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TEDGlobal: Jason Clay and a sustainable future through corporate collusion

(Clay’s talk is similar to the one he gave at the Aspen Institute last year, though that talk was more than an hour long and, obviously, was able to cover more territory than an 18 minute TED talk. Here are my notes on that longer talk, which Clay was kind enough to vet and correct…)

WWF’s Jason Clay starts his tale of doing more with less with a story about his own childhood, growing up very poor on a farm in Missouri. When a scholarship allowed him to get out and go to school, he studied agriculture and anthropology. This eventually led him to working in a refugee camp in Sudan – “If you get a PhD and decide not to teach, you don’t necessarily end up in a refugee camp – you could always drive a taxi in New York.”

Using the techniques he’d learned as an anthropologist, he conducted interviews on how many people were raped, how many were arrested and tells us he was able to calculate with unfortunate accuracy how many body bags they’d need.

This wasn’t his path, he tells us. And so he found himself at a Grateful Dead show, talking to Ben Cohen of Ben and Jerry’s, who asked him, “What can I do to save the rainforest?” The answer Clay offered: “Use nuts from the rainforest to prove the forest is worth more as forest than as pasture.” The product, Rainforest Crunch, was an enormous success – $100 million in sales – but he tells us it failed. “Why? The people who were gathering Brazil nuts weren’t people cutting the forest. We needed to be working on beef, timber and soy.”

Returning to Sudan, Clay tells us he wondered why didn’t people realize famine was caused by politics, not weather. An Oromo friend answered his question: “You can’t wake a person who’s pretending to sleep.”

Human beings are currently using 1.3 planets worth of resources for consumption. Yes, population growth is important, but so is the size of ecological footprint. The average American consumes 43 times the average African. When we’ve reached a planet of 9 billion people, all of whom are likely to consume twice as many resources, we’re at a load much, much higher than what we can sustain globally. Yes, we need to bring up efficiency and productivity, but we need to bring consumption down.

Clay asks if consumers should have a choice about sustainable products… or should we mandate that all our products are sustainable? It takes 1.8 seconds for the average American to make an average consumer choice. That’s not long enough for a consumer to figure out whether frozen lamb from New Zealand is better for the environment than fresh from the UK, or even if organic potatoes have fewer toxic chemicals than conventional. (The answer to both those choices is non-trivial – and in both cases is, “it depends”.)

So sustainability has to be a pre-competitive issue. And, Clay tells us, we need collusion to address it. He and WWF have identified 30 key parts of the world where we need to protect biodiversity, and 15 major commodities that threaten biodiversity. Do we address this by changing the behavior of 6.9 billion consumers? It’s way too hard. 300-500 companies control 70% of these key commodities. And 100 companies control 25% of all this trade. And Clay argues that, if we chance their behavior, we can change 40-50% of production.

Now there are agreements with 40 of these companies, and negotiations underway with another 40. The plan is to use those 80 to twist arms of the remaining 20. One of the involved companies is Cargill, which not has plans to double palm oil production by planting only on degraded land. Mars has made a commitment to buy only sustainable seafood for its pet food. And they’re sequencing the cocoa genome and releasing it into the public domain so people can come up with better ways to grow the product sustainably, so Mars can always make chocolates.

The price of food as a share of household income keeps going down. But in part this is because consumers aren’t paying the true cost of food. If we bring in the externalities – particularly water – we’d see a massive shift in costs.

Clay closes by telling us, “Whatever was sustainable in a planet of six billion will not be in a planet of nine.”

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