How nature can change the way we do business

A hot cup of coffee is the perfect start to the day for millions of people around the world. But when you take your first sip, it’s easy to forget how much work it takes to bring it to the table.

From farmers growing and harvesting coffee plants, to grinding and roasting, there are many important and time-consuming steps involved in coffee production. Like all industrial processes, it often uses a lot of land, water and energy.

This means that the sustainability of the bean-to-cup path is under increasing scrutiny—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 Illi said at 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, who spoke in broad terms, said the current system was depleting natural resources and producing an “endless” amount of waste.

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

“The idea is that we need to change this model and create a new “biomimic” model that works like nature, using only renewable energy sources… perhaps solar.”

“We’re talking about an energy transition, but it’s … the premise of a much larger transition that is ecological,” Illy told CNBC’s Steve Sedgwick on a WEF panel.

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Illy’s argument fuels the notion of a circular economy. This idea has gained momentum in recent years, with many companies around the world striving to work in a way that minimizes waste and encourages reuse.

Maria Mendilus, CEO of the We Mean Business Coalition, also spoke in the WEF group. She stressed that the ideas behind circularity are not limited to food production.

“I don’t think we used the full force [the] circular economy – including in industrial systems,” she said, adding that now is “the right time to do so.”

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 need to recycle these materials — cobalt, nickel, etc. — to be able to make batteries in the future,” she said.

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

Last November, for example, Swedish battery company Northvolt said it had made its first battery cell from what it said was “100% recycled nickel, manganese and cobalt.”

And a few months earlier, in June 2021, General Electric’s renewable energy division and cement giant Holcim struck a deal to explore the possibility of recycling wind turbine blades.

Returning to the topic of how the natural world can influence business practices, Deacon Pinner, senior partner and co-director of McKinsey Sustainability, described nature as “the balance sheet of the planet.”

“There are so many dependencies of the real economy on nature that many companies [and] governments have not fully realized yet,” he said. “The interdependence… is so great.”

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