How nature could change the way we do business

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A hot cup of coffee is the perfect start to the day for millions of people around the world. But taking that first sip, it’s easy to forget all the work that went into bringing it to the table.

From farmers growing and harvesting the coffee plants to milling and roasting, there are many crucial and labor-intensive steps involved in coffee production. Like all industrial processes, it often uses a lot of land, water and energy.

That means there’s growing scrutiny around the sustainability of the bean-to-cup journey – something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the bosses of some of the world’s biggest coffee companies.

“We need to change our development model,” Andrea Illy told the World Economic Forum earlier this month, referring to the “extractive model” of the present and the past.

The chairman of Italian coffee giant Illycaffe, speaking in general terms, said the current system was depleting natural resources and producing an “infinite” amount of waste.

These “polluted and accumulated in the biosphere, eventually suffocating it and preventing the biosphere from self-regeneration”, he added.

“The idea is that we need to change this model and create a new ‘bio-mimic’ model, working like nature, using only renewable energy…possibly solar.”

“We talk about the energy transition, but that’s … a prerequisite for a much bigger transition, which is the ecological transition,” Illy also told CNBC’s Steve Sedgwick during the WEF panel.

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Illy’s argument feeds the notion of circular economy. The idea has gained traction in recent years, with many businesses around the world looking to operate in a way that minimizes waste and encourages reuse.

Maria Mendiluce, CEO of the We Mean Business Coalition, also spoke at the WEF panel. She emphasized that ideas related to circularity are not limited to food production.

“I don’t think we’ve fully harnessed the power of [the] circular economy – also in industrial systems,” she said, adding that now was “the right time to do it.”

Mendiluce went on to discuss the rare materials needed to transition to a more sustainable economy, with specific reference to original equipment manufacturers, or OEMs, such as automakers.

“If you talk to OEMs, [the] the circular economy is at the center of the strategy, because we have to recycle these materials – cobalt, nickel, etc. – to be able to supply the batteries of the future,” she said.

Slowly but surely, companies are developing processes to recycle materials used in crucial technologies for the energy transition.

Last November, for example, Swedish battery company Northvolt said it produced its first battery cell with what it described as “100% recycled nickel, manganese and cobalt”.

And a few months earlier, in June 2021, General Electric’s renewable energy unit and cement giant Holcim had reached an agreement to explore the recycling of wind turbine blades.

Returning to the theme of how the natural world could influence business practices, Dickon Pinner, senior partner and co-head of McKinsey Sustainability, described nature as “like the balance sheet of the planet”.

“There are so many dependencies of the real economy on nature that many businesses [and] governments have yet to fully realize,” he said. “The interdependence is… so great.

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