Introducing The Instigator

A newsletter aimed at tackling huge environmental challenges in ways that make business sense.

The Quick Rundown: 

I’m launching a newsletter. The idea is to push the private sector to take bold action on the environment — now, before it's too late. This won't be about business as usual. Rather, we want to challenge business leaders and institutional investors to think big, engage all stakeholders, and partner with civil society in new ways. We’ll also ask the environmental community — NGOs, donors, activists, and academics — to strengthen these private sector initiatives. And we’ll present strategies for individuals to maximize their impact too. Our goal is to tackle huge environmental challenges in ways that make business sense. I hope you’ll subscribe for what’s next.

I remember arriving at Northwest Arkansas National Airport in late 2015 and being struck by the sight of so many fancy businesspeople milling about.  It’s a small airport, you know, so they stood out. Some of them I even recognized as leaders of Fortune 100 companies. Of course, I knew why they were there. They, like me, had been summoned to Bentonville by Doug McMillon, CEO of Walmart, on the eve of his announcing Walmart’s audacious climate initiative.  

I was there as CEO of The Nature Conservancy. I also recognized several of my counterparts at other environmental NGOs, who presumably, like me, had recognized the momentousness of the occasion.  But the vast majority of our group were representatives of Walmart’s biggest suppliers — a literal who’s who of consumer-facing companies. For many of these suppliers, Walmart accounted for up to a third of their total sales. Such is the purchasing power of Walmart. When they call, the CEO doesn’t just run; she hops on a plane. 

Project Gigaton was Walmart’s commitment to removing one full gigaton of emissions out of their supply chain. A gigaton is one billion metric tons. To put that in context, an elephant can weigh up to 6.8 metric tons, so we’re talking about more than 147 million elephants worth of carbon. Whatever your view of Walmart as a company, we can all agree that a gigaton is a big number. The announcement was electrifying. 

The truth is, I think Doug and his leadership team would have admitted at the time that they didn’t exactly know how they would get this done. But their principal resource was their clout, and they knew they could leverage that to do something. What they did recognize was that if they didn’t go big, the benefits almost wouldn’t be worth the effort. 

And there were benefits to be had — environmental ones to be sure, but business ones too. Better environmental practices demanded greater efficiencies, less waste, and ultimately lower costs. In the face of product fungibility, environmentally friendly production practices provide a differentiator to influence consumer purchasing decisions. And laudable initiatives boost employee morale, helping attract and retain the best. So Walmart went all in and here we were in Bentonville helping turn that goal a reality. 

We had big meetings. We had little breakout sessions. It got competitive; we all wanted to have the best ideas. (We were mostly business people, after all). We moved the discussions forward. We came up with concrete plans. And in the end, we celebrated with one of Walmart’s renowned assemblies. The room was full of Walmart employees at every level, and associates from stores around the world were videoed in. It was so spirited, I was transported back to my days of high school pep rallies. The excitement was palpable. And when I got up to speak about TNC’s support of the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative — a great initiative by companies, growers, and NGOs to accelerate the practice of regenerative agriculture — I could fully take in the magnitude of what was happening.

Hi. I’m Mark Tercek.  I’ve spent the past 15 years working on private sector environmental initiatives. (You can find out more about me here.)  Other leaders and great organizations have worked hard on this front too.  We’ve made some good progress — not enough — but we’re at a tipping point now. If we can get more people — employees, customers, shareholders, community members, and of course business leaders themselves — to step up and push harder, I believe we can hugely accelerate private sector-led environmental progress.

What can business do? 

Great businesses think big and move fast.  They raise capital quickly, design smart strategies, solve big problems, harness technology, seize political wins, and get important things done at scale.  That's just what we need right now for the environment. 

Pursuing environmental wins improves business outcomes. Not through PR or fancy sustainability reports, but the old fashion way of improving business — finding new opportunities to drive top-line growth, efficiencies to cut costs, community engagement to reduce risks, values-based programs that inspire the team, and so on. Just like Walmart did. 

How do institutional investors fit in? 

There is good momentum underway here. Take the huge ramp-up in funds flowing to ESG strategies, for example. That's just the start. Investors own companies.  Owners can tell companies what to do. They can tell them to go after environmental opportunities. Corporate management teams sometimes need pushing. 

We’re starting to see activist hedge funds and private equity funds catch on to this opportunity.  They understand that environmental priorities appeal to their LPs.  But more importantly, they realize that such strategies will likely lead to investment outperformance in a world where capital is abundant and becoming a commodity. 

But what about the government? Isn’t regulatory policy the most important thing?

Yes. But we’ve been losing momentum here recently. All of us need to keep pushing very hard for the public policy we need.  Nothing is more important — especially with an election right around the corner. The private sector can help.  They’re very good at lobbying for the things they believe their industry needs (many would argue too good in fact). Now we need to challenge them to lobby just as hard for other public policies they purport to believe in — like a price on carbon. 

Aren’t NGOs already on this?

NGOs are critically important. We need them and we should all do everything we can to support them. NGOs know things and have capabilities in environmental problem solving that the private sector lacks. More collaborations between NGOs and private sector players will unlock a lot of progress.   

How about philanthropists? 

Yes - philanthropic capital providers can do more too.  For example, they can provide greater amounts of unrestricted funding for NGOs to build bigger teams to work with business.  They can also leverage their vital donations to NGOs by providing additional capital via recoverable grants, impact capital, and debt. Philanthropists can learn a lot from their private-sector counterparts.  Again, there are some exciting developments underway here - especially by those family offices and new philanthropists who are open-minded about new approaches.

And the rest of us? 

Everyone can engage on this front and make a big difference.  Speak up and you might just be heard. This opportunity is huge. Private sector leaders today listen to their customers, employees, shareholders, and community members like never before. Let’s take full advantage of our voices.  

That's why I'm launching this newsletter — to help us instigate the change we want to see.

Why listen to me?

Like most people, I’ve worn different hats over the years. Two are most relevant.  First, my 24 years at Goldman Sachs, where I was a partner and led a number of the firm’s key business units including its first environmental effort. Second, my 11 years as CEO of The Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest environmental nonprofit.  In these two roles, I've been on the front lines of environmental problem-solving.  (I wrote a book on this topic too.)

The Instigator is a newsletter that will draw on this experience. The good and the bad. What worked well and what not so much. I’ll present strategies and positive examples we can learn from and straightforward advice from people on the front lines. I’ll give critics a full hearing too. (If there’s one thing I learned at TNC, it’s that critics are often the ones with some of the best advice.)  I don’t have all the answers, but I’ll ask questions as best I can and I’ll try hard to encourage all of us on this important campaign.

I hope you’ll come along for the ride.  

The Index: (links of the week) 

  • Walmart’s chief sustainability officer on Project Gigaton and the company’s newer — and I think again very positive — announcement to achieve zero global emissions by 2040

  • For a bigger picture take on Walmart’s sustainability journey, Force of Nature is a great read.

  • The World Economic Forum’s brand new report “Measuring Stakeholder Capitalism” has a good take on whether robust metrics and consistent reporting on corporate behavior will ever be feasible. 

  • The Instigator loves e transparent and ambitious private-sector efforts to improve important climate strategies.  Stripe and Microsoft both have excellent plans for strengthening carbon offset solutions.  

  • And here’s my take on how corporate/NGO collaboration can further accelerate progress.

One Last Thing:

If there’s one thing former non-profit leaders like me really admire, it's smart, generous, compassionate philanthropists who think big and move fast.  It’d be hard to top the great Chuck Feeney who long ago planned to give away his entire $8 billion fortune (he was the founder of Duty-Free Shoppers).  Guess what?  He just finished the job —  after 38 years of excellent philanthropic investing. His foundation, The Atlantic Philanthropies, is out of cash.  Bravo Chuck!  Let's hope others follow your example.  Here is a quick report on a very special person. 

All my best,