A decade ago, CEF co-founder P.J. Simmons and I set out to answer a simple question: Could we do something meaningful to help accelerate business innovation and problem solving around the greatest sustainability challenges of our time? As big believers in the power of the private sector to drive solutions, we had a firm conviction that business would be pivotal to shaping the world we wanted for our children and future generations. We were less certain about how best we could contribute.
With learners’ minds, we began asking the smartest people we knew in the business community a lot of questions. Over six months, we spoke candidly with more than 80 senior executives at large, global companies about their trials and tribulations in efforts to align sustainability with core business strategy.
We heard a common refrain: a need for a new type of gathering that fell somewhere between the very high- profile and public discussions that happen at events like Davos, and the deeply technical, tactical conversations taking place at other business conferences. A non-judgmental setting where senior business practitioners could speak frankly about their biggest challenges and get honest feedback from peers similarly laboring to forge new ground. A safe space, out of the spotlight, where executives could compare notes on lessons learned and trends. A neutral forum where honest dialogue about shared challenges could deepen trusted relationships and reveal new opportunities for connection and collaboration.
Thanks to the vision of thirty founding members, we were able to convene the first in-person gathering of the “Corporate Eco Forum” in San Francisco in 2008. Following the meeting, many of them began reaching out to peers they believed would fit in with the CEF culture–and within a few years membership doubled. Soon, what started as an annual gathering matured into a series of virtual meetings throughout the year involving a larger number of executives. And what was once simply a forum for robust discussion, thought leadership and best practice sharing evolved to help members incubate and catalyze globally significant collaborations such as the Valuing Natural Capital Initiative at Rio+20, the Natural Capital Business Hub, and the U.S. Materials Marketplace.
One thing has remained the same from the start: the caliber of participating executives has been exceptional, with sustainability leaders spanning two dozen industries and collectively representing tremendous influence. Notably, those attracted to CEF convenings come not to be recognized but rather to learn, contribute, and get things done.
Over the past 10 years we have watched with admiration the extraordinary ways your companies have adapted and innovated, essentially writing the playbook for corporate sustainability. Now more than ever, we are proud to have served as a conduit, catalyst and cheerleader for your thought leadership and action over the years.
Looking ahead, our mission remains to provide the best possible neutral space for you to build on your successes and tackle increasingly complex problems: setting more ambitious goals, deepening your engagement across your organizations, proselytizing results within your company and throughout your industries, spreading sustainability both downstream and upstream across value chains, and forging new collaborations and partnerships to tackle even tougher, broader issues. This snapshot illustrates our members’ collective impact since 2008:
Reflecting both on your progress to date and on the road ahead, we’re coming full circle with the theme for our 2017 meeting with the question that framed CEF’s very first meeting here in San Francisco: “What If…?” We invite each of you to ask that question as it relates to yourselves as leaders, to your organizations, to potential partners and collaborators, and to CEF over the next decade.
What if…” we could bring even more mindfulness to our daily lives and find ways to lead with even more courage, wisdom, clarity and compassion? What if we each invested a bit more time in our own health and personal sustainability? What if we enabled more colleagues to embrace experimentation and failure in our organizations? What if more companies dared to set goals not only around reducing their impacts and “footprints,” but searched for ways to grow their “handprints?” What if more fierce competitors followed in the footsteps of others who have teamed up on a pre-competitive basis and achieved transformative results? What if more businesses treated today’s political uncertainties not as a challenge, but an opportunity?
As we ponder “What If” for CEF in the years ahead, we will continue to dream big. But most importantly, we will continue to draw inspiration and guidance from you. CEF is nimble by design so we can respond as members’ needs change and evolve with the changing landscape.You have our commitment going forward to stay true to the principles upon which we built CEF ten years ago.
We are thrilled and humbled that you are joining us this week, and deeply admiring of all that you do. Thank you for making the 2017 CEF Annual Retreat a priority in your calendar and in your professional endeavors. As always, CEF is extremely grateful for your support, contributions, and commitment to our collective success. Now, let’s get to work.