For a few hours at least, high in a glass-covered Manhattan skyscraper, corporate leaders abandoned the idea that dirty skies and water were an unfortunate but necessary consequence of the effort to create jobs, profits and strong economies.

No less than a potential presidential candidate, and the building’s namesake, declared that profit and a clean planet were compatible.

“The fact is that it’s good for business to be good for the environment,” Michael Bloomberg, the founder of Bloomberg LP and Bloomberg Philanthropies and the U.N. Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Climate Action, told dozens of executives assembled for the two-day Bloomberg Sustainable Business Summit in midtown Manhattan.

Other executives at the summit agreed that corporations are taking a leading role in the transition to a greener economy now that it’s clear that sustainability isn’t a drag on profits.

Climate change is the “biggest challenge facing the future of the world,” Syngenta CEO Erik Fyrwald said. “We also believe it’s a great investment opportunity,” said Fyrwald, whose company is one of the world’s largest producers of seeds and agrochemicals.

Syngenta announced today that it will spend $2 billion over five years to bolster agricultural sustainability. Developing better seeds not only increases yields, which should reduce deforestation, it will also lead to less water use and curb carbon emissions that occur when soil is tilled, Fyrwald said.

Manufacturers aren’t the only ones making changes — the investment community is integrating environmental, social and governance into decision making. Clients are starting to demand it, and as wealth is transferred from baby boomers to millennials this will only increase, both Alexandra Basirov, global head of sustainability at BNP Paribas, and Patrick G. Halter CEO for Principal Global Investors, said on a panel. This will involve greater cooperation among stakeholders. 

“I see collaboration as the new competition,” Basirov said. 

The message from speakers was that sustainability is a winning business strategy. The desire for profit is now paired with green converts, a trend that should continue, the participants said.

“Impact investment is growing,”  said Tom Szaky, founder and CEO of TerraCycle, a global leader in recycling. “Investors are looking for purposeful, profitable opportunities.”

The cement industry, responsible for between 7% and 8% of global carbon dioxide emissions, may be one area where opportunity exists. But the industry can’t cut the release of greenhouse gases alone, said Jamie Gentoso, the CEO of U.S. cement operations at LafargeHolcim. More government help is needed, she said.

State and local governments have picked up some slack in setting climate policy since the federal government stopped working to curb emissions under President Trump, both Gentoso and Anne Kelly, vice president of government relations at Ceres Policy Network, said on a panel. “State and local governments have enormous procurement power,” Kelly said, and should use it demand that materials such as concrete are sourced from greener sources.

Even so, the recognition of the dangers posed by climate change are much better recognized in the federal government. The change is especially pronounced among Republican legislators who are more fluent about the issue, Kelly said. “I recommend companies bring lawmakers, especially rightwing lawmakers, out to a site visit — they need political cover,” Kelly said.
Companies are making headway in addressing environmental concerns.

NRG Energy, a leading U.S. power company, recently announced plans to cut emissions 50% by 2025 and get to net-zero by 2050. “The debate is over,” CEO Mauricio Gutierrez said at the summit.

More than two billion portions of Unilever products are consumed everyday, producing a lot of waste, said Jostein Solheim, executive vice president of foods & refreshment for Unilever North America. That’s why the company’s U.S. arm will be using 50% recyclable plastic by the end of this year.

“Hellmans is found in half of American homes,” Solheim said. “It went to 100% recycled plastic, which saves 66 Statue of Liberties of plastic and increased loyalty” from consumers.