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COLUMN: GLOBE Forum 2018: disrupting 'business as usual'?

by Colin Isaacs
EcoLog, 3/29/2018 1:16:00 PM

GLOBE Forum has been the pre-eminent business of the environment and sustainable development conference and expo in North America since 1990. Held every two years in Vancouver, the evolution of the event has mirrored the evolution of sustainability, not just in Canadian business but in global business. 

In its early years, GLOBE Forum was mostly about technologies and techniques for reducing the environmental footprint of the manufacturing industry. GLOBE Forum 2018, held March 14-16, 2018, was less focussed on environmental technology, though many examples were still present on the trade show floor, and much more on business strategy and the investment opportunities arising out of the need to address some very serious environmental challenges. 

Self-described as “The Leadership Summit for Sustainable Business”, GLOBE Forum 2018 adopted the theme of “Disrupting Business as Usual”, and the sub-theme of “The State of our Oceans”. 

One has to wonder how much disruption of business a conference this big and broad can actually cause. With as many as six parallel streams, top-level business leaders often found themselves wanting to be in more than one and possibly in as many as three or four sessions at the same time. For subject specialists, the sessions may not have contained much that was new, but for newcomers, the quantity of information being pushed from panels and booths might well have been overwhelming. 

That has always been the main challenge for GLOBE Forum: to provide enough of what’s new to interest the seasoned sustainability professional, while keeping it broad enough to cause the disruption of business it seeks to achieve. GLOBE Forum 2018 tried to strike a balance that may not have hit the Goldilocks spot, but at least left everyone going home with some new ideas and plenty of business cards with which to follow up. 

But if anyone knows how to convert profitably and quickly all aspects of the fossil economy into the clean non-polluting economy of which so many people dream, no one was sharing the information at GLOBE Forum 2018. The disruption of ‘business as usual’ still seems to be a long-term and very incremental process. 

Not surprisingly, several sessions discussed financing, investment and the availability of technology for a low-carbon society. The transformation of energy systems from fossil to renewable sources appears to be moving at a slightly faster pace than perhaps many people are aware, and using energy more efficiently is a priority for investors, government, and business leaders. 

At the other extreme, sessions about plastics in the oceans were compelling but almost entirely lacking in any description of real business opportunities. Despite the work of some enthusiasts, scooping plastics out of the oceans does not seem to be either a practical or economically viable solution, and some more technically-qualified speakers admitted that, so far, we have no idea what to do about the massive damage our plastics are causing ocean ecosystems. The research continues. 

Business leaders with even limited vision are beginning to realize that water quality and quantity pose both a threat and an opportunity for business. Even in Canada’s Great Lakes basin, where water appears to be unlimited, problems are on the horizon. Elsewhere in Canada, and around the world, water supplies present an increasing threat to industry. Strategies and technologies exist to deal with water shortages and quality problems on an industrial scale, and the businesses that flourish in the future will likely be those that implement plans to deal with water challenges. 

Big data and data analytics are currently experiencing some negative press in political circles but advocates argue that they can and should have a much larger role in assisting the transition to an environmentally and socially sustainable economy. This is almost certainly true, but the path forward may yet need clarification. Some of those who attended the session “Blockchain and its Emerging Role in the Clean Economy” said they were still somewhat befuddled by the whole concept. Another session was “The Internet of Water: Putting Data Analytics to Work”. 

Circular economy is a theme that some participants seem to regard as little more than a buzzword. Too few experts, at least in Canada, have evolved the topic from simply meaning ‘enhanced recycling’. To be a success, it has to mean much more: managing product and packaging design, planning and steering material flows, efficiency in use of materials and in avoiding contamination, and, perhaps most importantly, social engineering so that throwing stuff into the trash becomes as anathema as smoking tobacco. 

Some speakers waded into the area of who does what when it comes to solving environmental matters. This may pose a particular problem in Canada where many people want to have industry pay the full cost of environmental prevention and remediation but at the same time do not trust industry to do the job in a way which best serves the interests of residents. Think public-private partnerships, remediation of contaminated lands, and extended producer responsibility as examples of a problem that is widespread in public policy circles. 

Governments are urged to regulate or legislate — which sometimes they do — but other times lean more toward industries’ dislike of regulations. Governments plead poverty but to many voters, higher taxes to address environmental and social issues are anathema. To resolve these stalemates some business sectors, such as the insurance industry, are actually leaning toward supporting the need for more regulation but this perspective has not yet permeated to all of our society. 

For many participants, GLOBE Forum is like old home week: a chance to meet old friends, to attend meetings arranged on the periphery, and to maybe pick up one or two ideas that might be applicable back home. 

The big challenge still remains: how to attract those thousands of North American business executives who might learn a lot and actually cause a major disruption to ‘business as usual’. Until that happens, GLOBE Forum will continue to be a lot of fun and a distraction to ‘business as usual’ primarily for those who already understand what sustainability is about. But it is not clear that this hugely expensive biennial event will actually contribute in a major way to changing the way business responds to the environment and its social responsibility.

Colin Isaacs is a scientist and analyst with CIAL Group who focuses on sustainable development for business. He has been involved in undertaking and reviewing a number of LCA studies. He can be reached at (416) 410-0432 (phone); (416) 362-5231 (fax); and colin@cialgroup.com (e-mail).

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