Anita Burke "It is too easy to blame the corporations and the media."

Anita Burke, Founder of The Catalyst Institute.

The Resilient Cities Conference brought together big names from all sectors to discuss sustainability imperatives. Anita M. Burke, former advisor to Shell International and founder of the Catalyst Institute, took the stage after Bill Rees, originator of the Ecological Footprint Analysis. Bill had just laid out the brutal stats regarding the end of life as we know it. With a big sigh Anita exclaimed, “Does anyone want a drink? If you all want to go drink instead of listening to me talk, I understand.”

Anita’s career as a leading thinker on climate change and sustainability was significantly impacted by her experiences at Shell International. She was asked to speak at the Resilient Cities Conference about “shifting corporate culture.” She awoke in a panic at 5am the morning of her speech and realized she could not in good conscience let the crowd believe that blaming corporations would work. She said that she got on her knees and prayed for insight. In that moment, she said, she had an epiphany: "WE are the corporate culture that needs changing." 

I caught up with Burke at the Canada Place Convention Centre and asked her to discuss brands, sustainability and Sacred Activism.

VO: Many massive corporations such as Shell and Nike are talking about sustainability like they mean it. Why do you think this is happening? Is it a response to market research, or a true desire to be ethical?

Burke: It is primarily a threat to and an erosion of sales that drives them to change. When we consumers start to change our purchasing behavior in response to an ethical misstep by a corporation, then they are forced to reevaluate their behavior. The phenomenal thing to me is that once they are forced to confront their behavior and look for solutions they discover that they can make money, improve efficiency and protect the environment all at the same time. However, do not be fooled that these are the drivers of change… they are positive outcomes recovered from a need to protect profits and sales; the environmental and social benefits are all secondary. The primary drivers are brand protection and reputation management. These companies respond when there is a radical, and often violent outcry. That’s what drove Nike to change their sweatshops. And that’s what drove Shell to change, after their service stations in Germany were blown-up over the Ken Saro-Wiwa issue in Nigeria.

VO: When you worked for Shell, you proved that becoming sustainable is profitable for corporations. How does this work?

Burke: Once we [Shell] began to embrace the fact that we had to deal with these issues, we began to try and find ways to prevent damaging our profitability and also deliver on the rallying cry for sustainability. What we discovered was that we had a lot of inefficiency in our operations that we should be fixing anyway. We made capital investments and equipment changes that were necessary to reduce our ecological footprint and improve the reputation of the company with the buying public. This actually turned out to be more profitable than we expected and we found that in many cases it was more profitable to implement sustainability than investing in something like a new offshore drilling rig or a new refinery.

Know that every molecule of waste is a molecule they can’t sell. As efficiency improves, they have more product to sell and they’re using less resources. Ironically, their eco-logical footprint is reduced as well. What we discovered, looking through the lens of sustainability, is that there are a lot of investments we can make that have a very nice return – to people profits and the planet.

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