PUR Project is an ambitious solution for sustainable sourcing

PUR Project, created more than 10 years ago by Tristan Lecomte, guides companies towards more responsible operations and production through a concept called “insetting”. Pierric Jammes, co-founder and Chief Executive, describes this “internal offsetting” model, which is better for the planet than simply trading carbon credits.

Companies fully understand the urgent environmental challenge

Thirteen million hectares of forest are destroyed every year. Since 2008, when the PUR project was created, the planet’s environmental indicators have been flashing red. Despite this alarming situation, however, Jammes finds a lot to be optimistic about. “Between 2008 and 2018, we saw significant progress in responsible practices by companies and in consumers’ awareness of the challenges, unconnected with stricter environmental regulations.”

Sourcing is a good example. Before, few companies worried about supply chains, production methods or the precise origin of their raw materials. But now it’s rare to see a company not tackling the problem. “Most companies now have a sustainable development (ESG) department and are gradually incorporating environmental concepts into their processes.” And more and more consumers are becoming activists and demonstrating a preference for more ethical products.

Reinventing the approach, from offsetting to insetting

One of the best-known solutions for companies to limit their environmental impact is offsetting – acquiring carbon credits, a financial tool included in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. However, Jammes believes this alternative “does not correlate with the challenges a typical company faces.” Insetting is the opposite approach; it means internally offsetting an organisation’s environmental impact. To illustrate the difference between these two concepts, Jammes cites the example of Alter Eco, which foreshadowed the creation of PUR Project.

“When fair trade brand Alter Eco was seeking to limit the footprint of its products manufactured in Peru, it had an opportunity to acquire carbon credits … in Bolivia, where Alter Eco had no operations. This didn’t make a lot of sense.” At the same time, in 2007, a severe draught hit Peru, including Alter Eco’s cacao supply region. “Crops suffered enormously,” remembered Jammes. A solution nevertheless presented itself for preserving the cultivated plots of land. “The producers suggested to Lecomte, Alter Eco’s founder, that the company help to plant trees on their land,” Jammes added. “Agroforestry offered several benefits for the crops, because it naturally regulates temperature and prevents soil erosion.” At the same time, a study on the carbon capture and storage capacity of trees, published the same year, lent direct credibility to the concept. “It was a perfect ESG equation. Agroforestry benefited both the cacao crops and local producers. They were able to sustain their business and their working conditions improved noticeably. Plus, there was the positive environmental impact of a neutral carbon footprint.”

This experience confirmed that insetting can work, and convinced Lecomte and Jammes to create PUR Project. “We wanted to extend this practice to a large number of companies facing the same set of challenges as Alter Eco: securing the supply of raw materials while taking account of their environmental impact.”

PUR Project supports companies rather than penalising them

PUR Project is action-oriented. “We are not looking to penalise companies or force them to stop their activity because it’s bad for ecosystems. Instead, we search for solutions with them to modify their practices, making them more respectful of nature and people.” To do this, PUR Project’s approach is to support the incorporation of insetting into production and distribution on the one hand and into consumption patterns on the other.

At first sight, the approach seems to address mainly the sectors directly connected with raw materials sectors. “True, it will be easier for cosmetics, luxury goods and manufacturing companies to change the ingredients or materials they use,” said Jammes. “For them, it will be a question of better understanding where the materials come from, analysing the risks and their impact, and then helping suppliers – and further upstream, producers – develop integrated projects.” Still, companies in other sectors, regardless of their size, can also have an impact upstream or downstream from their business. “Service and retailing companies can better choose their partners, their markets and the products they sell, and develop circular economy projects. And even create waste treatment centres or landfills that will prevent discarded products from polluting the soil.”

In total, nearly 150 companies – 30 large and 120 SMEs – have counted on PUR Project to develop programmes scaled to their situations. “The larger the company, the greater the chances the idea will spread. But smaller organisations are also crucial for creating a virtuous circle”, says Jammes. “They’re more agile, and they’re going to inspire large companies and encourage them to follow suit.”

Insetting requires a long-term vision

However, convincing companies to completely revise their model is not easy. The PUR Project teams have to overcome three major obstacles. Firstly, the timescale that managers allocate to these initiatives, investments or transformations. “Very often, their vision is short-term, whereas these projects aim to recreate natural ecosystems and teach new production practices”, explains Jammes. “Patience is essential; it takes between two and four years at least to see a real positive impact.”

The second difficulty is demonstrating that investments outside the company’s direct scope create value. “It’s natural to think of them as a cost that will at least showcase what the company is doing,” said Jammes. However, many companies are now recognising the vulnerability of their business and the need to care for environmental and social ecosystems. Every company in the coffee market, for example, has an interest in sustaining their producers’ plantations and retaining their loyalty, if they want to continue to purchase high-quality beans. “Recognising these issues, Nespresso planted 2.2 million trees on 5,000 hectares with nearly 8,000 small producers.”

Jammes sees the third and last obstacle as a challenge: getting all of the company’s employees on board. “Internal alignment on the issues and a solid understanding of the approach is essential. Only by getting all employees to buy into the insetting project will the company succeed in co-designing new models with its suppliers and producers.”

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