SustyBiz15 and the Progression of Sustainability

November 27, 2015

 

GreenBiz and other sustainability voices assert that corporate sustainability is moving into its second decade as a movement. Since the launch of other highly publicized, strategically branded corporate sustainability plans like General Electric’s innovative Ecomagination strategy in 2005, we have seen several major waves in the evolution of corporate sustainability.

Ecomagination is GE’s growth strategy, infused with sustainability, in order to decrease the company’s environmental footprint while advancing its resource productivity. Over the past decade, their strategy has proven to do just that – reducing the company’s greenhouse gas emissions by 31 percent and freshwater use by 42 percent, while growing GE four times overall and generating over $200 billion in revenue.

GE was by no means coming up with this strategy in a silo. Other big box brands like Walmart have been reflecting on their 10th “anniversary” of announcing sustainability goals and considering what went well and what comes next.

The past decade brought a groundswell of major corporate sustainability pushes, which focused namely on the following areas:

·       Greening operations, mainly through conservation and efficiency measures

·       Selling of “green” or “sustainable” through more efficient products

·       Pushing sustainability up the value chain to suppliers

·       Extending sustainability to “end of life” and promoting producer responsibility initiatives

Only within the past few years have leading companies ventured outside the value chain to influence external system factors, such as policy. Such leaders were present and on display at the American Sustainable Business Council’s Fourth Annual Business Summit in Washington, D.C., which I recently attended.

The Summit brought together more than 300 business and policy leaders to brainstorm at the intersection of climate change, responsible business practices and public policy. The overarching goal of the gathering was to innovate and share best practices on what approaches could help to build a more sustainable economy – one that leaves behind inequalities and rewards ecologically responsible business behavior.

Corporate sustainability trailblazers like Patagonia and New Belgium Brewing were on hand to share their vision, strategies and tactics to battle climate change. Rick Ridgeway, VP of Environmental Affairs at Patagonia, explained how the company has strategically invested in advocacy and lobbying with a sustainability focus, and how this type of policy engagement has been more effective for their business.

In particular, Patagonia has lobbied Congress for regulations that will send strong signals to the marketplace that a price should be put on carbon in order to trigger the next big wave of corporate sustainability. Once carbon is given an economic value, companies will have no choice but to pay attention.

Andrew Lemley, Government Affairs Emissary at New Belgium Brewing, revealed his thoughts on how to reduce inequality through building responsible workplaces and employment practices. In another workshop, Lemley explained how to create tax policies that benefit “high road” businesses, such as ones present in the room. These interactive sessions aimed to address how policymakers and business leaders can help to level the playing field to allow for more policies that incentivize responsible business practices.

 

The main takeaway from the summit was that achieving a sustainable economy is going to require creative public and private partnerships between business leaders and policymakers alike. One can only move the needle so far without the other’s nudge. 

 

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