7 Reasons Why Greening Up is Hard to Do

Eco-Leadership

7 Reasons Why Greening Up is Hard to Do

Green business owners beware: don't buy into your own press. Although we are wont to focus on the oft-cited LOHAS stat "1 in 4 adult Americans cares about health and sustainability," the real ratio is less favorable, especially in cases where the green label costs more. And that still leaves an uninterested majority. How much more progress could we make if we learned to engage the other 75 percent in the green conversation?

I've been trying to uncover the reasons why the majority doesn't value sustainability since 2005, and through my search I've made some surprising discoveries about the obstacles that we're facing.

The systemic barriers to positive change are entrenched and insidious, stretching far beyond the usual culprits of big industry and hyper-consumerism. Although my study was more anecdotal than quantitative, it reflects an investigation of those attitudes that don't appear in surveys.

Among the cumulative challenges these obstacles pose is the ability to easily, frustratingly, reduce sophisticated CSR programs to lip service. And many of the genuine issues preventing sustainability from taking root are exacerbated by the proliferation of green marketing strategies -- a sad irony. It calls to mind Einstein's warning, "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."

Despite the discouraging nature of these findings, they do present opportunities for savvy entrepreneurs and conscious companies who can help consumers translate environmental awareness into action. Here are some observations that represent the most inconvenient -- and still largely unspoken -- truths standing in the way of a sustainable America.Green, American Style book cover

1. The socio-economic rise of women speeds consumption. Over the next five years, the global incomes of women are estimated to grow from $13 trillion to $18 trillion. That incremental $5 trillion is nearly twice the growth in GDP expected from China and India combined, making women the biggest emerging market ever seen. This means a huge opportunity for consumer products companies.

As one marketing strategist points out, "We are continuously doing research on 'why she buys' to give us insight into the impact that female consumers have on the marketplace." He goes on to suggest that delayed marriage, lower birthrates, divorce and higher incomes make women prime targets for goods in the convenience, luxury and technology categories. This spells serious un-sustainability.

2. Conservation is antithetical to a consumer-based economy. When almost 70 percent of the economy is based on consumer spending, how can we expect people to understand conservation? Until we are no longer affected by the 3,000 advertising messages we inhale each day, we will continue to buy. When the economy is bad our consumption may decline, but this also makes people less willing to spend more for green.

3. The environment remains stuck in the political divide. There remains a gaping chasm between the real and the pragmatic -- what should be done for the environment vs. what actually happens. But there is also the liberal vs. conservative divide. Many conservatives liken "enviro-preaching" to political correctness. Consequently, they react against things that are good, such as organic food and recycling.

As long as people equate "green" with "left," we'll continue to see stymied sustainability strategies and ineffective environmental policies.

4. Narrow-mindedness goes both ways. If in reading you are thinking how much you dislike conservatives, you are also part of the problem. Though I cannot relate to Fox News junkies as a group, on a personal level some of them aren't bad. My husband even watches it from time to time. While some of the headlines that come out of ultra-conservative news outlets are cringe-worthy, it's worth remembering that sometimes they are just filling a void in the mainstream media.

When Climategate hit, the mainstream media did a less-than-effective job of reporting the story, leaving people to wonder, "If there was nothing to hide, why the silence?" This debacle only magnifies the research from groups such as the Pew Center, which find that belief in man-made climate change among Americans is sharply declining.

5. Habits are hard to break. When I started my journey into sustainability, it was following the sickening revelation that, were my habits to be the norm, we'd be consuming five planets worth of resources.

{related_content}Since that time, I've launched a sustainability consultancy, moved to a platinum-level LEED certified home, planted a garden, and adjusted my consumer habits considerably. I recently recalculated our ecological footprint to gauge how well I'm doing. Now we're down to three planets.

My point? Natural living doesn't come naturally for most Americans, no matter how hard we may try. It requires change, which statistically only 2 percent of us will embrace. I happen to be one of the few that thrives on change, but consistently living green still challenges me. No matter how much we talk up benefits and allude to the triple bottom line, conscious behaviors for a healthier planet on the part of humans are far from habitual.

6. Individuals are catalysts for change; institutions are not. Apathetic voters and zombie consumers are in effect leaving the future of the environmental up to institutions that are inherently anti-social. Where individuals have a conscience, large organizations must balance competing interests; frequently, money prevails over the interests of the public.

From corporate America to Congress, people of power and influence easily fall prey to the belief that the rules don't apply to them, a phenomenon that author Terry Price describes as "exception making" in his book Understanding Ethical Failures in Leadership. No amount of green window dressing can overcome an unethical foundation in an organization (case in point, before Enron collapsed, it had a stellar sustainability program).

As bad as gross negligence is, it has often been the catalyst to motivate companies to turn themselves around. However, many others continue to fly under the radar, undermining their sustainability departments with business-as-usual tactics from execs in pursuit of self-interest. No amount of good deeds on the part of large institutions can absolve individuals from personal responsibility. So far, mainstream consumers have yet to accept this.

7. Climate change creates inertia. With so many benefits we can promote on behalf of sustainability, why continue to harp on this hot-button issue? I speak as someone who entered this realm specifically for the purpose of stopping the Arctic from melting.

I'm stubborn, but I finally realized that other issues are equally, if not even more, pressing: world hunger, habitat loss, and toxins in our air, food and water, for example. By talking up these other points and offering concrete, doable solutions that can be scaled up, we can push people towards positive action regardless of their political affiliation or financial situation.

What might environmental advocates gain when we extend a thoughtful and flexible approach towards those who are different, dare I say conservative? By waiting for them to get it, we sacrifice the opportunity to expand our market.

Many other issues -- such as cheap energy, a car-based culture, and even our democratic system of government -- hamper sustainable development. Ignorance and good old-fashioned greed are also to blame. But condemnation is unproductive in a world so desperate for solutions.

Three Steps to Move Forward

Fortunately, the steps to a sustainable America are simpler than we think, and the positive ripples have the potential to put profits into our businesses, bolster our economy, increase national security, and improve our environment.

These common-sense solutions cost companies little while fostering a sustainable future and restoring us to a position of leadership for the long haul:

1. Become energy efficient. Companies that reduce their energy consumption by 30 percent can add 5 percent in operating capital to their budgets. According to a McKinsey report, the U.S. economy has the potential to reduce annual non-transportation energy consumption by roughly 23 percent by 2020, eliminating more than $1.2 trillion in waste – well beyond the $520 billion upfront investment that would be required. The reduction in energy use would result in the abatement of 1.1 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions annually -- the equivalent of taking the entire U.S. fleet of passenger vehicles and light trucks off the roads.

2. Practice conscious capitalism. The land of opportunity can be a profound lever of social change when we apply American ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit to solving the world's most pressing problems. Businesses like TOMS, which purchase a pair of shoes for impoverished villagers for every pair it sells, prove that having a mission can drive success, not hinder it.

Helping busy consumers make a difference through their purchases equals profit and positive change. Women, for example, make over 80 percent of the buying decisions in their households. Marketing good green ideas and healthy sustainable products to them helps channel their formidable spending power into a more sustainable society.

3. Don't divide, multiply! Don't get stuck in your silo marketing to a narrow group. Use your company's platform to build virtual communities among employees, colleagues, industry leaders and other stakeholders. Large companies such as Seventh Generation are creating interactive, virtual communities that are inclusive, educational and fun. Small companies can now do this online with a Facebook page and Twitter.

Don't forget about your community, too. Many a local school or non-profit would be grateful for your company to support their green efforts. I recently spoke at a symposium hosted by Lakehill Preparatory School sponsored by Professional Bank, a local Dallas business. Not only did the event raise environmental awareness, it raised visibility for the school, dozens of vendors, and the bank itself.

Of all the solutions I found in the various sectors I have explored, it is the personal and community levels -- where motivated individuals make simple changes in themselves and within their circles of influence -- where have I seen the greatest potential for genuine change.

This experience has renewed my faith in the power of individuals to make a profound difference. My new book Green, American Style, is a testament to the many -- from CEOs to soccer moms -- whose contributions as leaders and consumers are creating the potential to move markets and transform our culture.

Making informed decisions and incremental changes while reaching out to new people can improve matters considerably. The competitive advantages inherent in common-sense sustainability more than compensate for the cost in addressing the problems. Not everyone will follow through, but those who do are poised to profit.

Anna Clark is president of EarthPeople, LLC and the author of Green, American Style. She contributes the Eco-Leadership blog on Greenbiz.com. Visit www.annamclark.com for more on all things green.

Photo CC-licensed by Flickr user mark sebastian.