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Dr Gary Kendall, Nedbank’s sustainability and strategy specialist, says that the Covid-19 pandemic provides a unique opportunity to learn about the character of systemic risk, which we will need to draw on as we face up to further challenges.

‘We’re consumed by the pandemic itself right now, but we cannot ignore the other, larger waves that are bearing down on us, including a deep recession and climate change.’

Kendall expressed his views in a webinar hosted by Nedbank Business Banking, which explored how the Covid-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of sustainable socioeconomic development, and what is possible when commercialising sustainability.

Kendall says that among the lessons we are learning, is what really matters to us. ‘There is a useful distinction between essential needs and non-essential wants. We’ve learned through this pandemic that a substantial percentage of our economic activity is non-essential, which isn’t to say it’s worthless – it’s just not something we need to survive, like clean air and water, a reliable food supply, and a roof over our heads. Ironically, there is a stark mismatch between real value creation and the distribution of rewards in the economy, and the market doesn’t pay people in a way that matches their social importance. Essential workers really are essential – without them, the economy collapses,’ he says.

As a result, we have 15 million South Africans living below the international poverty line of less than US$2 per day, suffering from gender and income inequalities that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic. Kendall says that how we live and do business is out of register with reality: The prosperity and wellbeing of our species cannot be delivered through the destruction of other living systems and must be achieved within the parameters available to us. The way we have been operating for the past 150 years has been exploitative, extractive and linear. This needs to change urgently to an economy that is inclusive, restorative and circular.

‘How we reacted to the pandemic has shown us that we can change dramatically in weeks if we need to. Yet, in contrast, mitigation of systemic risks such as climate change and inequality is being dealt with slowly and incrementally. If we want to sustain socioeconomic development into the future, we need to make significant changes now and not wait until 2030 or 2050.’

Kendall urges business owners to view the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – our ‘blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all’ – not as a burden, but rather as a catalogue of unmet client needs. ‘And that catalogue is also a directory of substantial business opportunities. Think of it as a crowd-sourced purchase order from the future. We need to use this pause created by the pandemic as a chance to install a new operating system,’ says Kendall. ‘We can’t just reboot or tweak the old one. We need a complete overhaul to design a new system that is more prosperous, fairer and more inclusive for all.’

Kendall’s co-panelist, Vijay Naidu, who is the joint managing director of Extrupet, the largest recycler of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottle materials in Africa, agrees. ‘The need to operate more sustainably has also presented us with the opportunity to operate more efficiently. For example, we’re installing solar power, which will halve the 3 MW of power we use every year, and the substantial costs to buy that power. We also reuse the water in our plant many times, so all that it leaves is the mud from the bottles found in landfill sites. This, again, saves costs in terms of water and effluent, while ensuring that we’re not wasting precious water for future generations.’

Naidu adds that, for our economies to prosper, man, machine and money all need to work together and complement each other, and that this is where Extrupet’s relationship with Nedbank Business Banking has been extremely valuable for their growth. ‘Nedbank has always taken a long-term view and a partnership approach with us. Being committed to sustainability themselves, they understand our business model better and routinely think outside the box to find solutions that work for all parties, as well as the environment.’

Herman de Kock, Nedbank’s Executive Head for Business Banking Sales, who chaired the webinar, says that Nedbank believes it has a significant role to play in driving sustainable development going forward. ‘To this end we apply our purpose – to use our financial expertise to do good for individuals, families, businesses and society – to guide us. When you look at the considerable sums that we lend each year, it becomes obvious why we must use our core business to respond to the challenges we want to address through the SDGs, rather than simply relegate it to corporate social investment, if we expect to have a real impact.

‘At Nedbank, we don’t view sustainability as a nice-to-have or as doing the right thing. We believe that sustainability is about changing the very character of business for the future,’ says de Kock.

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