Cotton Harvester

The Restoration Club – An Interview with Sally Uren

Companies that want to change the world need to be a meaningful part of the solution—and not just a smaller part of the problem. Sally Uren, CEO at Forum for the Future, explains.


What can business leaders do to address social and environmental challenges within their organizations?

I’m going to push back a bit on your question, and suggest that business leaders actually need to look beyond their organizations and consider how their companies can put more back into society and the environment than what they take out. At Forum for the Future we call this ambition “net positive”—the state in which you are not only ensuring economic viability, that is, you are making money, but you are also making the world better—ecologically and socially—than it would be if your business did not exist. I say this because the fact is, the stocks of our natural assets and societal assets are dwindling and we need to rebuild them. We just can’t assume business as usual will deliver the sustainable development goals anymore.


That sounds like a tall order, and perhaps a bit tricky for some companies to wrap their heads around. Are some better positioned for this approach than others?

At Forum For the Future, we tend to engage with businesses that understand that success comes from solving complex sustainability challenges in a way that builds value back into the business. Beyond that, I would look for willingness in the company’s leadership to embrace the four principles that we think of as kind of prerequisites for a net positive company.


And those are?

Well, first there’s materiality. Where can your business can make a big positive social and/or environmental impact? What are the big levers you have to work with? Second, transparency. Are you willing to speak openly and honestly about those challenges, and how as a business you’re addressing them? Then there’s regeneration. Where are those opportunities to restore damaged ecosystems, to actually rebuild some of the systems that we rely on? Finally, a company needs to be prepared to embrace systemic thinking. It needs to really understand the system it operates within, and address social and environmental challenges such that it builds resilience.


You’re talking about characteristics that may already be hard-wired into a company’s culture. For example, a brand built on confidentiality and discretion may have a hard time really embracing transparency. It sounds like this is about the people, the leadership, the tone they set, and the culture they create?

If an organization really wants to embrace sustainability, it is going to need to embrace a shift in mindset and culture. Companies and organizations need to really understand that their ability to drive value is inextricably linked to these big environmental and social challenges. And that actually helping to restore the systems that we rely on is a fast track to long-term value creation.


Tell us more about the systemic characteristic of a net-positive company. How might that play out in the real world?

Let’s say you run a business in the agricultural  system. Clearly, you’re heavily reliant on the productivity of crops, and access to raw materials such as seeds, and water, and healthy soils. And, if as a business you don’t really understand how that system works and what it’s going to take to secure your supply over the long term, then, actually, there’s a really significant threat to your business. One of the projects that we run at Forum for the Future is called Cotton 2040, where we’re working with a range of apparel brands, retailers, standards bodies—essentially, everyone—to bring them together to “mainstream” sustainable cotton. The organizations involved in that project understand that their financial viability is already linked to the vibrancy and resiliency of the cotton system.


Why is it a cotton system, not a cotton industry, or sector?

Industry doesn’t really adequately capture the complexity of value-creating relationships which underpin the delivery of goods and services to market. A sustainable cotton system that is climate resilient and delivering sustainable livelihoods to millions is much more fit for the future, and far better positioned to deliver on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. So, we can create what we would call systemic change by understanding the levers that might create a new way of operating, a different way of interacting. And that’s what business leaders should be driving for. With incremental change, we’re not addressing the root causes of challenges, we’re just putting bandaids on some of the systems. That isn’t going to deliver the sustainable development goals.


Why did you choose to focus on cotton?

Cotton is ubiquitous, it is in most of the clothes that we wear, and yet it is associated with some really significant sustainable development challenges. It has environmental challenges because it can be quite a water hungry crop, and is also grown in parts of the world likely to be significantly impacted by climate change. There are also big societal challenges with respect to working conditions, living wages, and so on. We also came to this system out of a recognition that there are efforts already underway in the cotton system, but they’re not necessarily “joined up.” If we find a way to link these existing activities – for example, by harmonizing the language between all the different,cotton standards – then perhaps we can create a blueprint that we can replicate across other commodities.


Are we seeing more collaboration between competing brands on sustainability. If so, why?

It’s taken a while, but many businesses are starting to recognize that many challenges—particularly supply-chain challenges—are just too big for one brand to tackle solo. There are areas where you can use sustainability to compete and to differentiate your brand. However, when we’re tackling issues as complex as labour rights, climate adaptation of a global crop, like cotton, then actually brands need to collaborate.


Could blockchain help ensure supply-chain accountability in an industry—sorry, a system!—like cotton?

I’m convinced blockchain will form at least part of the future of supply chains, and it also has applications in finance. It’s effectively just an open ledger that allows transactions to be recorded in a completely open and secure fashion. So yes, it allows us to deliver complete transparency through a supply chain. But it might also be used to deliver access to capital and to reduce the price exposure that smaller players face in buying commodities. Blockchain won’t solve all of our challenges, but I do feel it can help us get closer to sustainable supply chains.


What other emerging technologies are on your radar these days?

I’m quite intrigued in the potential to merge blockchain with the internet of things. So blockchain, actually as an open ledger, gives you transparency. If that open ledger can talk to the internet of things, then you potentially end up with a much smarter supply chain. I’m also really intrigued by this trend we are seeing where distributors can become “light manufacturers,” meaning we may no longer be so reliant on large-scale manufacturing. The technology is now there to move from globalized infrastructure to much more localized infrastructure. Digital printing has really evolved over the last few years and is now used in many different applications. There are lots of ways in which the way goods and services make it to market could really radically change.


I’m curious about what advice you offer organizations and leaders who are ready to take on a net-positive approach.  How do you message this stuff?

Communicating sustainability is no different than communicating anything else. It’s about good storytelling, and about making people feel good, and speaking to their aspirations. Don’t appeal to gloom and doom—the sense of what we stand to lose. Rather, appeal to people’s desires to live better. This is about making people feel good about what they’re doing. People don’t want to be told what they can’t do; they want to hear what they can do.


This article is part of our new six-part content series, “Echoes of the Forum”, which provides exclusive videos, interviews, and key takeaways and actions from our world-leading sustainable business event – GLOBE Forum.

Our second chapter focuses on the role of business in accelerating the clean economy.

View content

Plastic Bank

4 environmental applications of blockchain

Blockchain is a series of data transactions. These transactions are added chronologically as blocks, making up a chain requiring validation by other parties. The data in these blocks can’t be erased or altered, as a result, blockchain is a distributed ledger which is secure and un-hackable. Though commonly associated with Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, blockchain technology offers immense opportunities in the field of sustainability.

At GLOBE, speakers and participants discussed four different environmental applications that blockchain could have across various industries, including: recycling, energy, and materials and resources:

  • Plastic Bank: Tackling plastic waste and global poverty
  • LO3 Energy: Bringing power to the people
  • Xpansiv: Transforming the global commodities market
  • Consensas: Confidently sourcing natural resources in conflict-affected areas


Plastic Bank: Tackling plastic waste and global poverty

Working with IBM and The Cognition Foundry, Plastic Bank has created a social enterprise which rewards community members for recycling plastic. Operating in Haiti as of 2015, it follows pilots in Peru and Colombia. Community members, often those living in low-income and impoverished conditions, collect plastic and drop it off at a local Plastic Bank processing centre. Using an app, they receive token payments in exchange for the collected plastic. These tokens are kept in a digital wallet that is blockchain securitized (thanks to IBM’s LinuxONE), and can be exchanged for cooking fuel, access to phone chargers, toiletries, and other necessities.

Plastic Bank is currently scaling the model so communities around the world can start creating their own plastic ecosystems. By giving plastic monetary value, the Plastic Bank team is incentivizing the collection of recyclable material and ensuring it doesn’t end up as ocean plastic. The team is currently developing plans for expansion into China, Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines, among other countries.

Through partnerships with corporations interested in buying the recycled plastic, such as Henkel, Plastic Bank is also enabling big brands to develop more sustainable packaging for consumer products.


LO3 Energy: Bringing power to the people

Through their Exergy platform, LO3 is disrupting centralized power systems by introducing innovative local micro-grids – localized groups of electricity sources and loads that are often connected with the traditional centralized electrical grid. Through blockchain technology, users of the micro-grid can harness, monitor, and exchange energy within their own community. Blockchain not only securely captures the transactional data, but also empowers people to instantly choose how they want to use the energy in their homes, based on real-time price signals.

Applications of LO3 Energy’s blockchain technology are being implemented around the world, in partnership with Siemens. The most prominent example is the Brooklyn Microgrid, which has given home owners and local businesses the ability to become prosumers, producers, and consumers of the local grid’s affordable renewable energy. Other LO3 Energy projects are being developed in South Australia, Germany, and the United States.


Xpansiv: Transforming the global commodities market

Xpansiv is transforming the global commodities market, which so far has relied heavily on manual approaches for data processing. Driven by a concern over climate degradation, Xpansiv created the Digital FeedstockTM, a digital representation that can be used to track the environmental cost of every unit of energy produced.

Through the creation of the Digital FeedstockTM, Xpansiv leverages distributed ledger technologies to analyze and refine the production data of commodities. This data-driven approach unlocks the true value of each commodity by “de-commoditizing” it, and creating a unique “fingerprint” for each unit of production, which is then published on the blockchain.

Joe Madden, CEO at Xpansiv, believes tracking the environmental impact of commodities through the supply chain in this way, will help consumers make informed decisions regarding the impact of the commodities they purchase. Madden also hopes it will not only help global markets determine whether certain commodities have a high-carbon or low-carbon cost, but also price that environmental impact into the commodity itself.


Consensas: Confidently sourcing natural resources in conflict-affected areas

Companies extracting minerals in conflict-affected areas are under increasing regulatory and consumer pressure to address supply chain risks such as corruption, human rights violations, child labour, gender-based violence, and environmental degradation. Drawing upon key elements of blockchain, Consensas created a system for the mining industry that follows all mining materials through the supply chain. It automates the collection of data required for investor disclosures, compliance and assurance reports on a secure and encrypted platform.

Working with non-profit, IMPACT, Consensas is adapting its technology to help industry ethically source natural resources in conflict areas, while compensating women and men in local artisanal mining communities for providing information on how materials are sourced and extracted. IMPACT’s Just Gold project is the first to successfully bring traceable, legal, and conflict-free artisanal gold from Democratic Republic of Congo to the international market, using a traceability and due diligence system, powered by Consensas.


This article is part of our new six-part content series, “Echoes of the Forum”, which provides exclusive videos, interviews, and key takeaways and actions from our world-leading sustainable business event – GLOBE Forum.

Our first chapter focuses on the role of energy leaders and technology in accelerating the clean economy.

View content