Huffpost World
Lord Jacob Rothschild Headshot

The Business of Resource Scarcity - Realising the Opportunities of Aligning Efficiency and Sustainability

Posted: Updated:

About a year ago Zhou Shengxian, the head of China's recently created Environment Ministry wrote: "In China's thousands of years of civilisation the conflict between humanity and nature has never been as serious as it is today." China's problems of rivers and reservoirs drying up - driven in part by its rush to build economic and physical infrastructure - is a more acute manifestation of climate change and economic development than here in the UK.

But the perceived conflict between a sustainable environment and GDP growth is surely the most difficult and complex issue which confronts us today. This is all the more apparent when the planet's population is projected to increase by an additional two billion people to nine billion by the year 2050, including three billion new middle class consumers.

Understandably, those three billion will aspire to a greater quality of life, bringing increased pressure to bear on our basic food, water and energy resources. For food production alone it is estimated that capacity will have to increase by a staggering 70%.

I've asked myself how the investment community, and in particular an investment company such as RIT Capital Partners, which I chair, could make a contribution to tackling this issue, mindful of the need for good economic and commercial reasons for our doing so.

We looked at a number of investment opportunities and decided to invest in Tamar Energy, a company focused on producing energy from organic waste matter. We felt that the feed-in tariff incentives provided by the UK government would make the investment returns attractive.

In addition, the anaerobic digestion market is significantly less developed in this country with only one per cent of the number of plants that have been put up in Germany. Sainsbury's is a co-investor and strategic partner providing its expertise and experience as the UK's leading retail user of anaerobic digestion.

If we can go some way to creating a vibrant anaerobic digestion industry here in the UK, we will be reaching our goals both in terms of economics and the environment.

Indeed, the economy and the environment need not be seen in opposition. If we take recent examples of research it is clear that businesses looking to mitigate their environmental footprint and resource consumption often reap rewards. Research by the Harvard Business School shows that companies currently adopting 'high sustainability practices' are significantly outperforming more conservative counterparts both in terms of stock market and accounting performance.

A US $1 invested in 1993 in a company with a sustainable business culture had for example grown to US $22 by 2010. The same sum invested over the same period in a company that had not adopted careful sustainability practices grew much less, to US $15.

The second piece of key research has come from the UK government's Department for the Environment, Food and Agriculture (DEFRA) published in March this year. Focusing on the areas where waste can be reduced, prevented or harnessed productively, the report identifies some £23 billion potential savings on an annual basis. Most tellingly, £18 billion of savings will be generated simply by using raw materials more efficiently and reducing waste.

This chimes with a recent McKinsey & Company report pointing out that the business world is on the cusp of a 'Resource Revolution', one in which companies and CEOs practising resource efficiency savings will undoubtedly seize a competitive advantage.

Looking at the theme of resource scarcity from a commercial perspective, McKinsey explained: "the resource challenge can be met through a combination of expanding the supply of resources and a step change in the way they are extracted, converted, and used."

There are already many examples of companies where major initiatives to prevent waste are producing dividends.

Unilever, Nestle and SAB Miller are all taking a long-term approach to investing in sustainable resource consumption. Each is driving through better resource management, which is expected to yield positive returns in the future.

At a time of economic difficulty, those countries and companies which continue to respond to the risks and opportunities for innovation are the ones which we need to follow and support - I hope and believe that Tamar Energy will be in that category.

As a 'not for profit' initiative, The Rothschild Foundation has joined up with the Smith School of Enterprise and Environment and Oxford University by sponsoring a landmark conference on these issues to be held in Oxford on 12 and 13 July 2012.

Investors will be cooperating with academic and scientific researchers, helped and supported by former government scientific advisers. The days will be spent in helping to identify how businesses can make radical changes in the way they manage their limited resources and to create innovative ways of sustainable growth.

Our conference, Re|Source 2012 will have as its ambition nothing less than the creation of a new climate of consciousness amongst individuals in the corporate world. There is an urgent need for those who are concerned about such issues to come together to help in avoiding the environmental 'time bomb', which threatens to explode before our eyes in the decades ahead.

Lord Rothschild is chairman of the Rothschild Foundation, which is collaborating with the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment this summer for a unique new forum, ReSource 2012. Held over two days on 12-13 July in Oxford, ReSource 2012 is bringing together 250 of the world's greatest thinkers including Bill Clinton to discuss the role that the finance and business community play in finding an urgent solution to the global issue of water, food and energy scarcity.