The green economy has emerged as a sector with the potential to drive economic growth and contribute to development that is both inclusive and sustainable. It is therefore important to understand how business and other stakeholders can actively participate in the green economy, as well as the key barriers and opportunities within the South African green economy. This was the topic of a panel discussion that took place at the 2022 Trialogue Business in Society Conference. 

Panellists included Poovi Pillay, Nedbank’s Executive Head: Corporate Social Investment, Gugu McLaren-Ushewokunze, Head of Social Transformation at the National Business Initiative (NBI) and Boyce Pillay representing the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). 

Nedbank’s journey into the green economy 

Pillay began by describing how Nedbank has been involved in environmental sustainability for several decades and has more recently adopted a green economy strategy. The bank believes the four sectors of water, waste, energy and agriculture are key to driving sustainable economic development and job creation. Interventions in these sectors need to be ecologically sound and contribute to saving the planet.  

Pillay explained that Nedbank’s philosophy is to begin by taking care of the most pressing needs facing the communities it serves. This is based on the understanding that the business will not exist without a healthy and thriving society. “Firstly, we provide seed funding to catalyse economic activity because we know that even if we are going to go into the green economy, not all communities can access capital”, he explained. Once these entities mature into viable businesses, they can leverage the balance sheet and grow from there. This can then be broadened into the wider value chain, translating into economic growth. 

Contributing to a just climate transition 

McLaren-Ushewokunze echoed these sentiments, highlighting the important role business has to play in ensuring sustainable development and a just climate transition. “In our work around economic inclusion, which has a focus on the green economy, as well as our work in the just transition, we know that if we don’t address these issues now, it’s going to have quite a significant impact on business and the ability of business to be sustainable and to grow,” she explained. McLaren-Ushewokunze also highlighted that pivoting to sustainable business practice is in an iterative process. “There are companies that are definitely leaders and have a deep understanding of the role of business within society and the environment, and have thought through how business can improve, facilitate and have an impact on a range of issues. And there are some that are still making their way and moving along this journey,” she continued. 

Opportunities in the green economy 

The CSIR has conducted research that identifies various ways in which the green economy can contribute to economic development. Opportunities have been identified in a range of sectors such as agriculture, technology and renewable energies. Such opportunities include harnessing food, electronic and chemical waste to produce high value products. However, these opportunities can only be fully realised if there are appropriate skills to support the sector both now and in the future. Ushewokunze-McLaren agreed with this, adding “One of our key areas of work is in partnership with institutions of higher learning, with the aim of ensuring young people have the skills they need to participate in the green economy.” She highlighted how the NBI has partnered with corporates such as Old Mutual, Absa and Nedbank to develop these skills.  

The discussion concluded with a question-and-answer session, which allowed members of the audience to interact with the panel. Key talking points included the following:  

  • Partnerships among role players across the socio-economic spectrum are key to ensuring opportunities in the green economy translate into sustainable economic development and job creation.  
  • It is important to adopt a shared-value model, to ensure that benefits are distributed among all stakeholders, including communities, instead of just being reserved for large corporates. 
  • The urgency of the situation with regards to environmental protection and a just climate transition requires that more role players do more, and do so a lot quicker.
  • In order to have meaningful impact, businesses need to create a link between corporate social investment and overall corporate strategy, ensuring environmental sustainability is embedded in all operations.

Watch the session