Why 'Sustainable Excellence' Matters More Than Ever

Makower: One of the things that’s changed in the past year is this citizen uprising called Occupy Wall Street. As we’re speaking we’ve got a tent city outside the GreenBiz office window in Oakland City Hall plaza. What do you think the connection is to companies and sustainability? What do you think the response if any should be by companies to this movement?

Cramer: The meta-question is whether or not the business sector and individual companies are defining their goals in sync with society’s goal. What’s interesting is this comes from the political left, but there are similar calls and concerns from the political right. People have concluded that business is out of sync with society.

I think that is a very dangerous place for business to be because that will lead to a much more reflexive anti-business approach that may end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater. That can lead in democracies toward regulation that may be designed to diffuse anger rather than address good long-term planning, and I think that’s a big risk. It also means that business has a big job to do to help the public understand that long-term investments, which of course are crucial to building a sustainable economy, remain important even at a time when short-term pain is acute.

So it’s a tall order for business. But I think if business doesn’t meet this challenge, it means that business’s position overall is going to be undermined. And the opportunity to make the kinds of long-term investments in infrastructure, in new transportation systems, in lower-carbon forms of energy, in a food system that delivers good nutrition and health — all of these things are going to be very, very hard to accomplish. We all lose if we don’t accomplish those things.

Makower: So, at the same time that we have this movement from both the Left and the Right pushing business to act in some new ways, we have these movements that are lessening, seemingly lessening the urgency for action on climate change. How do those reconcile those and, again, what’s the business response?

Cramer: I think it is one of the most negative dimensions of the current political debate, at least in the United States. Businesses have largely stayed committed towards their actions to adapt what they do for an era when climate change is a bigger part of our reality. What businesses have not been doing is shifting the political debate in the United States and to some degree elsewhere such that the commitment to addressing climate change remains strong.

I think business has to some degree been a little less vocal about the need for concerted action in the political sphere in order to develop the kinds of systemic approaches that are necessary to make real progress. And after all, if anything, the climate crisis is accelerating, something Al Gore will of course be speaking about at the BSR conference. All the science suggests that warming is accelerating and we don’t have a public debate that is reflecting that.

Makower: What are some of the other issues on the rise over the past year?

Cramer: There’s a much greater sense that water is an issue and more and more companies are developing policies on water. Waste has come into the mainstream in a sense. You see this in a variety of ways, from the recent announcement of the partnership between Waste Management and Recyclebank to the number of companies in the food sector that are taking on the question of food waste.

Frankly, I’m surprised that the question of waste isn’t getting more attention. In the United States, where one-third of the food and one-third of the energy that’s generated in this country is essentially wasted, you would think that in times of economic distress that that would become a much stronger point of action because that also means that we’re throwing away one-third of the money that we spend on those things. That’s true for households and for companies. I would argue that this is actually one way to build more momentum with the average person, the average household, with all of us as consumers, because we’re very wasteful. In times of economic difficulty, waste is not only an environmental problem. It’s a big economic problem as well.

Makower: It seems that some of this lies in the responsibility of consumers, to be pushing businesses and politicians in this direction. Do you see any opportunities for business to engage with consumers on these fronts?

Cramer: Consumers continue to be schizophrenic about all of these questions. The polling data show that the average person is less concerned about climate change and also believes that it is a growing threat. So I think we’ll all grow old waiting for consumers to have a unified state of mind on all of this.

The opportunity for companies is to make better products that deliver better outcomes that save people money. To some degree, I think the most ingenious summing up of sustainability that I’ve heard comes from Walmart’s tagline, Save Money, Live Better. That should be the mantra for all of us who work on sustainability because I believe that better products, whether it’s a more efficient car or food that comes with less waste and is more nutritious and also tastes good — those are things that help us live better and also save money.

So the opportunity for companies to do that is very strong. We see lots of companies looking at this, from Unilever to Nike to Best Buy — all thinking about reconfiguring the products that they’ve sold traditionally, but also coming up with new products that help us manage energy in our home better, manage our own health and well-being, manage the intake of calories in the food that we buy. Those are all things that can help us live better lives and in many cases will also result in our spending less money.