Designing a Sustainable Future: CEO Daily

September 6, 2019, 10:51 AM UTC

At this week’s Fortune Global Sustainability Forum in Yunnan, China, there was a lot to get depressed about: global temperatures are climbing, the icebergs are melting, sea levels are rising, our rivers and oceans are choking on plastic, landfills everywhere are overflowing with trash, our rainforests are going up in smoke, and the planet’s population of wild animals is teetering on the brink of what some experts call the Great Extinction.

When I asked climate expert Hal Harvey yesterday how long we have to cope with climate change, his answer was succinct: minus 10 years. It was almost enough to make me want to wander off into the beautiful Yunnan mountains, abandon all faith in capitalism—and for that matter humanity itself. But not quite.

In our concluding session, two of the conference’s most visionary thinkers urged us not to fear the future. “Don’t be afraid, be curious,” exhorted the brilliant Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde. “I don’t believe in utopia, I believe in protopia: designing prototypes for solutions that create a better world and that can be realized. As humans, we learn, we fail, and we evolve. Stop whining and worrying. We need to fix it.”

Roosegaarde showed how he has attempted to do just that—with elegant towers that suck smog from the sky and turn it into jewelry, giant kites that harness enough wind power to light up a city, and lasers that shoot space debris out of the sky.

Bill McDonough, who has championed the concept of The Circular Economy for more than three decades, challenged the idea that entropy—the steady collapse of the universe—is an immutable law. As humans, he argued, we have the power and the obligation not just to slow the spiral of environmental destruction but reverse it.

Indeed, Bill—who figured out how to transform the roof of Ford Motor’s giant River Rouge factory into a verdant meadow, designed a textile mill for blue jeans that doubled as a water purifier, and helped Herman Miller create office chairs that are completely recyclable—inveighed against the very term “sustainability” as a mantra of underachievement. “If someone asked you to describe your relationship with your wife,” he asked, “would your answer be ‘sustainable’?”

Leaders of business and government, he argued, should think of themselves as more than just the planet’s janitors. They must aspire beyond mere “maintenance” and instead seek to create “beauty and magic” in tackling environmental challenges. Or as Bill so eloquently put it: don’t just grab a mop, reach for a paint brush.

Over the past three days, amid the doom and gloom, speaker after speaker came forward with practical—and profitable—proposals for how to realize that vision. You can sample many of those conversations on

We also hope you’ll take a look at Fortune‘s latest newsletter, The Loop, which is written by Eamon Barrett. The Loop promises to give you the information you need on corporate environmentalism, and the technology and policy advances shaping the future of sustainability. Check out the first edition and subscribe here.

News below.

Clay Chandler


Rate Cut

The Wall Street Journal reports that Federal Reserve officials are readying an interest rate cut of perhaps a quarter-percentage point at their next policy meeting in a couple weeks' time. WSJ

Mugabe Death

Robert Gabriel Mugabe, Zimbabwe's liberator turned tormentor, is dead at 95. He leaves behind an extraordinarily complex legacy that features impressive high points—the foundation of Zimbabwe and his institution of a very high standard of education there—but that will largely be remembered for its depths: massacres, starvation, economic vandalism, and eye-watering corruption. Mail & Guardian

Plane Sabotage

An American Airlines mechanic has been arrested for allegedly trying to sabotage a plane that was about to fly 150 people from Miami to the Bahamas. According to the charges, Abdul-Majeed Marouf Ahmed Alani tried to damage or disable the craft's system for reporting data on things like aircraft speed and pitch. Alani reportedly claimed he wasn't trying to harm anyone, and tampered with the system so he could claim overtime. CNN

Dorian Toll

The official death toll from Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas may be 30 for now, but the government warns it will end up "staggering," as hundreds remain missing. A weakened Dorian is still battering the Carolinas in the U.S. BBC


Deutsche Bank

U.S. investigators have reportedly identified potential flaws in Deutsche Bank's money-laundering controls. A congressional inquiry apparently found instances where management ignored concerns flagged up by staffers about Russian clients. Reuters

WeWork Valuation

WeWork's valuation at IPO may end up somewhere around the $20 billion mark, which is a lot less than the $47 billion valuation it had at its last funding round. CEO Adam Neumann has been talking to investor SoftBank about a further capital infusion, possibly in a way that makes the conglomerate an anchor investor in the IPO. WSJ

Responsible Energy

Boston Consulting Group CEO Rich Lesser and Yale's Jeffrey Sonnenfeld write for Fortune that energy companies can demonstrate their social responsibility by opposing the rollback of emissions standards and taking responsibility for the issue by sharing their own research on emissions and other pollutants, "thereby outlining a method of control, and articulating a higher set of standards for themselves." Fortune

Capitalism's Future

Speaking of the issue of corporate responsibility and those new Business Roundtable promises, the Financial Times has an in-depth feature about the debate around capitalism's future. The question is, who is undermining capitalism—those who insist on shareholder primacy, or those who want to see the system reformed? FT

This edition of CEO Daily was edited by David Meyer. Find previous editions here, and sign up for other Fortune newsletters here.

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