDGs provide Canon with a means to do this. “The SDGs are a universal framework and useful tool to set targets and assess performance,” says Peter. He also recommends having sustainability performance scrutinised by independent bodies. “Canon invites EcoVadis and CDP to examine and score our performance. 2021 was the sixth consecutive year we received a gold rating from EcoVadis, placing us within the top 3% of companies globally in terms of environmental practices.” For Priya, Unilever’s ambitious targets ensure focus. “Our goal was to be 100% zero-energy by 2020, which we achieved in 2019, followed by recognition with first place in the GlobeScan Sustainability Leaders Report 2021.”

Expo 2020 Dubai – showcasing a more sustainable future

It’s no accident that these conversations are being had in the context of Expo 2020 Dubai. John Bull, Director of the ‘Terra’ Sustainability Pavilion is looking forward to welcoming over 25 million visitors to a space of great architectural beauty that is itself 100% self-sustainable, despite being located in the middle of a desert. Its design is a world of cutting-edge sustainability solutions and once inside, visitors will be challenged to look at the world in new ways. “We are showing people a potential future,” explains John. “And helping them reconnect with nature in the hope that they will see ways we can overcome the enormity of the challenges.”

Expo 2020 Dubai and Canon will be hosting Frontiers of Innovation talks every month until March 2022. For more information follow Canon Middle East and Africa on LinkedIn or Facebook.

Written by Mai Youssef, Corporate Communications and Marketing Services Director – Africa, Middle East and Turkey.