Have we reached 'peak sustainability'? Thankfully, not...

Have we reached “peak sustainability”? It’s both an intriguing and worrisome idea — the notion that the much-hyped green business wave of the late 2000s has come and gone. But a day spent at the GreenBiz Forum in New York, where the idea of peak sustainability was bruited about, leads me to believe — and to hope — that we are nowhere near a peak.

Peak sustainability is a term coined by John Davies, a vice president and senior analyst at GreenBiz, who works with dozens of big companies. As part of the excellent State of Green Business 2013 report, John has tracked the hiring of sustainability professionals by big companies and found that it has leveled off in recent years. He wrote:

It appears the wave of major companies hiring their first full-time sustainability executives crested long ago. ... If hiring a senior executive to champion and coordinate sustainability efforts full-time is a leading indicator of future efforts, there’s a case to be made that such efforts may have plateaued. ... Could it be that pretty much everyone who’s coming to this party has already arrived?

Meantime, marketing and media devoted to corporate sustainability, as well as to all things green, appears to be slipping. The high-profile greening initiatives at GE, IBM and Walmart are a bit lower profile lately. Remember the cover story on global warming in, of all places, Sports Illustrated? That ran way back in 2007. If SI has returned to the topic, I missed it. Its parent company, Time Inc., laid off its sustainability team as the magazine business slumped.

But as the first day of the GreenBiz Forum unfolded, an array of speakers, including both senior executives from big companies and idealistic, young entrepreneurs, described how they are moving sustainability initiatives forward inside their organizations. Not fast enough, surely not boldly enough, but often in innovative ways that are likely to spread. Some examples:

Microsoft’s carbon fee: The technology giant has since last July imposed an internal carbon fee on all its divisions, requiring them to pay a “tax” for each ton of greenhouse gas emissions that they generate, whether by operating data centers, taking business trips or heating and cooling office buildings. Tamara (TJ) DiCaprio, Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT)’s senior director of carbon and energy, said the carbon fee is helping to focus executives throughout the company on efficiency, as well as creating a pool of revenue — roughly $10 million this year — that can be deployed to finance efficiency measures and buy renewable energy credits and offsets to help the company achieve its carbon-neutral goal.

Asking each division to pay a cost of carbon, she said, drives environmental accountability through the organization. “Suddenly, on their P&L [profit and loss statement], people see a carbon fee,” she said. How much is Microsoft charging per ton? She declined to be specific, saying only that “we started with a price that wouldn’t shock the system.” But she said the company projects that the $10 million in annual revenues generated by the fee is expected to grow to $50 million by 2020.

This is an innovative notion, and one that other companies — Shell and Disney, among them — have put into place. They’ll all be better prepared if governments around the world come to their senses and choose to price carbon. For more, here’s a recent GreenBiz interview with TJ.

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