Interview with José María Figueres

1. In terms of sustainable development, what are some of the biggest leaps forward you’ve seen globally?

Without a doubt, the very recent prominence of the climate change challenge is a great step forward. We finally reached a tipping point with respect to our awareness about climate change. On the one hand, Al Gore with his extraordinary work and Nick Stern with his compelling report on the economic impact of climate change have captured global attention. On the other hand, influential CEOs such as Chad Holliday of DuPont, Jeff Immelt of General Electric, Jim Rogers of Duke Energy and Lee Scott of Wal-Mart have made the point that green means green. In other words, green for the environment now means green for bottom-line dollars.

2. How does sustainable development help countries and companies compete in the global economy?

It makes business and countries climb up the ladder of competitiveness, with the obvious advantages this brings. In addition, consumers and financial markets prefer companies and countries that adhere to the ‘triple bottom line’ of social, environmental and economic responsibility. It is therefore in the best interest of corporate profitability and country acceptance for both to shift their paradigms toward sustainable development.

3. To what do you attribute the preference (by consumers) for companies that adhere to the triple bottom line? Is it a societal change? How can companies capitalize on this change?

It is a combination of the recent awareness of climate change that I mentioned earlier and the information technology revolution that hamade this information more readily available to consumers. As a result, they are becoming more conscientious with respect to their consumption and investment habits.

Not only do I believe that companies can capitalize on this change, but also there are a number of companies that have already done so. Look at the evolution of market capitalization for companies such as Toyota and Honda, both leaders in hybrid motor technology, and compare it with the market capitalization of General Motors and Ford. While profitability or lack thereof cannot be entirely linked to green awareness, it is clear that consumers are now starting to vote for their preferences with their wallets. People are strongly favouring products produced with sound environmental considerations in countries with positive environmental policies.

4. The benefits of globalization are expensive and long term. How do you balance these benefits with the short-term impact, such as loss of jobs and dislocated workers?

My father used to say, “If development were easy, we would all be developed.” There are no quick fixes, and to pretend globalization or any other process of development can work miracles in short periods of time is not realistic. Globalization has produced decided benefits, but has also left millions behind by increasing the differences between rich and poor. Corporations and governments together must be more attentive not only to reaping the benefits of globalization but also to addressing the problems created by its unintended consequences. There will always be a need for good programs that level the playing field and allow everyone to take advantage of employment opportunities on an equal footing.

5. What strategies will help strengthen ties among corporate, governmental and non-profit sectors so that the pursuit of profit blends seamlessly with the common good?

Look around the world and you will find that successful countries are those in which all these sectors you mention, including universities and think tanks, work together. Just how they come together depends on each country and its cultural background.

6. Why is it important for companies to be involved in social development? How can companies help promote social development?

It is in their own self-interest to be involved in social development. How could companies do well over the medium and long term if the society in which they operate is not up to par on strategic social investments? Corporations thrive in environments with well-educated and healthy workers. And while governments are mainly responsible for policy formation and investment in these areas, corporations should become more involved in helping governments arrive at the leading edge of these issues.

7. The topic of sustainability is everywhere, and there is always a risk of people growing tired of the subject or even of a backlash. How can private and public sector leaders maintain this momentum?

The effects of climate change around the world, which are already being felt, will maintain the momentum and increase the focus of leaders on how to mitigate its effects. We are already living in a period of consequences. We know what the solutions available are, and we need to act. The private sector can lead the charge, and profit at the same time.