Ben Goldsmith by Xerxes Cook

If all of our economy relies on our environment, how can big businesses become a force for good?

Conventional business wisdom decrees a company’s priority is to maximise their profits through keeping their costs as low as possible — often at the expense of environmental restrictions or ethical regulations that stand in the way of their margins. However, what if that profit motive is what’s spurring big corporations to start thinking of their environmental impact?

Ben Goldsmith, founder of WHEB, an investment group backing green businesses and infrastructure projects, believes it’s often the “simple mathematics” of using resources more efficiently and reducing waste that delivers the cost savings all companies seek. That simplicity, he says, is what’s driving the “green industrial revolution.” In terms of costs — to both business and the environment — it doesn’t get much bigger than energy. “People don’t quite realise firstly how fast the price of the equipment of renewable energy has come down in price,” Ben says. “Solar power is even 90 percent cheaper than it was in 2008; so solar is becoming the cheapest energy option for a lot of places in the world, and the price for wind is coming down and down also.” With this technology competing with conventional energy sources, it’s not difficult to see how countries such as the Philippines, Austria, Croatia, Norway and Brazil will achieve their goals of a 100 percent renewable energy supply in the next 15 or 20 years. Even Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest exporter of fossil fuels, is getting in on the act. “On the face of it, you wouldn’t think they would invest in renewables, but every barrel of oil they burn for generating domestic electricity could have been sold for 120 bucks,” Ben comments. “Saudi Arabia plans to build more photovoltaic power generating capacity in the next ten years than the whole world has built to date.”

A nature lover who grew up “looking for bird’s nests in the forest,” Ben’s greatest passion remains for the outdoors. The scion of one of Britain’s wealthiest families, he describes his green investment business as a “social mission.” Because, “If we succeed in delivering returns for investors, we’re mobilising private capital into areas that badly need it if we are to avoid the total breakdown of the environment.” WHEB’s investments fall into two camps: First are the “evolutionary, rather than revolutionary” ventures, focused in efficiency — “smart energy meters for homes and offices, efficient LED lighting, new types of refrigeration and air conditioning, and PVS and polypropylene waste recycling technologies that are economically viable.” The other is in renewable energy infrastructure, such as wind farms, solar parks, biomass power stations and hydroelectric dams. What all companies need to understand, Ben believes, is that “everything they do is reliant on the environment.” He cites the brewing conglomerate SAB Miller’s restoration of the rainforests around Bogota in order to maintain the water supply for their brewery in the Columbian capital as an example of a large corporation recognising that their business is dependent on a healthy ecosystem.

What all companies need to understand is that everything they do is reliant on the environment.

Another is in Vietnam, where 40 percent of the country’s energy supply comes from hydroelectric dams. The discovery that the flow of their rivers have begun to drop and their expensive dams have become silted up with mud as a result of deforestation led to Vietnamese power companies teaming up to pay for the protection of millions of hectares of the country’s rainforests. And it’s not just electricity and alcohol, Ben tells Ever Manifesto, but a principle that can be applied to all industries. “Tourism is another one as well. There are studies which have shown a dead manta ray is worth $50 to the Costa Rican economy, but a manta ray during the course of its 20-year life is worth $180,000 through people coming to see it.”

“I think corporations, as they realise this, become potentially forces for good — and those that don’t get it will be left behind.” He continues, “Companies that behave well are more popular with customers, employees and investors — which lowers their cost of raising capital. Young people coming out of university today, the smartest talent in the world, don’t want to work for the bad guys.” When it comes to trying to live a carbon neutral life, Ben admits he’s “no saint”, but tries to be a responsible as possible, taking public transport and cycling to meetings in London and buying local food as often as he can. “I don’t think the answer is to preach to people, as I think it is out of the hands of most.” The nephew of the UK’s Green Party co-founder Teddy, and brother of English Member of Parliament Zac, Ben believes “the most effective way people can make a difference is through how they vote [both politically and] in the way they spend their money.”

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