By Fiona Ma
with contributions from Samantha Conti, Hannah Connolly
 on January 25, 2019
Prince William talks with British broadcaster and natural historian, Sir David Attenborough, during a session at the 49th Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos

The snowy peaks and pine-cloaked mountainsides of Davos, Switzerland formed a fitting backdrop for the latest annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, where green issues grabbed much of the attention.

Western heavyweights Theresa May, President Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron may have skipped the trip to the luxury valley this year, but that only gave other world leaders and speakers from retail, consumer goods, tech and e-commerce industries a greater voice on the environment and how to reconcile growth and prosperity with preserving the planet.

Unilever, Procter & Gamble and Alibaba talked about new business models, the benefits of data and sustainable consumption, while Sir David Attenborough, in conversation with Prince William, set the tone early on.

“Every breath of air, every mouthful of food comes from the natural world. And if we damage the natural world, we damage ourselves,” said the 92-year-old British broadcaster famous for his nature documentary series.

“The future of the natural world is in our hands. We can wreck it with ease and without noticing we are doing it. But in the end we wreck ourselves,” he told the audience on the first day of the 2019 World Economic Forum, which ran from Jan. 22 to 25.

The theme of the forum was “Globalization 4.0: Shaping a New Architecture in the Age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” with business and thought leaders targeting globalization, technology and the environment.

Alan Jope, the newly named chief executive officer of Unilever, argued the consumer products industry “is at a tipping point of revolution.” He said brands with purpose have become magnets for consumers “performing excellently and operating on a scale of billions and in dozens and dozens of countries.” He admitted that some brands within the Unilever portfolio that aren’t staying as relevant — or purposeful — are struggling.

During a panel discussion on consumption habits, Jope added that mass communication, or “the old spray-and-pray model,” is no longer resonating with consumers. He acknowledged the increasingly complex shopper journey and how data is helping the company to integrate off-line and online purchasing.

Crucially, he pointed to China as the future powerhouse of consumption. “It’s nice to see a better gender representation here, but the room doesn’t represent the future of consumption. It’s insufficiently Asian. China is where we see the absolute smashing of online and off-line and exciting new business models,” he said.

Jack Ma, CEO of Alibaba group, during a session at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland

Jack Ma, executive chairman of the Alibaba Group, during a session at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.  Markus Schreiber/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Daniel Zhang, ceo of the Alibaba Group, would agree. In a separate talk, he was optimistic about China’s future, notwithstanding the trade war with the U.S.

“The trade war is one matter, but the most important thing is how we can make a better economy. China is a self-sufficient market because the consumption power is there, which is China’s strongest driver in the future,” Zhang said, heralding the power of digital technology as an engine for future growth.

Alibaba’s business is powered by artificial intelligence and Zhang said data enables the company to think outside the box, lead multiple experiments and move with a changing market. “AI is everywhere, and we do believe that with new tech, we can create a better experience for our customers and improve the operating efficiency of the merchants,” he said.

Doug McMillon, ceo of Walmart Inc., echoed Zhang’s position on data. Speaking on the same consumption panel as Jope, he said data was extremely important to customizing the shopper experience now that off-line and online are 100 percent complementary.

“People will be searching for experiences in-store through virtual reality. That’s what we’re expecting to happen. We’re driving to create more and more digital relationships around the world to deliver a seamless omnichannel experience, if you want to shop on an app or with your voice, for example,” he said.

Constant reinvention was the resounding message across the board, a message reinforced by David Taylor, chairman and ceo of Procter & Gamble Co., who talked about the new Loop scheme, which launched at a panel on Thursday.

Procter & Gamble, Nestlé SA, PepsiCo Inc., Unilever, Carrefour and other mass retailers are partnering with TerraCycle, a private U.S. recycling business. Under the Loop scheme, these businesses will start making recyclable packaging from recycled content. Via a pilot program, Loop will enable customers to shop online for branded products in durable and reusable packaging as a step toward eliminating single-use packaging.

“We set it up in a way that we think will be convenient and affordable for consumers to take charge and give back the packaging where it can be sanitized and returned to them. This offers amazing opportunities to eliminate waste and delight the consumer,” Taylor said.

While Loop may be a step in the right direction with multiple organizations banding together to help solve the problem, Taylor acknowledged that it will take multiple solutions to beat waste.

Jennifer Morgan, the executive director of Greenpeace International, said public and private partnerships aren’t enough.

“I don’t have much more time for public-private partnerships alone; we’ve got 12 years left to avoid a 1.5 degrees [Celsius increase in global warming], so please work to get the right policies in place,” she said adding that, so far, governments haven’t been playing much of a role.

Jack Ma, cofounder and executive chairman of Alibaba Group, also believes that governments need to be more receptive to the demands of a changing world and to the businesses that are trying to evolve.

“The whole world is expecting a new form of globalization. In the past 60 years, governments have made decisions on how to do business and the businesses have followed. In the next 30 years, it should be the businesses making decisions and the governments supporting them,” he said.

During a panel discussion, Ma issued a warning on big data. “It is coming, you cannot stop it, you have to embrace it,” he said, adding that technology is great for human beings and will be the answer to solving sustainability issues.

“It’s about using technology to foresee the problem and solve it, and how we can use technology to change, to improve, to be inclusive, sustainable and green. That is the meaning of technology,” he said.

Other highlights at Davos included a new global campaign, Voice for the Planet, which has received 21,000 individual pledges since Tuesday, and a partnership between Global Plastic Action Partnership and Indonesia to be launched in March.

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