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Published: February 24, 2009

 
 

Sustainable Goes Strategic

Learning from the literature of corporate environmentalism.

Photograph by Jean Paul Endress
We are at a critical point in history, “we” meaning Homo sapiens. We face a collision of problems on a scale beyond anything in the experience of our species, all having to do with the carrying capacity of the planet. Maybe, just maybe, it’s not too late to surmount these problems — if we are smart, fast, persistent, creative, and lucky.

Fortunately, after decades of painting environmentalism as fringe thinking (even long after it became accepted by the public as a basic value), the corporate world has come around to seeing green as the future — or at least as a path to profit. Meanwhile, a more robust strain of environmental thinking has come to the fore, shedding the sackcloth-and-ashes, no-growth, less-is-better narrative, and embracing smart growth, new power technologies, and new design strategies. And yet the green practices of most major corporations have remained timid and undemanding, following behind most of the public instead of leading it. These practices are often focused narrowly on energy, leaving aside many environmentally relevant questions.

Every thoughtful executive is asking, “What can our business do about climate change? How can we survive the turmoil?” Or, beyond surviving, “How can we profit from this new imperative for green solutions?” Or, more deeply, “How do we shift our ground so that the survival and growth of this organization line up with the changes needed for the whole global system?” The questions are timely and have no easy answers. Fortunately, however, a number of books and re­sources have laid the groundwork for resolving them.

Sustainable First Principles
The term corporate sustainability was coined more than two decades ago, in the 1987 Brundtland Commission report (Our Common Future, published by Oxford University Press), as a synonym for “green,” “ecological,” or “environmentally conscious” business practices. Since then, the concept of sustainability has suffered a spectacular amount of mission drift. It has come to encompass “corporate social re­sponsibility” (CSR), a wide range of corporate actions regarding ethics, diversity, healthy communities, and long-term corporate governance. But CSR was a conceptual bolt-on: It was an optional set of practices to put in place after doing what it took to make a profit, build the asset, and keep the shareholders happy.

By contrast, it is becoming clear that corporate sustainability does not primarily mean being a “good corporate citizen”; it means contributing to human survival. More specifically, it means recognizing that environmental pillage and despoliation are no longer sound business practices, and replacing them with another way of doing business. The new credo has been articulated by Interface Inc. Chairman Ray Anderson: “Take nothing, waste nothing, do no harm, and do very, very well by doing good.” (See “Not Just for Profit,” by Marjorie Kelly, s+b, Spring 2009.)

Consider this thought experiment, which appears in Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart: What would it take to run your company the way the Menominee tribe of Michigan runs their forest? In 1870, the Menominee counted 1.3 billion board feet of standing timber on their 235,000 acres of land. Over the last 138 years, they have harvested 2.3 billion board feet, and now they have 1.7 billion board feet. Neat trick. Maybe you’re not in a resource-extraction industry; maybe your capital doesn’t grow on trees. But isn’t there an equivalent potential achievement in your sector?

Operating with a light footprint is likely to become the prevalent approach to sustainability over the next few years. And it begins with some basic principles:

1. Sustainability is based not on helping a corporation look good in public, but on a clear understanding of the effect the company’s processes and products have on the natural environment — and on finding ways the company can make the environment better, not just cutting back harmful emissions.

 
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Sustainability Resources
Works discussed in this review.

  1. Lester R. Brown, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (W.W. Norton, 2008), 412 pages
  2. Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Viking, 2005), 586 pages
  3. Thomas Friedman, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution, and How It Can Renew America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), 448 pages
  4. Peter W. Huber and Mark P. Mills, The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy (Basic Books, 2005), 242 pages
  5. Fred Krupp and Miriam Horn, Earth: The Sequel — The Race to Reinvent Energy and Stop Global Warming (W.W. Norton, 2008), 280 pages 
  6. William McDonough and Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (North Point Press, 2002), 196 pages
  7. Peter Senge et al., The Necessary Revolution: How Individuals and Organizations Are Working Together to Create a Sustainable World (Doubleday, 2008), 416 pages
  8. Alex Steffen, editor, Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century (Abrams, 2006), 608 pages
  9. Alan Weisman, The World Without Us (Thomas Dunne Books, 2007), 336 pages 
  10. Daniel Yergin, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power (Simon & Schuster, 1991), 934 pages 
 
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