Dr. Jason Clay believes if we can convince just 100 major corporations to be sustainable, global markets will shift to protect the planet that our consumption has already outgrown. To that end, the World Wildlife Fund’s SVP of Market Transformation has dedicated his career to enacting change in the global commodities business.
Out of the 100 most influential, 40 have already agreed to work with Clay and WWF. Execs at Coca-Cola, Cargill, Walmart, P&G and IKEA are all analyzing their supply chains to ensure the natural resources they use are sustainably harvested. And while it makes good business sense for those organizations, Dr. Clay says this helps a larger bottom line: our consumption deficit.
Citing UN Population Council on Food Security data on the sheer magnitude of malnourished children in the world, Dr. Clay says, something's got to give. "It’s the biggest issue of the 21st century and it’s in everyone’s interest to produce more with less in a finite planet," he tells Fast Company. "We can’t continue to feed [the world’s] 6 billion people unless we shift focus."
One of the most staggering statistics Dr. Clay points to is that in past 40 years only .7 percent of the world’s food is organic, which he says begs the question, "Do we have to work another 40 years to double that?" And if so, is that both sustainable and beneficial to the 9 billion hungry bellies estimated to populate the planet by 2050?
Dr. Clay believes that better resource management can solve much of the problem. He learned this first-hand working on his family’s farm in Missouri. "I grew up as a conservationist. We lived on less than a $1 a day per person," he recalls. While he got schooled the basics of growing crops and tending animals, Dr. Clay says he also learned the importance of plowing around hillsides terraces and other steps to reduce erosion. "There’s a fundamental difference between an environmentalist who’s out there doing, and a person who turns a page in a book," he says.
Dr. Clay began putting these ideas into practice after a stint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture led to decades of work in human rights for refugees and famine victims. "Persecution and famine were always caused by policies and practices, with an overlay of where natural resources are located," he says. "I began to anticipate where civil strife would occur, and got really good at predicting how many body bags would be needed for the people who would die." But that wasn't a very positive contribution, and Dr. Clay wanted to find ways to better support the indigenous populations where he was working.
That possibility presented itself at a Grateful Dead concert, where Dr. Clay met Ben of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. By using Brazil nuts as a key ingredient, the team concocted a form of sustainable conscious consumption that is still popular today: Rainforest Crunch ice cream.
The Rainforest Crunch enterprise started without any working capital, but that changed fast. "We made our first million dollars worth of trade by buying on 30 days and selling on 21." More important, he learned how really to use the power of the market to change. "You do that by creating demand in certain ways that pull supplies along with it," he says. Commanding 22 percent of the global Brazil nut market, yet paying growers twice or three times above what others were paying, forced other companies to raise their offering prices, too.
All the while, though, Dr. Clay could see that the stakes were a lot higher in other commodities such as soybeans, logging, and beef –- each leading to deforestation, a serious threat to the global food supply. So his focus shifted again as work with WWF began.
Dr. Clay discovered that in order to be strategic with sustainability and effect the most change, he identified the 100 companies who control 25 percent of the trade of 15 of the most significant commodities. "We can get our arms around that," he says. "Besides companies push producers faster than consumers."
He maintains the consumer shouldn’t have to think about sustainability –- all products should be sustainable. If companies operate sustainably, he argues, then there will be enough food on the planet to allow everyone to live up to their full genetic potential.
"We need to tap the talent of people who happen to be born poor but we don’t," he says. "Systems are set up to disadvantage them by middle school. But we are going to need all the brains we can get to be able to survive on this planet."
[Photo by Carlos Varela]