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Speaking Sustainably

Is fear getting in the way of corporate climate action?

Are companies too afraid of consumer backlash to push the envelope on public environmental action?

Last week, I attended the annual GreenBiz 16 conference and the Edison Electric Institute Strategic Issues Roundtable.

One conference was for sustainability professionals trying to help their companies and society avoid a "4-degree world," the other for utility strategy folks trying to maintain current standards (99.9 percent uptime; 4-6 percent profit to shareholders) in the face of a rapidly changing reality.

Both groups have more in common than you might think — they’re dealing with enormous, real, business-threatening, even life-threatening challenges, and they have to move fast to figure some stuff out. But I’m worried it’s possible they have something really unattractive in common: I’m worried they’re both afraid of their consumers.

Here’s my case.

I’ve been going to sustainability conferences for many years, and at Shelton, we’ve been working with some of America’s most respected brands for many years to figure out their sustainability stories and leverage them in their marketing efforts. I’ve seen businesses spend substantial resources on:

  • Reducing waste/consumption in their facilities
  • Dealing with their supply chains
  • Removing badness from their products and leveraging sustainability to drive new product innovation
  • Deploying renewable energy
  • Responding to NGO/certification requests for information; securing a variety of environmental certifications for their products

Now I’m beginning to see more companies hone in on employee engagement around sustainability. But where are the meaningful consumer engagement efforts?

As one presenter at the GreenBiz conference pointed out, "In a 4-degree world, there is no business or investor upside," and it’s obvious that companies can do only so much to avoid the snowball-rolling-downhill of growing C02 emissions via product, supply chain and facilities improvements. We must engage consumers — but I’m not seeing it.

Yes, companies package up their sustainability commitment, they put information about it on their websites and they might even run some ads telling consumers to do a thing or to like their brands better because they’re good to the planet — but I’m not seeing much actual engagement.

It’s as if brands and companies are scared to really jump in with both feet and go for the consumer piece the same way they’ve gone after the product and facilities pieces. Either that or the marketing teams are just way too disconnected and don’t see the imperative or upside.

I see the same thing in the utility arena. So much effort and money is being spent by utilities to hang on to their current business model (the most public of which is their fight to change how they get paid/pay for energy generated by customer-owned rooftop solar installations).

Something is clearly in the way of corporate America doing what needs to be done to engage their consumers in co-creating a more sustainable world.

This, of course, makes them look like bullies on the playground, inspires the most indignant customers to figure out how to buy from someone other than the utility and sends a message to the largest companies in the country — the ones I had in mind in the previous paragraph — that the utility industry really doesn’t want to help its largest customers meet their clean energy goals.

So the largest companies in America are going their own way, finding ways to make their operations 15 percent renewable, 50 percent renewable, even 100 percent renewable (check out the RE100 initiative).

Utilities could work this desire for renewables to their advantage simply by proactively reaching out to these large consumers of energy, seeking to help and figuring out a mutually beneficial way forward. But it’s not happening (at least not often).

Why? Again, I think they’re afraid of what they might hear — afraid regulators won’t actually allow them to do what their customers ask, or afraid they won’t know how to create a viable business model to support what customers ask for.

Maybe I’m wrong — maybe it’s not fear. But something is clearly in the way of corporate America doing what needs to be done to engage their consumers in co-creating a more sustainable world. And I’d like to see that be different. Companies who pursue this path will be rewarded in the long run.

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