It’s Slow Time

South China Morning Post, 8 December, 2013.

Heavy hitters meeting at a Thai eco-resort seek to avert environmental catastrophe by targeting and changing the mindsets of the world’s most powerful people and companies, writes Jo Baker

The night is clear and black, the stars are close and the voice of Johan Rockstrom echoes around the open-air cinema of a luxury Thai resort as he describes the world’s impending demise. Reclining in the shadows with pre-dinner cocktails, a motley crew of problem-solvers listens. And as the leading sustainability scientist gets to a key part of his speech – on rainfall patterns – it feels as if the Earth has decided to make a point. Without warning, the heavens open.

“I was just about to get to the good news,” the Swede says, as his audience runs for cover.

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It may have chosen one of the more luxurious conference spaces in the world, but try not to hold that against the Slow Life Symposium, which – in its fourth year – is threatening to become a driver of change for planetary health.

Hosted and founded by the owners of luxury resort operator Soneva Group, the meeting unites a mixed bag of about 30 environmental “stars” for three days each year. Alumni have included entrepreneurs, explorers, filmmakers, activists, scientists, politicians and economists, from Richard Branson and Fabien Cousteau to Daryl Hannah.

The “slow” format is strategic. As an eco-retreat of sorts, hostile to both phones and shoes, the gathering aims to foster friendly partnerships and creative thought via a series of meetings, multicourse meals, organic wine tastings and even snorkelling trips.

“Normally we sit around as so-called experts, speak on stage for two minutes, answer questions and leave,” says British activist David de Rothschild, a participant who is perhaps best known for sailing the Pacific Ocean in a 60-foot catamaran made out of plastic bottles.

This symposium, he notes, has a somewhat different vibe.

The event attracts easy scepticism, given the expense, the eclecticism of its guest list and the heavy carbon footprint involved in getting participants here (this is offset, say the organisers). But those convening it through Soneva’s philanthropic Slow Life Foundation believe results have been tangible enough to justify it for a fourth year. They point to the promising initiatives that have sprung from partnerships formed at the symposium, one of which saw former Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed, with the support of participant Chris Gorell Barnes’ Blue Marine Foundation (see sidebar on page 28), commit in 2010 to turning all 1,192 coral islands of his country into a marine reserve within five years.

In 2011, input from different speakers, including Branson, led to the establishment of a potentially powerful social enterprise, Whole World Water (WWW; see sidebar on page 30). Co-helmed by Slow Life alumni Karena Albers and Jenifer Willig, WWW is looking to raise US$1 billion a year towards clean-water initiatives and to reduce plastic waste by taking a high-end tool kit to major hotels and restaurant chains that allows them to filter, bottle and sell their own branded water.

One point of difference to many environmental conferences, which often appear to yield little more than talk, is an emphasis on action. Participants are told that, after a few days of presentations and brainstorming, they are expected to present and commit to initiatives with practical impact. For some, this itself is the lure.

“I can and will not participate in any more talk, talk, talk fests,” announces Hannah – actress, advocate and two-time participant – to the room on the second day. “They just make me nauseous.”

This year’s chairman is Jonathon Porritt, a knighted British writer who directs Forum for the Future, a non-profit organisation that works with businesses and governments on sustainability strategies.

“My single criterion for success has been, Do we help to create new solutions that lead to transformative change later on?” he says. “These are people who are diverse and who can spark off each other, but also with a lot of experience in this world.”

Many participants have been chosen also for their roles as charismatic communicators – among them de Rothschild, Hannah, filmmaker and adventurer Jon Bowermaster and British writer Leo Johnson, brother of London’s mayor, Boris. A key thread running through this year’s discussions is the need for a reputational overhaul of all things environmental – and how to go about it.

“I hate being called an environmentalist,” says de Rothschild, during a discussion on messaging. “It makes me throw up a little in my mouth. It somehow makes environmental works seem too complex, or for someone else, and not at all cool. It needs to be framed as basically living smarter.”

“Science has proven that the worst messenger of the environmental cause is the environmental scientist,” says Rockstrom, who helms the Stockholm Resilience Centre. “I’m throwing down a gauntlet to deliver the most dramatic scientific message to humanity ever: that we are for the first time, as humans, a geological force of change … and there are ways still to define and regulate a safe operating space if we act soon.”

Also present, for the first year and to the clear enthusiasm of many, is Peggy Liu, who founded the Joint US-China Collaboration on Clean Energy (JUCCCE; see sidebar), a coalition accelerating the greening of China. Although the country is intimidating to many outsiders, Liu acknowledges, there are ways and means to bring it on board the Slow Life train – and now is the right time to be trying them.

“I think a lot of people who are doing systemic change projects are afraid to come to China because it seems indecipherable,” she says to the group. “But China needs help, and it’s the place everybody needs to be working with. So I’m here to tell people how you can collaborate with China and what are the best leverage points. China wants to be green.”

Over the course of the retreat, groups are formed, dissolved and reformed as they brainstorm ideas, from harnessing the power of the tourist industry to addressing the fact that, compared with 50 years ago, just 10 per cent of the ocean’s big fish are now left. Many dwell on the role of the private sector – Porritt’s primary source of guests, he says, because business leaders know what “making solutions looks like”.

Foremost among this group is Jochen Zeitz (see sidebar on page 28), the German corporate maverick known for twinning sustainability and desirability in top global brands – from Gucci and Alexander McQueen to Puma – and who this year partnered with Branson to push this further via high-octane business collaborative The B Team.

“Business has to become a driving force for sustainability because it is responsible for most of the problems we’re facing,” Zeitz tells the group, describing Puma’s transformation into an ethical, sustainable brand. “Governments are local, national, but business is global.”

Joining him are Pavan Sukhdev, an Indian economist whose latest book,Corporation 2020, presents new ways of measuring and realigning the “true costs” of big business; and Kelly Clark, who spent 10 years as a banker in the United States, London and Hong Kong before quitting to research paths to sustainable capitalism.

“Belief and follow-through on the environment from a business perspective is still too rare,” notes Clark, citing Zeitz as a personal hero. “Some of the most powerful people in the finance industry feel the least amount of agency and face huge personal risk in trying to do something different. It’s still a lonely game.”

The event sees heated debates, a few on the approach of the symposium itself and the pressure to fully form ideas into pledges in just a few days. But by the time day three swings around, the speakers – a little more tanned, tousled and just a touch worse for wear from the organic wine – are able to put on the table a number of new, potentially powerful ideas.

One emerges from a breakout session helmed by Zeitz. By pooling their contacts and resources, the group have planned to bring the world’s top 10 most powerful chief executives to elite eco-retreats, where they will be compelled – or propelled – towards sustainable business practices. Another group, led by Gorell Barnes, commits to trying something similar in the fishing industry. If its most powerful leaders could be enticed into a non-competitive “safe” space, it is reasoned, each may consider addressing the inevitable emptying of our oceans in a collaborative way.

Some outcomes promise broader impact, such as the draft for a code of conduct for responsible advertising and plans to start “sexing up” sustainable living, possibly as a fully fledged brand. Dorinda Elliott, commissioning editor of Condé Nast Traveller, reinforces this point succinctly: “We have to throw a better party,” she says. “We’re screwed if we don’t change the language and brand of sustainability.”

But as Zeitz has noted, without China many sustainable solutions aren’t solutions at all. And it is Liu’s offer to clear a path through Chinese protocol and power structures that gives the symposium its most promising spin. Her connection with Rockstrom, in particular, may see more Chinese decision-makers brought into important climate-change negotiations in the next few years through a series of pre-meetings with their counterparts in the West – and smooth out a series of missteps that have kept the parties at a distance from one another.

“We have so much evidence that a sustainable future is a necessary one – but you don’t need 7.2 billion people pointing their noses in the same direction to make real change happen,” notes Rockstrom, at the symposium’s closing dinner. “Momentum can come from 10 heads of state or 100 big business leaders moving decisively in the same way, and to do that you need to be able to create safe havens of informal dialogue among very, very influential people.

“I believe that the 30 or so people here have the power to grow that momentum.”

Sometimes a little luxury can go a long way.


The scientist: Johan Rockstrom 
Executive director of Stockholm Resilience Centre and professor of environmental science at Stockholm University.

Johan Rockstrom led the international team of scientists who developed the ground-breaking Planetary Boundaries concept – a framework for a “safe operating space for humanity” – in 2009. It sets out nine issues affecting life on Earth – among them climate change, deforestation, overfishing and the acidification of the oceans – and outlines the kind of attention they need, along with deadlines and strategies for action. By bringing these boundaries into our development at all levels in a co-ordinated way, he argues, humanity can avoid irreversible environmental change. The framework has spread among international organisations, governments and businesses as a guide in discussions about sustainable growth and the future of humanity.

“We have all the scientific evidence in place to say that humans are, for the first time, a geological force of change, influencing the entire planet, and that we have absolute boundaries for humans to thrive within,” he says. “It is not a portent of doom, it is providing a target. Here’s your playing field, and within that you can have innovation, technology, you can build an economy. I think everyone recognises that there’s a point beyond which deforestation is not OK, land regulation is not OK, overuse of fresh water is not OK, beyond which the emission of greenhouse gases actually will create danger.

“Climate is one of many big environmental processes that are equally fundamental to our prosperity. Climate, biodiversity, land, water, nitrogen phosphates – they’re all interconnected. And that is the challenge. Political leaders, business leaders and citizens need to understand and embrace complexity – not just simplify things to one silver bullet or issue.

“So far, we operate as if each nation state has its own independent planet. But consider, 80 per cent of rainfall in northern China’s Yellow River region – [at risk of] water scarcity – depends not on oceans, but on how Russia, Ukraine, all the way to the Balkan states, manage their forests. It’s evaporation from these forests that leads to rainfall over China. And that is, of course, a geopolitical bomb; to an extent, China’s stability relies on how its neighbours manage their forests. It’s a very new agenda for development, this need to govern the world as one planet. We’re globalised in trade, in finance. Now it’s time to be globalised in managing our environment.

“It’s a totally new paradigm for development. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Christine Lagarde at the International Monetary Fund, as well as big business leaders, are recognising that this is what we need to put at the core of our development models.”


The gateway to China: Peggy Liu
Founder of the Joint US-China Collaboration on Clean Energy (JUCCCE)

Peggy Liu left the world of venture capitalism in Silicon Valley to found JUCCCE in 2007, in Shanghai, where she takes on environmental issues with a corporate mindset. Liu (below right) has been marked as a Time Magazine Hero of the Environment, a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and a ForbesWoman to Watch in Asia, among other accolades, and has advised organisations from the Clinton Global Initiative to Hewlett-Packard. Her key role, as she sees it now, is to embed what she calls a “new China Dream” into the daily lives and aspirations of the Chinese. Working with everyone from mayors to television producers, Liu’s aim is to present luxury as a long-term, sustainable concept.

“The question is not, ‘Does China want to go green?’ It is ‘How can we go green fast enough?’ Change is happening at great scale. In the next 20 years we’ll have 350 million people move into cities that need infrastructure; 50,000 skyscrapers will be built in the next 10 years; and 170 new mass transit systems. China is the only country building whole new cities and innovating at a city level. And the people building these cities want solutions. Chinese people say: ‘Of course we want sustainable solutions! Our skies are grey, rivers are red and tap water is yellow. How can we not?’

“So for people with game-changing solutions, why are you not in China? In China there are fewer decision-makers and fewer channels to influence to make great change, so your opportunity is to identify them. For example, through the Central Organisation Department, JUCCCE has trained hundreds of mayors from across the country on how to build sustainable cities. And with this channel, we’re helping to set the agenda on eco-tourism, the sustainable use of energy, on climate-resilient city design. This is the time to help bring sustainable norms to China’s emerging middle class [which will reach an estimated 800 million by 2025] and affect their habits before they set. We need to help China visualise a new prosperity, to transform consumer desire to something sustainable; figure out how to communicate nutritional concepts in a Chinese context – a way to eat what is good for you and good for the planet; train the next generation of sustainable leaders in China.”


The oceans activist: Chris Gorell Barnes 
Co-founder of the Blue Marine Foundation

Since it was founded three years ago, Chris Gorell Barnes’ Blue Marine Foundation has raised US$15 million; helped to fund, negotiate and create the largest “no take” marine reservation in the world, in the Indian Ocean; and brokered a deal to protect the second largest barrier reef in the world, in Belize. The foundation is also working to inspire fishermen to take ownership of the seas and fish more sustainably, and through its restaurant rating system, Fish to Fork, encourages the same of restaurateurs.

“Our documentary The End of the Line was the first exposé into the issues of overfishing and the crisis in the ocean. I would say that it catalysed a big change in public perception in the UK and Europe on the issue of industrial fishing and how we’re destroying the sea. It also visits China, but none of the Chinese TV stations would show it.

“The message is that if we carry on as we are, by 2050, with a growing population, we will run out of fish. At the moment 90 per cent of all large fish in the ocean are gone, but it is solvable – mainly through educating consumers, especially the Chinese market. The Chinese, Taiwanese and the Russians are some of the biggest culprits in industrial fishing with enormous factory ships – many completely lawless – which go into other territorial waters and steal fish. They need regulating.

“Something like 12 per cent of land is fully protected. The ocean is 72 per cent of the planet, and only 2.3 per cent of it is protected. Ninety-five per cent of all life lives underneath the sea. We need to make sure that retailers and restaurants are responsible for what fish they serve, and we need to keep creating large-scale marine protected areas. It can take just 20 years of protection to allow ocean reserves and their fish populations to recover. You can shift the mindsets of people in this industry towards conservation because once they realise that this leads to more long-term income and better business, they do act.”;


The corporate reformer: Jochen Zeitz
Director and chairman of the board of Kering Group’s sustainable development committee; co-founder and co-chair of The B Team

Chief executive of sportswear brand Puma by the age of 29, and chairman and chief financial officer shortly after, Jochen Zeitz set and surpassed the goal of making the brand both desirable and sustainable within a few years. Under his long-term development plan, it became one of the top three brands in the sporting goods industry and a model of sustainable best practice in business. One of his major innovations was the environmental profit and loss (EP&L) account, which allowed the size of a company’s environmental footprint to be measured and monetised. He is taking this mission further, wearing various hats: as director of the Kering Group, a French multinational holding company that develops some of the world’s top luxury brands; as co-chair of The B Team, a group he founded with Richard Branson to help transform the future of business; and with his Zeitz Foundation, which champions eco-tourism.

“It was while writing my first book, with a Benedictine monk, that I realised we need to monetise the value of nature in business to make it transparent and measurable – if nature was a business, what would it charge us? I wanted to be able to see in a two-minute report where our impact lies, and how much it was costing.

“So I created the EP&L account. It puts monetary value to the environmental impact that business has along the supply chain. It takes carbon, water, land use, waste, air pollution into consideration. The interesting bit was that our own operations accounted for a small portion of footprint. The biggest footprint you create is when you decide about your raw materials. Fifty-seven per cent of your footprint is generated by using copper, rubber and leather – I tell my designers this. Add the processing of these materials and you’re way over 80 per cent. So if you really want to improve on your shoe impact, you have to look far down the supply chain. Of course, I have to be sure materials aren’t coming from Uzbekistan, where child labour is involved, or from the Brazilian rainforest. But with the EP&L I can steer a decision to areas with less water impact, impact on land use, etc.

“When I started with Kering they thought, ‘Here is this tree hugger coming along.’ But you have to really embed sustainability into the DNA. Luxury is about heritage, tradition, quality. What defines sustainability is being of great quality. And what is better than a luxury brand that manufactures products in Europe? We’re doing an EP&L for all [of Kering’s] 21 brands and having executive bonuses attached to the sustainability targets. [Fashion designer] Stella McCartney already understands that not using leather will have a positive impact on the life of the planet.

“Business is so competitively minded. Our competitive nature doesn’t even allow us to be in one room together. Representatives need to start taking responsibility and setting the agenda. So The B Team is made up of 16 business leaders who are coming up with positive agendas and showing other business leaders that it can be done. Among them we have Arianna Huffington, Ratan Tata, Zhang Yue [chairman of Hunan-based Broad Group] … We’ll take on specific projects and collaborate with each other, scale it and turn it into a movement. If every business was practising it, sustainability would be more tangible and achievable. If you want to institutionalise sustainability you can set environmental targets – and that’s when you manage what you measure. If you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”;


The sustainable luxury pioneer: Soneva Group

The Soneva Group is a luxury resort operator with a difference. Through its ownership and management of Soneva Fushi, in the Maldives, and Soneva Kiri, in Thailand, as well as a series of private residences, it is spearheading the notion that luxury consumption doesn’t need to harm the planet. Through its responsible tourism concept of Slow Life (sustainable, local, organic, wellness, learning, inspiring, fun, experiences) it has become a rare role model for an industry that tends to sap resources from communities worldwide without giving much back.

“Luxury and sustainability don’t need to be at odds with each other,” says co-founder Sonu Shivdasani, who manages the brand with his wife, Eva. “We take our definition of luxury to be something rare, and with wealth having moved into cities and ‘box-like’ existences in apartments, cars and offices, rarity is changing.”

At Soneva, luxury has therefore been reframed to mean anything from spending an entire week without shoes to dining on organic salads picked fresh that morning – along with the usual five-star trimmings. And by reconnecting guests with nature, the founders hope to kindle an interest in protecting it.

However, theirs is not simply a lifestyle initiative. The sustainability principle has been built in to their properties from the start, ranging from the more interesting – innovative water filtration systems using crystals, sustainable “rustic chic” architecture and a cellar full of biodynamic wine – to the distinctly less sexy. In Soneva Kiri, for example, 45-minute Eco-Centro guest tours showcase a workforce of African night crawler insects producing compost and the process of turning old cooking oil from kitchens into biodiesel for machines.

The group’s Slow Life Foundation amplifies this approach by investing in development and conservation projects, such as forest restoration in northern Thailand and an initiative to fund energy-efficient stoves in Myanmar and war-torn Darfur, in western Sudan. For the latter, US$660,000 has been pledged to help 150,000 families by reducing the lethal health issues associated with indoor air pollution and the risk of sexual violence for women who must otherwise forage for firewood far from their refugee camps.

Meanwhile, 2 per cent of Soneva’s revenue is invested in carbon mitigation projects; and through its water filtration project, it has supported clean drinking water or basic sanitation services in more than 50 countries. This, it maintains, is a new form of intelligent luxury.

“It’s not just about choices any more, it’s about making a statement,” says Lynn Villadolid, who manages the sale of the group’s private residences. “We’re finding, these days, the ultra-wealthy don’t just want to consume, they want to represent who they are and what they stand for.”


The hospitality innovator: Whole World Water

The Whole World Water (WWW) enterprise aims to unite the hospitality and tourism industry and its consumers around the need to preserve and improve access to clean water with one simple, creative concept. It was at the 2011 Slow Life Symposium that documentary filmmaker Karena Albers (right) had the idea for making WWW into a large global enterprise. The concept had already been created and rolled out by the Soneva Group among its resorts, but with the support of Richard Branson, Sonu Shivdasani of Soneva Group and others, she hatched a plan to scale it up.

Rivalling branded bottled water companies, the initiative sells top-range filters and chic reusable glass bottles to restaurant and hotel chains. They can then sell their filtered tap water at any price, on the condition that they donate 10 per cent of the proceeds to WWW’s central fund. This then finances drinking water initiatives around the world – including enterprises that can themselves recycle revenues back into the fund.

“I think it was the simplicity that made us so excited,” says Albers. “Businesses download everything they need from our website and they become part of a global campaign without having to leave their desk. It becomes a no-brainer – reduced cost, increased revenues; it reduces waste; and it increases money for the initiatives. We don’t consider ourselves a charity but a new business model.”

Working with Jenifer Willig, former chief executive of singer and activist Bono’s Red Campaign, the fledgling initiative has signed up the Soneva Group, Virgin, Yoo and Ritz-Carlton properties in the US, among others, and is setting its sights on the Asian luxury market.

“Much of the luxury industry now understands the need to consider innovative new technologies to preserve what they need and be responsible in their communities – whether [in terms of] plastic waste or water scarcity,” says Albers. “Now is the time for action.”