Scaling-up Sustainability Solutions

This blog-post is built around my talk at the WBCSD Annual Meeting held in Chennai last month.

The Background:

2015 was a year of ambition that saw the adoption of the historic Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). World leaders committed to building an inclusive and thriving low carbon economy, and the SDGs provide us with an all-encompassing agenda for developing our societies while addressing the critical issues of poverty, inequality and environmental degradation. This unprecedented framework for action calls upon each of us to contribute, and forward-looking companies are translating ambition to implementation at scale.

Among other things, the event showcased how companies can capitalize on the new opportunities and economic incentives while contributing to the SDGs, thanks to WBCSD business solutions that align to their strategy and operations. The session in which I spoke zoomed in on how corporate leadership has scaled up solutions in India, and how this can be applied around the world. I shared ITC’s experiences in this regard.

Scale at which ITC operates:

Over the years, ITC has designed and implemented several large-scale programmes to create sustainable livelihoods, enrich the environment and address the challenges of climate change. I illustrate the scale using a couple of examples…

ITC’s soil & moisture conservation programme promotes local management of water resources by facilitating community-based participation in planning and executing watershed projects. Nearly 8,000 water harvesting structures have been constructed under this initiative, covering a total area of about 650,000 acres. It’s difficult to visualise that scale, and for a lay-person anything beyond the sight of a naked eye is big! It may be easier, if I use the analogy of Geneva Lake, a large water body most of the audience present must’ve seen; then imagine the whole city of Geneva of which this large lake is a small part. The area covered by ITC through the soil & moisture conservation intervention is 160 times the size of Geneva city! Yes, a hundred and sixty times.

ITC’s Farm & Social Forestry programmes have greened more than 560,000 acres through tree plantations by enabling financial, technical and marketing support to small and marginal farmers. Again, this acreage by itself may not make sense, other than appearing as some large number. Let me add, that those trees have sequestered more than 5,000 kilo tonnes of CO2, which is equivalent to keeping as many as one million diesel cars off the road, based on specific emission factors! Yes, a million cars.

The ITC e-Choupal initiative is a powerful example of a development model that delivers large-scale societal value by co-creating rural markets with local communities. With a judicious blend of click & mortar capabilities, ITC e-Choupal has triggered a virtuous cycle of higher productivity, higher incomes, and enhanced capacity of farmer risk management, larger investments and higher quality and productivity. These services reach out to some four million farmers. Again, just to visualise the scale, may I say that every Indian farmer could be brought into such a network, with not more than thirty companies operating at this scale.

All these, while ITC’s revenue has grown tenfold over the last twenty years! Profits grew 33 times and the Total Shareholder Returns grew at a CAGR of over 23%

For more details do read the GRI – G4 compliant, comprehensive, Sustainability Report of ITC.

The How of This Scale:

Essentially a three-dimensional approach. Focus. Outcome Orientation. Innovation.


Imagine a Venn Diagram. The focus of our efforts is on those areas that converge from three angles. First, the development challenges that matter to the nation. Second, those interventions that create enduring value for our stakeholder communities. As many as 250,000 people participated directly in a “Needs & Priorities Assessment” exercise in the PRA format, earlier this year. Third, those initiatives where our interventions can multiply the impact significantly by virtue of their touch-points with our value chains or their geographical vicinities.

The resultant key focus areas, viz. livelihoods for the poor, sanitation, gender equality, vocational skills, education, and climate action mirror the important global SDGs too.

For a deeper understanding, you can browse through ITC’s CSR Policy and Sustainability Policies.

Outcome Orientation:

Often, sustainability interventions are designed as point solutions. They do make a difference, but not at scale. For example, provision of information or knowledge to small holder farmers. This is certainly one component of the services provided by ITC e-Choupal. While this is a necessary condition, this won’t, by itself, raise their incomes. The information and knowledge need to be often translated to investments on the farm. But, given the inherent risk associated with farming, farmers hesitate to make those investments. This is where our livestock and such other interventions that bring supplementary incomes come into play, which enhance the risk bearing ability of the farmers. Once the intent to invest is there, the next challenge is gaining access to the recommended inputs, credit, crop insurance, farm machinery etc. The intensity of agriculture has a bearing on natural resources like water and top soil. Without a community effort, individual farmers get trapped in the tragedy of commons and exhaust these resources, and face an unsustainable future. This is where our soil & moisture conservation interventions come into play. And so on…

Thus, commitment to the eventual outcomes – and doing whatever is necessary as well as sufficient – only can demonstrate the impact and involve the communities on larger scale.

This integrated approach of ITC and the impact is well documented in a report published by APAARI.

Outcome is not a static target but a dynamic goal as the communities evolve. New goals get set on an ongoing basis to make the programmes contemporary and strengthen their enduring relevance. For example, in the sixteen years since the first e-Choupal was rolled out, the model is in its fourth version now!


Investment in sustainability initiatives at this scale cannot be sustained by merely keeping a portion of the profits aside. With our Chairman, Mr Deveshwar articulating the paradigm of “responsible competitiveness” for growth, the entrepreneurial energies of the whole organisation are harnessed to innovate business models that improve business competitiveness while creating sustainable livelihoods and enriching environment.

Making Markets Work for Green GDP and Sustainable Livelihoods” is the theme of one of his speeches at ITC’s Annual Shareholders Meeting.

More importantly, co-creating solutions together with the participating communities makes the innovations relevant. This approach also synergises the complementary strengths of the multiple stakeholders, and helps execute the programmes at scale. Call it a PPPP – Public Private People Partnership – approach, if you will