Anniversaries are not only a time to celebrate and reflect on what has transpired, but also an opportunity to consider what lies ahead.
With that in mind, Bullfrog Power decided to hold a series of events across Canada this year to celebrate the sesquicentennial and connect with the sustainability community to deliberate on the country’s path to a low-carbon future.
Climate change’s myriad effects are already being felt across the country and its diverse business community, explained Ernst & Young’s Susan McGeachie as the moderator at the opening leg of this cross-country tour in Toronto.
While much of the focus understandably falls on fossil fuel extraction companies in Alberta’s oil sands and other carbon-intensive industries, virtually every sector of the economy will be adversely impacted. In an attempt to capture this scope, Loblaw’s senior VP of corporate affairs and communication Bob Chant and Munich Re Canada’s CEO Philipp Wassenberg were both invited to share their sustainability and climate change experiences.
What emerged was a series of best practices and approaches that should be internalized by sustainability practitioners across the spectrum, as well as more bespoke sector-specific issues and solutions.
No one knows more about the risks of climate change than Munich Re, the largest reinsurance company both in Canada and the world. It issued its first warning in 1973, as its research showed flood damage increasing around the globe. Many of the slides used by Al Gore in his first climate change documentary came from the reinsurance giant itself, and much of this analysis is now shared with UN organizations focused on climate change.
With the largest share of worldwide catastrophes covered by Munich Re now weather-related and growing exponentially, the company has had no choice but to place climate change adaptation at the core of its business.
For Loblaw, the biggest threat posed by climate change is to the food supply – whether it be droughts, water, seeds or even the impact on seed caches.
While both companies may be facing a common threat from changing weather, they have pursued different paths for mitigating this risk moving forward. Munich Re is harnessing its global research data to provide specific regional updates to interested parties like insurance companies and various governments, according to Wassenberg.
This effort often extends to proposing different mitigation techniques that have worked in other regions of the world, as well as providing recommendations to areas that have recently been hit by natural disasters.
One example is the 2016 fires in Fort McMurray, Alberta, which a subsequent Munich Re investigation found was not a firewall but an ember fire. “So one house after the other went up like this because there was bark mulch on the sides of the houses – really dry, because they had wood shingles, also because the sides of the houses were burning because wood was stacked up the sides of the houses,” says Wassenberg. “That’s the sort of research that we can educate with and help, in the end, mitigate.”
What they cannot do, explained Wassenberg, is bring carbon emissions down themselves. That job falls to companies with big footprints like Loblaw.
The grocery giant has the benefit of being a family-owned company, which Chant credits for its longer-term outlook. There are plenty of opportunities to reduce emissions – with the company occupying the largest amount of square footage in the country, operating the biggest truck fleet and running a large import-export business for items like seafood.
“Eight months ago we introduced our own carbon reduction plan, and we’re one of the few in the country on the retail side that has a formal plan to reduce our carbon footprint by 30 per cent over the next 13 years to match the federal government’s commitment,” says Chant.
Tackling an issue as immense as climate change requires a certain level of collaboration within the industry itself, something Loblaw has improved upon over the past decade. “We used to be pretty competitive with one another on issues of sustainability, where arguably we shouldn’t,” says Chant.
He looks to companies like Walmart as examples of firms with the scale to pioneer innovative sustainability approaches that have also been open to sitting down, sharing research and working together on some of these problems. It was a lesson Chant internalized when Loblaw spoke with the Retail Association of Canada about its carbon reduction plan, which has led to a dozen or more inquiries from major retailers here in Canada and the U.S. to help guide them on their path.
Despite these recent steps, there remains much room for improvement in this space, admitted Chant. He pointed to tackling the thorny issue of refrigerant leaks and efficiencies in their supply chain as potential future areas of collaboration.
For leading companies in the sustainability space, it can sometimes feel like corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies are getting ahead of where the customers are, said McGeachie. One example of this is an ambitious sustainable seafood partnership between Loblaw and the World Wildlife Fund that saw only a modest uptick from customers.
But for Wassenberg, making sustainability a part of your core business is the only viable path forward. “It’s better to start now, even if you have those drawbacks. Start anyways and become carbon-neutral as quickly as possible because –we’ve seen this in many countries, look at Scandinavia, look at Switzerland – the public mood suddenly switches and whoever is not operating according to CSR principles are gone in no time,” he said.
“They’re disrupted by public opinion, so I think that alone is reason enough to go after these principles.”