Put your money where your mouth is, urges Mark Wilson

Matching the economics to the ambition of a sustainable food system.

My grandma always used to say, ‘You are what you eat’. For her, that was organic food, fresh from the garden. She was essentially a vegan before the word had been invented and she credited her diet for her long life.

Her whole approach to food was healthy and sustainable. It doesn’t sound like rocket science but today’s reality is different for so many. Millions of people are struggling with malnutrition or obesity. There’s enormous pressure on the planet’s food production systems.

How can we feed ourselves healthily without destroying the environment we all depend on?

Some people might assume that business by its very nature is the enemy of sustainability. I disagree. I know capitalism has not always got it right, but the fact is that business has also been the greatest force for good on the planet.

Business has lifted millions of people out of poverty and improved the livelihoods of millions more. Not only can it be part of a sustainable future, it must be part of the solution if we are to have any hope of fixing the system.

For me, successful capitalism means aligning the interests of a business with the interests of society and sustainability, something I call ‘enlightened self-interest’. 

It is clearly in the interests of society to produce enough food for everyone. It is clearly in the interests of society to do that in a way that does not destroy our planet. The question is: how do we use the capitalist system to make that happen?

First, let’s recognise the power of the investment community. There are over $300 trillion in the world’s capital markets. When investors factor sustainability into their investment decisions, that can change behaviours. For example, Aviva is concerned about the rise of antibiotic resistance as a major threat to human health. Along with other investors, we recently worked with a global fast food chain to encourage them to cut global antibiotic use in their chickens.

Second, investors need to be armed with the economic data. We rely on NGOs, think-tanks and academics to give us the right information to help us focus in the right place. We need to know the $40 billion environmental cost of plastic packaging every year. We need to know that pollinators such as the humble bees are worth $577 billion to the food industry annually. By aligning sustainability with the data of economics - perhaps we could call it beeconomics - we can make the case for change in the companies we invest in.

The humble bees are worth $577 billion to the food industry annually.

Finally, we need to force more boardrooms to take sustainability seriously. A powerful way to do that is to appeal to the instincts of business people themselves and harness the power of competition. This is the idea behind the World Benchmarking Alliance, which Aviva is helping to set up along with the UN and other organisations. 

We want to turn achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into a competitive sport. The Alliance will draw up simple, transparent performance data on the SDGs, ranking companies - and importantly regulators too - into league tables. The data will be free, simple and accessible. CEOs will want to head those league tables. And investors will be able to see how companies are performing and act accordingly.

We can’t save the world in a day. But by working together, businesses, campaigners, academics, regulators and government can take small steps every day. And those steps will add up on a journey towards the sustainable food system that we, and the planet, needs. 

*The World Benchmarking Alliance is due to launch in September 2018.

At the time of writing, Mark Wilson was Group CEO of Aviva plc, a member of the Business and Sustainable Development Commission and was sitting on the Advisory Board of the EAT Foundation (which advocates for a sustainable global food system). Watch his speech at the EAT Forum 2018 in Stockholm.  


Pauliina Murphy - pauliina.murphy@aviva.com