When asked about the relationship between business and sustainability in Brazil, Marcio Macedo of the Brazilian National Development Bank was adamant that the country cannot solely base decisions upon short-term profits and losses.
“Business cannot escape from specific actions and policies related to social and environmental effects,” Macedo said. “They cannot escape from sustainability drivers.”
Macedo spoke to us in his office in Rio de Janeiro as we interviewed him for an Erb ‘Cool Project’ focused on understanding the sustainability landscape in Brazil, the role of management education in addressing those challenges, and how the Erb Institute for Global Sustainability can be involved in this process.
We met with Macedo and other stakeholders in the business, non-governmental, and academic worlds to hear on-the-ground perspectives. Each of the conversations touched on the increasing alignment between sustainability and business operations.
“The future of business sustainability is that there will not be a separation between business and sustainability,” said Yuri Feres, a sustainability manager at Cargill Brazil.
Representatives from BRF, the world’s second largest chicken and pork company, echoed similar sentiments.
“Sustainability is not part of the business; it is the business,” Ana Bastos from BRF said.
When asked to indicate specific fields that would be crucial to sustainability going forward, stakeholders most frequently cited water and energy. In a country where hydropower provides more than three-fourths of the electricity, the two can be difficult to separate. Drought caused the city of São Paulo’s main reservoir to operate at 5% of its capacity earlier this year.
Addressing water and energy issues will require the kind of long-term strategic thinking Macedo from the National Development Bank referenced.
The Social Side of Sustainability
Many businesses said that they were expanding their definition of “sustainability” beyond an environmental focus to include social components. The major concerns within the social side of sustainability for Brazilian firms are labor conditions, community development, and anti-corruption efforts. External events and pressures have significantly affected corporate decision-making. Additionally, public scandals have placed increased attention on the importance of anti-corruption to sustainable business practices.
NGO pressure has also been a force in changing practices in the soy and beef sectors where Greenpeace advocacy led to a moratorium on large companies purchasing soy or beef from farms that deforested after 2008.
As businesses face diverse sustainability challenges in Brazil, management education programs have begun to include sustainability-focused classes to discuss business strategies for sustainability.
One of the leading local examples of this is a semester-long immersion program at the Fundação Getulio Vargas where students work in interdisciplinary teams to understand the complexity of sustainability challenges and work with classmates from other schools (e.g. law, public administration, and business) to build regionally appropriate paths towards solutions.
Because of The Erb Institute’s’ strong record of student international involvement and on-the-ground impact, Brazilian companies and institutions have demonstrated an interest in continuing to explore different opportunities for collaboration with the Erb Institute, including hosting University of Michigan graduate students on a sustainability trek at the beginning of 2016.
Our time in Brazil working on this project directly relates to the Erb Institute’s Strategic Plan for 2015-2020, which emphasized the importance of global perspectives and local sensitivities in preparing future leaders in sustainability. This exchange was part of the Erb Institute’s goal of establishing relationships with a range of organizations in Brazil as it expands its impact in the fifth largest economy in the world.
We would like to thank Instituto Ethos, Cargill, BRF, Fundação Dom Cabral, Petrobras, Fundação Getulio Vargas, Vale, Braskem, BM&FBOVESPA, Marfrig, and Endeavour for taking the time to meet with us and illuminating many of the pressing challenges and innovations taking place in Brazil.