The New Executive Director for The World Business Council for Sustainable Development Talks About Impact

In Game Changers 13, Introducer Game Changers and World NGOs' Best Impact 13 by Mary Kurek

Bill Sisson, Executive Director, World Business Council for Sustainable Development, North America

Meet Bill Sisson, The World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s (WBCSD) new Executive Director for North America.  Bill joined the WBCSD in January of this year, but, he is no stranger to the organization’s mission.  From the WBCSD’s own announcement of Bill’s new role… “he was UTC’s Liaison Delegate and co-chaired several of WBCSD’s member-driven projects, most notably the Energy Efficiency in Buildings (EEB) and Low Emissions Economic Partnership (LEEP) projects.  He understands the intricate balance between driving an effective corporate membership and gaining essential business value through engagement and project participation.  Bill has been involved with corporate sustainability since the early 2000s, where he was appointed as the first Sustainability Director under UTC’s then CEO. He is an invited speaker at global conferences, workshops, and academic institutions on the subject of business sustainability and climate change.”  You can access the announcement in its entirety here.

If you think about how the world will make the kind of changes it needs to sustain itself, you have to look at business as a big driver toward impact.  What follows is a Q & A to help us understand Bill’s take on the subject.

Q:  When you look broadly at the planet, climate change seems to be the heart of so many impact issues.  How does it intersect with business and where lies the biggest impact short term?  How does the WBCSD fit into the solution?

A: Climate change is at the core of critical sustainability challenges, and it is strongly interconnected to other issues that impact global business and commerce. Climate change is causing irreversible damage and increasing risks to health, livelihood, food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth. These issues are impacting business today, and will have a lasting effect, limiting access to resources and new markets; materially increasing risks and impacting a company’s license to operate in the social context. We are already seeing how a company’s disregard of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) expectations and ignoring its sustainability responsibilities affects its brand and long-term value.

We at WBCSD bring companies together and work collaboratively in a pre-competitive space to address those challenges across what we know are the critical areas in which businesses will operate. We call these our six “Systems Transformations” programs;  Circular Economy, Climate and Energy, Cities and Mobility, Food and Nature, People and Redefining Value.   We work with our members across industries and through the value chain to innovate and create new business opportunities. We also make sure that our members take ownership of the programs at the most senior level. With 200+ companies onboard, CEOs take an active role in our programs and their direct contributions to projects that in many cases take shape locally, also have a global reach.  A key element to this is making sure that our portfolio translates into positive impacts for the environment and society, but also that the collaborative efforts of our members to manage these sustainability issues also translate into success in the market place.

Q: Over the last twelve months, has there been a project launched that is just starting to bear “impact fruit” and what are the projected gains over the next twelve months?

A:  We have a number of areas in our systems transformation programs where our business collaborations are starting to make a real difference.  A great example is our Natural Climate Solutions project (NCS). Here we leverage business investing in nature to capture carbon out of the atmosphere at an incredible rate and at a remarkably low price.  New research shows that these solutions could deliver 37% of the emissions reductions needed to limit global warming; but unfortunately, today it only represents about 1% of the solution. NCS was officially launched in September 2018 and has built strong cross-sectoral partnerships. Since then, more than 20 companies have joined our project (You can learn more with our award-winning video). NCS will also co-publish with Nature4Climate “the business case for NCS investment,” as one of the first steps to help businesses unlock the untapped potential of NCS to store carbon emissions.  This year, project members will set up specific targets to accelerate voluntary action and unlock compliance by demonstrating corporate leadership and concrete steps to maximize value from NCS investment.

Q:  You’ve been in office for only a few months, but, can you share the most significant discovery you’ve made working with the business sector in this particular capacity on sustainable development?

A:  I am not a stranger to WBCSD.   Up until I retired in 2018, I was United Technologies Corporation Liaison Delegate for more than a decade and co-chaired several of WBCSD’s member-driven projects.  It is in that role that I understood the intricate balance between driving a value-creating membership and gaining essential business opportunity through engagement, collaboration, and project participation. Having worked closely with WBCSD since 2005 is one of the reasons that led me to consider the offer of Peter Bakker, our CEO & President, to come on-board. WBCSD is one of the most powerful business sustainability organizations; with combined revenue of our members representing US$8.5T and about 19 million employees. It also plays a key role in representing the intersection of business and sustainability in CEO-level environment. But, additionally, it translates advocacy efforts into visible and influential actions to really have an impact on today’s most critical environmental and social issues.

WBCSD NA Annual Meeting

Perhaps the most surprising discovery is the rate at which North American companies are starting to align around the need for greater involvement of business in solving the complex issues we’ve created with climate change, social inequality, and nature’s degradation.   I’m seeing more and more the call for business to shed its “go it alone” mentality for the benefit of creating impactful business collaborations, cooperating pre-competitively with fierce competitors to find solutions that no one company could possibly establish on its own.  Call it “coopetition” and that’s the power of WBCSD.   We simply now need to build on the momentum and ask a greater number of North American businesses join with us.   Today we are 25% of the WBCSD’s member base and, given our economic position, I believe we should be more than twice that.

Q:   Speaking in terms of “biggest impact” to date that the WBCSD can claim, what focus has that been and what projects have created that impact? 

A:  It is difficult to talk about the biggest impact. WBCSD has been involved in critical conversations and actions for nearly a quarter of a century to find a means to scale up efforts to achieve a world where 9 billion people can live within the boundaries of the planet.   From our earliest days of aligning business for establishing a global reporting standard to recent contributions to the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) within our work on Redefining Value; or, more recently involvement in standing up the Global Alliance to End Plastic Waste; we are serious about our mission to align business with action.

Our impact and value come from our ability to provide a cooperative and safe pre-competitive space for companies to work together to address complex issues. We enable the conversations helping companies develop those solutions that are so urgently needed. The issues today are too big for companies to solve on their own, even if that means that they have engaged their supply chain. Only by bringing companies together around cross-sector collaboration to develop those solutions will we have a real impact.  One great example of this is the Soft Commodities Forum (SCF) which was actually launched by WBCSD in North America before I arrived on the scene and something I want to see happen more. As you know, global demand for soft commodities such as grains and oilseeds is only continuing to grow given an expanding middle class and population growth.   This is putting pressure on land use and generating incredible risks to the sustainability of agricultural supply chains. WBCSD convenes and supports the Forum, where we’ve brought together the world’s leading soft commodities traders who have pledged their commitment and deployed resources to eliminate deforestation from their agricultural supply chain.  The SCF is a great example of how WBCSD creates a safe space for competitors to build commonly beneficial solutions that will increase their long term sustainability.

Q:  As the “voice” of sustainable development for North America, what bit of information would you impart to businesses who really don’t have a clear understanding of what this means for their company and beyond?

A: Despite all the outcomes and momentum we’ve discussed, it is surprising to realize that there is only a handful of businesses that truly engage in the potential that brings getting involved in the sustainability agenda.  It is almost as if others aren’t aware of the collaborative opportunities that enable better business and are choosing to “go it alone.”  Some are still treating sustainability as a marketing function when in reality it is a material risk to any business and the investor community is now taking notice.  Sustainability is not only a matter of doing good, it’s also a matter of managing the risks to the business while establishing the means to grow with responsibility in the long run.

Today, the loyalty of consumers, the license to operate from governments and civil society, and the rewards from investors will go the companies that are legitimately committed to social and environmental sustainability.   In the road ahead, the most successful companies are and will be the ones that integrate sustainability into their strategy and where their Boards, C-suite, and senior leadership are bringing ESG issues into the core of the business. Those who do not, are destined to fail.

We extend our appreciation to Bill for his contributions to The Introducer.  Bill’s team says they would welcome connections to US companies committed to sustainability at the C-suite level.

Bill’s Linkedin

WBCSD site