(June 17, 5:00 p.m.) MINNEAPOLIS — The president of the World Wildlife Fund said sustainability is not about reputation but rather survival.

Carter Roberts, president of the World Wildlife Fund, Washington, D.C., and adviser to companies including Wal-Mart and Coca Cola, presented the case for sustainability as a business imperative during a June 16 workshop to more than 300 attendees of the Food Marketing Institute first-ever Sustainability Summit.

“We need to produce more with less carbon, less water, less pollution, less waste,” he said.

Roberts urged retailers to seek opportunities in the changes and use their leverage with their suppliers.

“Efficiency wins. The big money is rushing to go into renewable energy and sustainable technology. That’s where the big fortunes will be made,” he said.

The links of the food chain that can produce more with less will stand to benefit from the challenging years ahead, he said.

“It doesn’t need to mean fewer profits but a different way of operating,” he said.

Roberts said consumers will judge harshly companies they believe aren’t paying attention to environment issues. Retailers must understand not only where their product is grown but how it is grown.

“Whether you are big or small, the decision to source sustainable products has an enormous impact,” he said.

Roberts began his talk with an illustration of how much water is required to produce a liter bottle of soda. Considering the water it takes to produce the sugar, the label, the bottle and soda, Roberts said more than 250 liters of water are required for every liter of soda. That’s not considering the other environmental effects of the energy it takes to power electrical power plants to transform raw material and the gasoline burned to get the bottle to the store.

“When you deconstruct that simple bottle of soda, you get a glimpse of the global economy in action and the impact on natural resources” he said. “We are waking up to the consequence of that.”

Considering consumer goods the impact on the environment of, Roberts said he believes the biggest single business imperative of the 21st century will be how companies manage increasing consumption with earth’s finite resources.

Roberts said the current world economy is demanding about 1.25 times what the planet can sustain over the long term, and the picture will get worse in the future, he said. “We estimate if China catches up to us, it will require two planets, and if the rest of the world catches up to us, it will require 11 planets,” Roberts said. “If we continue to indulge our appetites, and we continue to purse a model of production that is inefficient we face a century we will see catastrophic and destructive forces we have not seen before.”

Even now, 100 million people are at risk for extreme hunger and starvations, he said, and one study has estimated that global warming may cut world farm output by 18% by 2020.

The U.S. position as the global economic leader won’t necessarily cushion them from the shocks ahead, he said. Roberts said retailers to be part of the solution by operating efficiently, purchasing efficiently and influence consumers.

FMI Sustainability Summit plays up efficiency
Gene Kahn, global sustainability officer for General Mills Inc., Minneapolis, responds to a question at a June 16 afternoon session at the Food Marketing Institute's June 16-18 Food Industry Sustainability Summit in Minneapolis.