Get the best of GreenBiz delivered to you -- GreenBuzz e-news

Two Steps Forward

Sustainability Without Borders: How to Reduce Your Risks and Achieve Compliance Across Your Supply Chain

Event Date: April 28, 2011
Chicago, IL 60622
United States

Chicago, IL — In the complex world of trying to incorporate sustainability within your supply chain it can be difficult to know where to begin. Supply chains are intricate systems with many components, which each present a unique set of challenges toward maintaining a sustainable business model. Leaders responsible for these challenges are recognizing the benefits of leveraging and tracking environmental and social initiatives. Please join Paul Baier, VP of Sustainability Consulting, Groom Energy, Kiku Loomis, PVH Director Operation, Global Human Rights and David Hoffman, Responsible Supply Chain Specialist, to discuss best practice in managing a responsible supply chain and how to confront the challenges of a sustainable tomorrow.

Register now for this complimentary webcast that will cover topics including:

  • Upcoming market trends and challenges with creating a sustainable supply chain.
  • Identify the benefits & value of a responsible supply chain program and learn how to measure the ROI that is correlated to these initiatives.
  • How to measure, track, manage, and report on Scope 3 emissions.
  • How to reduce supply chain risks by identifying at-risk suppliers.
  • Learn about the solutions allowing organizations to conduct audits, track noncompliance, monitor GHG emissions, and manage labor conditions within their supply chain.

Contact Information

Company: GreenBiz Group
Name: Katherine Eastman
Email: katherine@greenbiz.com
Phone:
Website: Register here


Benign by Design: Implementing Green Chemistry by the Use of Alternatives Assessments

Event Date: March 30, 2011
Chicago, IL 60622
United States

Chicago, IL — With the increased consumer desire for greener products, manufacturers are seeking ways to embrace sustainable product design. Part III of this three-part series will focus on the use of alternatives assessments to achieve greener product design. This webcast is moderated by Joel Makower, Executive Editor of GreenBiz.com. 

In this webcast you will learn:

  • How chemical alternatives assessment facilitate green product design.
  • How the Green Screen framework can be implemented in alternatives assessments.
  • How product certifications can drive green product design.

Speakers: 

  • Bruce LaBelle Ph.D. of the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Department of Toxic Substances Control will discuss chemical alternatives assessments.
  • Lauren Heine Ph.D., Science Director, Clean Production Action, will describe the Green Screen framework and how it fits into chemical alternatives assessments.
  • Paul Firth, Manager Science and Research, Underwriters Laboratories will describe how product sustainability standards can help drive green product design.

Register here: http://event.on24.com/r.htm?e=282590&s=1&k=C5858CB5FD32ACD0ADBE9C8CF2325EC8

Contact Information

Company: GreenBiz Group
Name: Katherine Eastman
Email: katherine@greenbiz.com
Phone: 4157027320
Website: Register here!


Benign by Design: Characterizing and Balancing Risk

Event Date: March 16, 2011
Online
United States

Online, United States — Building off of the underlying principles of hazard discussed in Part I of this three-part series, this second webcast will feature experts discussing on the how safety and sustainability can be accomplished by characterizing the hazards in a product. 

A presentation on the California Department of Public Health’s Standard Method highlights how a hazard is identified and characterized and, from that, an estimate of risk is made. The goal is to understand risk from exposure to chemicals by various routes; dermal, oral and inhalation. Finally, we must ensure that products designed to reduce toxic material burden also meet functional requirements. 

In this webcast you will learn:

  • The current requirements of the California product emission testing method (“01350” or “standard method”) and future plans by the California Department of Public Health to revise that method.
  • How risk is estimated from an understanding of our exposure to the hazard.
  • Challenges in eliminating chemical classes with respect to fire and electrical safety.

Speakers:

  • Wenhao Chen Ph.D., of the California Department of Public Health
  • Michael Dourson Ph.D., President, Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment (TERA)
  • Tom Chapin Ph.D., VP of Corporate Research Underwriters Laboratories

Moderated by Joel Makower, Executive Editor, GreenBiz Group 

Click here to register: http://event.on24.com/r.htm?e=282590&s=1&k=C5858CB5FD32ACD0ADBE9C8CF2325EC8
 

Contact Information

Company: GreenBiz Group
Name: Katherine Eastman
Email: katherine@greenbiz.com
Phone:
Website: Register here!


State of Green Business Forum 2011 - Washington D.C.

Event Date: February 16, 2011 - February 18, 2011
529 14th Street, NW
Washington D.C. 20045
United States

Washington D.C., United States —  

The 2011 State of Green Business Forums bring together leading companies and thought leaders to take stock in how, and how well, companies are addressing environmental challenges.  Speakers participating in keynote interviews and delivering One Great Idea talks will present the key trends in the greening of business, while smaller, facilitated workshop sessions focus on developing skills and techniques that help sustainability professionals be more effective in their companies -- and their companies more effective in turning environmental responsibility into business value. The three 2011 Forums -- San Francisco, Feb. 1-2; Chicago, Feb. 9-10 and Washington, D.C., Feb. 15-16 -- coincide with the publication of GreenBiz.com's annual acclaimed State of Green Business report.

Contact Information

Company: GreenBiz Group
Name: Maya Albanese
Email: info@greenbiz.com
Phone: 510.550.8285
Website: Washington DC: State of Green Business Forum 2011


State of Green Business Forum 2011 - San Francisco

Event Date: February 2, 2011 - February 4, 2011
1675 Owens Street
San Francisco 94158
United States

San Francisco, United States —  

The 2011 State of Green Business Forums bring together leading companies and thought leaders to take stock in how, and how well, companies are addressing environmental challenges.  Speakers participating in keynote interviews and delivering One Great Idea talks will present the key trends in the greening of business, while smaller, facilitated workshop sessions focus on developing skills and techniques that help sustainability professionals be more effective in their companies -- and their companies more effective in turning environmental responsibility into business value. The three 2011 Forums -- San Francisco, Feb. 1-2; Chicago, Feb. 9-10 and Washington, D.C., Feb. 15-16 -- coincide with the publication of GreenBiz.com's annual acclaimed State of Green Business report.

Contact Information

Company: GreenBiz Group
Name: Maya Albanese
Email: info@greenbiz.com
Phone: 510.550.8285
Website: San Francisco: State of Green Business Forum 2011


Is TerraChoice Greenwashing?

Published November 01, 2010
Is TerraChoice Greenwashing?

I’ve been holding back on laying into the third and latest Sins of Greenwashing report – in part because I’m feeling too much like a broken record – but I’ve got to weigh in.

The report, if you’re not familiar with it, is published by TerraChoice, a Canadian-based environmental marketing agency. (Earlier this year, it was acquired by UL Environment, a division of Underwriters Laboratories. GreenBiz is engaged in a partnership with UL Environment that is wholly unrelated to TerraChoice.) TerraChoice’s report aims to take stock of the state of greenwashing — that is, false and misleading environmental marketing claims made by companies — based on a survey it conducts in 24 stores in the U.S. and Canada. This year’s survey covered nearly 5,300 products that made some kind of environmental claim. All told, more than 12,000 claims were evaluated.

TerraChoice uses a seven-part screen to judge the claims. Any product that failed to pass any one of the seven screens – “sins,” as TerraChoice calls them – was deemed to be greenwash.

The verdict: 95% of the products failed the test. Nearly everyone, according to TerraChoice, is a sinner.

This, believe it or not, is an improvement over last year, when over 98% (of about 2,200 products) were greenwash, according to TerraChoice. In 2007, the first year of the report, 99% (of about 1,000 products) failed. That, it could be said, is progress.

So, what’s my beef? Simply put, the report may be as much of a greenwash as the products and companies it is criticizing.

Want proof? I put the report to its own test. Here is my assessment of the report weighed against three of TerraChoice’s seven “sins.”

  • The Sin of No Proof “is an environmental claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information or by a reliable third-party certification,” according to TerraChoice. By that measure, the report fails the test. Its findings do not include supporting information -- it offers only high-level, unsubstantiated findings -- and were not vetted or verified by an independent third party. You have to take the authors' word for it. Any marketer who takes that approach with their products is dubbed a greenwasher by TerraChoice.
     
  • The Sin of Vagueness is committed when a claim "is so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer.” You know: generic, meaningless words that sound good but lack a legal or generally agreed-upon definition, like "natural" or "nontoxic" -- or "greenwash." So, is it an overly broad misuse to cry “greenwash” if a company, say, made a valid marketing claim but failed to adequately back it up? (Fully 70% of all products examined by TerraChoice committed this sin.) After all, "greenwash" was originally coined to describe much more egregious practices – e.g., the "dissemination of misleading or false information designed to make an organization or product appear more environmentally friendly than it actually is" or "the unjustified appropriation of environmental virtue," to cite two reasonable definitions. Neither describes the aforementioned “sinner” that simply failed to provide adequate proof of a valid claim. Hence, TerraChoice is using the same kind of sensational but vague terminology it rails against in its report.
     
  • The Sin of Irrelevance results from an environmental claim “that may be truthful but is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products.” This irrelevance cuts both ways. Did TerraChoice apply the greenwash label to companies whose product claims are factually true but insufficiently substantiated? We don't really know, because TerraChoice won't say, but to the extent that it did, this seems unimportant and unhelpful to consumers trying to make good, green choices. In a word: irrelevant.

The tally: I’ve found reasonable grounds that the TerraChoice authors violated at least three of the seven screens it set for green marketers. According to its own rules, a commission of even one “sin” qualifies as “greenwash.”

I’ll admit to some subjectivity here, but that’s partly the point. Many of these things aren’t clear-cut, despite TerraChoice's seemingly definitive pronouncements. For example, I’m guessing that SC Johnson’s Greenlist labels have been deemed by TerraChoice to be greenwash, because they’re self-certified, not verified by an independent third party. True, but SCJ’s Greenlist program — an environmental classification system designed to systematically measure, track, and reduce environmentally problematic ingredients across the company's entire product line — has won a Presidential Green Chemistry Award and accolades from environmental and industry groups. It does not mislead or cover up. I don’t consider it to be greenwash. I’m pretty sure TerraChoice does, however, because it likely commits one of its “sins.”

I say I'm “pretty sure” because TerraChoice won’t say. There are no names named about what specific sins were committed. (See “Sin of No Proof.”)

I asked Scott McDougall, TerraChoice’s president, why his company -- which is so critical of those who fail to be accountable or transparent -- is itself unwilling to name companies or products, or give examples of companies or products that fail to meet its test?

“Our desire is to be constructive, to improve the understanding and quality of claims-making and to focus on shared lessons,” he responded. “It is already difficult enough to get media to use the study this way. To name names would distract entirely and would encourage, we suspect, a witch hunt.” He placed the burden on others — the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, for example — to “identify culprits.”

Naming “culprits” is one thing. Giving concrete and instructive examples that illustrate what TerraChoice considers greenwash is another. Even anonymous or disguised real-life examples would help readers understand what greenwash looks like, and would provide a level of confidence that what TerraChoice calls greenwash meets some reasonable standard. (Did I mention that the word has no legal definition?)

It’s also worth pointing out that there’s more than a little self-interest going on here: TerraChoice (and UL Environment) is in the business of both creating green product standards and selling claims verification services to product manufacturers. As such, the company is not an innocent, independent bystander here. It has a vested interest in fanning the flames of what it dubs the “significant problem” of greenwash. To the extent that marketers get spooked, they’ll need TerraChoice’s help.

Of course, I don’t really consider the “Sins” authors to be greenwashers. I know McDougall and the other principals behind the report and consider them to be earnest, ethical, and committed individuals. The “sins” they have committed, at least by my reckoning, don’t brand them as evil. They are, at worst, publicity-seeking entrepreneurs seeking to differentiate their brand in an increasingly competitive environmental marketplace.

That is to say: They are green marketers.

I’m afraid that those who read TerraChoice’s report won’t be quite so charitable when it comes to rendering judgment on the universe of green-marketing “sinners” that have been universally tarred by TerraChoice’s brush.

I wouldn’t blame shoppers for ending up more confused and cynical than ever. And I wouldn’t be surprised if some companies thinking about touting their green innovations and achievements decide to go back into their shells, keeping mum.

And that would be the biggest sin of all.

Also in The Two Steps Forward Blog:


Archived Comments (10)

What the New Green Marketing Guidelines Really Mean

Published October 06, 2010
What the New Green Marketing Guidelines Really Mean

At long last — after 35 months, three public hearings, hundreds of public comments, two presidential administrations, and 17,536 utterings of the phrase, "It isn't easy being green" — they've arrived: The U.S. Federal Trade Commission's proposed "Green Guides," the federal government's definitive guides to green marketing.

The document, released today (a summary can be downloaded here - PDF), is an update to the original "Green Guides," published in 1992, then updated in 1996 and 1998. A lot has happened since then, marketing-wise: claims related to carbon-neutral and other greenhouse gas emissions; biobased materials, including packaging and textiles from bamboo and other plant matter; renewable energy; and the introduction of hundreds of eco-logos and certifications, some highly authoritative and credible, others decidedly less so.

The FTC is seeking public comments on the proposed changes until December 10, 2010, "after which it will decide which changes to make final."

The updating of these guides for the first time in 12 years has been greatly anticipated, seen as a watershed event, one aimed at curbing what some see as a veritable tsunami of greenwashing. (I'm not one of those. See my thoughts on greenwashing here and here.) Nonetheless, “We’ve seen an explosion of green claims,” as FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz put it in today’s press conference.

In brief: The guides are a common-sense set of rules about what claims a company can and can't make, and what kind of substantiation and disclaimers are required for specific types of marketing messages. The original guides were intended to prohibit or clarify vague claims ("all-natural," "non-toxic," "safe for the environment") and curb the use of claims that, while technically true, were generally misleading — a "recyclable" product or package that hardly anyone could actually recycle, for example.

Some of this has been clarified or more fully defined in the new version. It also adds guidance on three new claims: “made with renewable materials,” “made with renewable energy” and “carbon offsets.”

Like their predecessors, the proposed updated guides represent a low bar, intended to eliminate outright misrepresentation and fabrications. Their updating do not herald a new era of green marketing. Despite some near-hysterical predictions, they aren't likely to "radically reshape how far marketers can go in painting their products, packaging or even corporate images green," as Advertising Age recently speculated.

For green marketers, it is not the end of the world as we know it. They won't likely change the landscape much, and most definitely won't eliminate critics' charges of "greenwashing."

It still isn't easy being -- well, you know.

The new guidelines, while in great need of a freshening up, don't really keep up with the world of sustainable business practices. I had a brief window into this in early 2008, a few months after the FTC first announced that it would update the guidelines. I was invited by the commission to meet in DC. At the time, the commission staff was focusing on packaging, in preparation for a workshop to be held in late April of that year.

Also in The Two Steps Forward Blog:


Archived Comments (3)

Introducing ULE 880 - Sustainability for Manufacturing Organizations

Published August 02, 2010
Introducing ULE 880 - Sustainability for Manufacturing Organizations

Today, a new sustainability standard for companies is being released for public comment: ULE 880 - Sustainability for Manufacturing Organizations, a partnership between UL Environment, a division of Underwriters Laboratories, and my colleagues at GreenBiz.com.

It is a day that I've been awaiting for the better part of a decade.

A 45-day comment period opens today, during which we're hoping you will review the draft standard and provide detailed feedback. (More about that in a minute, but if you're in a rush to get there, click here.)

ULE 880 is the first in a series of company-level standards and certifications that are being produced by this ULE-GreenBiz partnership. It results from about eight years of work — initially by a small team of us in Alameda County, California, and starting last year, between ULE and GreenBiz. (I previously provided the back story to this project here.)

The first draft of the standard is now complete, the product of a Herculean effort spearheaded by my friend and colleague Rory Bakke, director of sustainability at GreenBiz. Rory was lead author of the ULE 880, with assistance from me, a terrific team from UL Environment, and a small group of advisors.

ULE 880 covers five domains of sustainability:

  • Sustainability Governance: how an organization leads and manages itself in relation to its stakeholders, including its employees, investors, regulatory authorities, customers, and the communities in which it operates
  • Environment: an organization's environmental footprint across its policies, operations, products and services, including its resource use and emissions
  • Workplace: issues related to employee working conditions, organization culture, and effectiveness
  • Customers and Suppliers: issues related to an organization's policies and practices on product safety, quality, pricing, and marketing as well as its supply chain policies and practices
  • Social and Community Engagement: an organization's impacts on its community in the areas of social equity, ethical conduct, and human rights

All told, there are 102 questions (or "indicators") in ULE 880, including 18 in Governance, 45 in Environment, 15 in Workforce, 15 in Customers and Suppliers, and 9 in Social and Community Engagement. The number of indicators doesn't reflect the weight each of these categories holds in the overall standard, however. Environment covers 80 points, Governance and Customers/Suppliers 40 each, and Workplace and Social/Community 20 each. There are also 18 "Innovation Points" — 3 points each for 6 different indicators — that reward companies for going above and beyond the standard.

But that doesn't mean the core standard is a low bar. It was designed to be comprehensive — that is, to the extent that indicators are measurable and verifiable. Among the core principles of ULE 880 is that it be both reasonably attainable (at the lowest level of certification) and a high bar of excellence (and the highest level of certification). This and other core principles behind the standard are spelled out in the document's introduction.

Why does Environment carry a disproportionate weight — 40 percent of the total? Therein lies one of many challenges the GreenBiz-ULE team faced. We set out to create a standard that is comprehensible, consistently applied, credible, measurable, relevant, and for which data is obtainable. As a rule, company environmental data is more widely tracked, analyzed, quantified, and defined consistently than social and governance data. For that reason, this version of ULE 880 is more heavily weighted toward environmental indicators. Over time, as companies seek certification under ULE 880 and the sustainability field continues to mature, we expect to refine the standard and potentially adjust its weighting of specific indicators and across issue areas.

Of course, all of this is subject to feedback, and that's where you come in. The stakeholder feedback period launching today — ending September 14 — is free and open to all. To participate, you must register, after which you'll receive a link to ULE's Collaborative Standards Development System, or CSDS, an online tool Underwrites Laboratories uses to develop its standards. Already, more than 100 companies and thought leaders have registered to review and comment.

In the CSDS, you'll be able to download ULE 880 or read an online version, the latter of which enables you to enter comments. You'll be able to read others' comments, and others will be able to read yours — an open and transparent process. Comments can be as broad or as specific as you wish.

"There's really no comment of a constructive nature that isn't potentially valuable," Daniel P. Ryan, Standards Technical Panel Chair at UL Environment, told me recently. Ryan — who's been with UL for 27 years, most of it in the standard-development process — continued:

"We want the standard to be clear and concise in language so that manufacturers can read a clause and understand what it means, clearly and without ambiguity. Similarly, we want auditors who might be assessing manufacturers to that standard to have the same understanding. So, even if we get comments from someone who is confused, that's really valuable input because it points us to something we thought was clear but obviously needs work."

This is just the beginning of the review process. "After the comment period closes, we'll sort through all of the input, break it down by topic and try to see the different facets of an issue various stakeholders are arguing," explains Ryan. "And then engage a smaller team of sustainability experts of diverse interests that will help guide the standard forward — how we should address the input we received."

The plan is to announce the first pilot companies for ULE 880 later this fall.

During the next 45 days, we're hoping to hear from a broad cross-section of those affected by or interested in ULE 880: manufacturers, assessment and standards groups, regulators, policy makers, procurement officers, sustainability professionals, the socially responsible investing community, and nonprofit sustainability interest groups.

I sincerely hope you will weigh in — and encourage your colleagues and stakeholders to do so, too.

Also in The Two Steps Forward Blog:


Archived Comments (2)

Fighting Climate Change with a 'Stuff Tax'

Published June 25, 2010
Fighting Climate Change with a 'Stuff Tax'

On Monday, the United Kingdom's coalition government announced sweeping measures to cut its budget deficit, the second worst in the EU. 

UK lawmakers should be applauded for addressing their government's funding gap, and not just pushing it onto their children, like the United States has done. One of the measures introduced by Prime Minister David Cameron was an increase in Value Added Tax -- a federal sales tax -- from 17.5 percent to 20 percent. It is time for the United States to follow suit.

Once upon a time, during the era of taxation without representation and a different kind of Tea Party, following the UK was heresy. But the United States is now facing three systemic, growing, 21st century challenges: a huge deficit, high unemployment and climate change. Leaders from Des Moines to DC are asking how they can provide necessary services without raising taxes, get more people working again, and get the energy they need without succumbing to King Coal or crapping all over the Gulf of Mexico.

There is a way out of this. Why not tax consumption, instead of production?Rodeo Drive

In the US, we are taxed by the federal government for what we earn, at a rate between 15 percent (top 50 percent of incomes) and 26 percent (top 1 percent of incomes). For those of you who like working hard, only to start actually earning money for yourself on Tuesday around lunchtime, read no further.

For the rest of us, let's entertain the glory of the Stuff Tax.

The More You Want, the More You Pay

There is no reason we should tax employment, work or production. The concept is a perversity that punishes the addition of value to society.

In contrast, a Stuff Tax would do exactly that: Tax the consumption of stuff. You would take home the lion's share of your paycheck each month. Consume nothing? Pay no taxes. Want to buy a snowmobile or a Ducati? Pay the tax.

Here is how it could work:Roll Royce

  • Income taxes greatly reduced or abolished.
  • Employment taxes greatly reduced or abolished.
  • All products and services, with the exception of food, public transportation, some clothing and shelter (property/ rent) include a 20 percent federal government-levied tax.

 

We say we value work and entrepreneurship, and yet we tax them. As a nation we have not historically valued consumption, yet we encourage it. We do this because we have always done this, but there are other ways to raise funds for essential services and close the deficit, which was $1.67 trillion in 2009 (a threefold increase from 2008).



Archived Comments (6)

The Green Business Decade in Review

By Joel Makower
Published January 04, 2010
Email | Print | Single Page View
Tags: Business Operations, Cleaning, More... Business Operations, Cleaning, Climate, Commitments & Goals, Decade, Design & Innovation, Employees, End-of-Life Management, Energy Efficiency, Facilities, Finance, Fleets, Green Chemistry & Toxics, Industrial, Manufacturing, Meetings, Printing & Paper, Product Stewardship, Purchasing, Resource Efficiency, Shipping & Logistics, State of Green Business Report, Supply Chain, The Green Office, The New Year, Travel
The Green Business Decade in Review

Okay, I'll admit: The headline above is a bit of a come-on. I couldn't possibly do justice to the past 10 years' worth of green business activity — at least not in the following 1,500 or so words. But as we view the whatever-it's-called decade in the rearview mirror, it's tempting to assess what's transpired since the good old days of Y2K to see how far we've come — and how far we haven't. So, let's do that.

First, the good news: The greening of mainstream business has continued apace since the clock struck 2000, growing continually more rapidly as the decade wore on, even amid a Great Recession. The idea of green companies appears to have extended into the next concentric circle, beyond the true-blue, values-driven companies and the next tier of large leadership companies, to a third tier of companies that hadn't previously been concerned about global warming or other environmental issues. Today, it's hard to find a sizable company that isn't talking the talk and, to some degree, walking the walk. Trying to be seen as green is now more the rule than the exception.

The bar keeps rising, too: What seemed cutting-edge 10 years ago — carbon neutral products and companies, zero-waste factories, green chemistry, life-cycle analysis, green buildings — is now mainstream, or at least warrants a so-what? response when trumpeted by companies. Things that used to make headlines — or, at least, good promotional copy — are now business as usual.

And each year brings about a succession of whodathunk moments: Big-bad retailers committing to green up their supply chains, big-bad auto companies committing to transforming their products and manufacturing processes, big-bad packaged goods manufacturers launching green product lines, big-bad computer makers dramatically improving energy efficiency and recyclability, big-bad food processors and fast-food chains committing to sustainable sourcing, big-bad utilities committing to energy efficiency and renewables, and many other companies — big-bad and otherwise — announcing goals, partnerships, or achievements that wouldn't have seemed likely not that long ago.

Now, the big-bad news: Most companies are engaged in green business activities in only the most superficial ways, addressing just a small portion of their operations and impacts. Few have looked holistically at what they do from an environmental perspective, let alone made bold, audacious commitments to reduce their impacts or transform their products and processes to embrace a new green ethic. While more companies are engaged than ever before, their collective efforts are barely scratching the surface.

(On February 4, my colleagues and I at GreenBiz.com will issue our third annual State of Green Business report with specific measures of progress, or lack thereof. The report will debut at two State of Green Business Forums, in San Francisco and Chicago.)

So, while there is much to celebrate at the dawn of a new decade, there is a nagging feeling that much of this amounts to a false sense of hope — that all of this good news may be too little, too late. But maybe not.

In that decidedly indecisive context, here are three reasons why I'm discouraged, and three reasons that I have great hope for the decade ahead.

1. We're not moving the needle. As I said, the sum total of all this green business activity hasn't changed things much. Most global environmental indicators continue to head in the wrong direction. And where progress is evident, it isn't taking place at the scale and speed needed to address climate, water, air quality, toxicity, food security, biodiversity, and land-use challenges, among others. Even in developed economies like the U.S. and Europe, key indicators of progress — for example, the amount of energy and water consumed or waste and pollution emitted per unit of gross domestic product — has only mildly improved. In fast-growing developing economies — China, India, Southeast Asia, Latin America, and others — the story, in terms of consumption and emissions trends, is frightening.

2. The public still isn't getting it. There's little sense of urgency, and for good reason: Most people on the planet are focused like a laser on getting through the day — feeding and sheltering their families, staying alive and well, finding work, maintaining basic human dignities — and have little time or interest in protecting the commons. Meanwhile, the "haves" are largely focused on keeping what they've amassed, if not adding to it, and generally can't be bothered with the greater good. Most individuals have little understanding of the environmental impact of their lives, content to make a few simple, largely symbolic changes in their shopping or personal habits. As a result, consumer pressure on companies to transform their products and processes is relatively meek. Yes, there is a growing cadre of citizens concerned about the climate and other planetary ills, and a new generation entering the marketplace with a greater green ethic, but their power to effect change to date has been tepid at best.

3. There's little sense of urgency. In generations past, people took to the streets to protest wholesale injustices and inequities and, in the process, helped bring about sweeping changes, from the U.S. to the U.S.S.R. These masses were supported by political and business leaders who saw great opportunity in dramatic change, for both themselves and society in general. So, where are the masses marching in the streets demanding action on climate change in the name of future generations? Where is the anger over inaction on energy and climate issues — arguably among the greatest civil and human rights issues we've ever faced? Where is the bandwagon of consumer boycotts and shareholder actions forcing companies to respond? Where are the politicians expending their political capital fighting barriers to a green economy? Why aren't the threats to our security — food security, housing security, water security, energy security, national security — fomenting scores of green Manhattan and Apollo projects? Yes, there are encouraging examples of all of these things, but they are happening much too slowly and don't seem to be making much headway.

So much for the bad news. Amid all this, I'm encouraged, excited even, about where business is headed.

1. Green innovation is booming. There's a revolution taking place that even many of its participants can't yet see. It involves the confluence of energy, information, building, and vehicle technologies, and the promise of a wealth of impressive new goods and services. Some of these will be seen this decade in the emergence of the so-called smart grid, in which everything from appliances to automobiles are connected via two-way, always-on connections, enabling not just better management of energy resources, but an array of new capabilities that improve people's lives while reducing their impacts. These things may not be overtly marketed as "green," but much like the iPod and iTunes, they stand to transform how we live, work, drive, and play in ways that we can't yet imagine, while vastly reducing materials and energy needs. All of this will help to transform how companies think about what they do, leading to, among other things, closed-loop systems of commerce. And it's not just about technology. Innovations in food production, apparel and footwear manufacturing, and many other industrial processes and feedstocks are advancing faster than most people recognize.

2. Companies are reinventing themselves. Largely as a result of these innovations, companies will continue to find themselves crossing sectoral lines and entering new lines of business. I wrote in 2006 about the "new energy companies," old-line companies like chemical manufacturers, auto makers, IT companies, and food processors that have found themselves in the energy business. That trend has accelerated as the aforementioned technological convergence takes shape. So, too, with green building, as I noted recently: a new wave of old-line companies (think Firestone and Sanyo) are now in that sector, too. Each of these players brings new energy and momentum to the green business arena. Meanwhile, early-stage companies are getting out of the lab and off the ground, invigorated by capital flows that, while recently slowed, are beginning to rebound. Slowly but surely, some of these innovators are going public or are being swallowed by bigger fish, extending their capabilities and reach.

3. Sustainability is becoming about more than just the environment. This is long overdue. One of the more frustrating trends of the past decade was the conflating of "green" with "sustainability." The latter, of course, means much more than environmental responsibility, though you wouldn't know that listening to most corporate marketers and PR firms, which treated the two terms as one and the same. But that's changing. The social side of sustainability — a broad swath of topics including working conditions, community impacts, human rights, product safety, access to education and health care, increased opportunity for all, and more — is beginning to be considered by some large companies. It is showing up in corporate "responsibility" reports, of course, but also in the design and delivery of products and services for the poor, both in developed and developing countries. It is showing up in corporate concerns over obesity, product safety, access to clean water, and dozens of other things. Some of the companies involved were dragged to these issues by activists, but that's how many of today's environmental leaders were born — companies like Nike, McDonald's, Starbucks, Home Depot, and others. To be sure, the social side of sustainability remains early-stage, but the trends are encouraging.

At the end of the day — and the decade — how does all of this stack up? I won't venture to say. There are too many unknowables that could help or hinder the shift to greener companies and economies: the vagaries of world economics, rapid technological developments, dramatic political shifts, fast-emerging impacts of climate change, roller-coaster oil prices, natural disasters, populist movements, and many others.

One thing is certain about the green business decade before us: It will be at least as interesting as the one just passed. Whether that's a good thing or not remains to be seen.

Joel Makower is Executive Editor of GreenBiz.com and co-founder and chaiman of Greener World Media, Inc.

Tweet
Also in The Two Steps Forward Blog:


Syndicate content