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Two Steps Forward

The State of Green Business, 2020

The good, the bad and the utterly unknown.

Today, we publish our 13th annual State of Green Business report, examining the key trends and metrics about corporate sustainability: how, and how well, companies are making progress in assessing and minimizing their impacts and embracing a range of strategies that move them forward in significant ways.

It’s our annual report card on progress by the world’s largest companies: the 500 largest publicly traded companies in the United States and the 1,200 largest in the world. It's a free download.

The report was produced in partnership with Trucost, part of financial information and analytics giant S&P Global.

Twenty-twenty promises to be a landmark year in the sustainable business realm. Besides turning the page to a new decade, it is the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day, arguably the launch of the modern environmental movement. It is five years into the 15-year trajectory of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a time when the world’s businesses and governments need to be done planning how to achieve its 17 audacious objectives and well on the way to actualizing those plans. This fall will bring a landmark United Nations climate conference in Scotland and another, focused on biodiversity, in China. (This year is also the 20th anniversary of, the website.)

Do we celebrate progress, however insufficient, or bemoan the S.O.S. signals the planet is sending?
Of course, when it comes to sustainability these days, and especially the climate crisis, every year seems to be a landmark: records set for heat, drought and storms; new levels of melting polar icecaps; record deforestation; more species and habitat loss or degradation. And probably more inaction, or underwhelming action, by the world’s biggest economies and polluters.

It doesn’t have to be that way, of course. Any number of bold measures on the part of corporate boards, political leaders and legislatures could help slow or reverse some of these outcomes. The continued uptake of renewable energy, the surprising ramp-up of the circular economy, revolutions in food production and carbon removal and the technologies and policies that support these things — all could provide much-needed momentum and optimism.

Still, a lot of troubling outcomes are pretty much baked in, the result of decades of needless dithering and debate by influential actors on the world’s stage.

Enduring questions

Therein lie enduring questions for sustainable business professionals: Do we celebrate progress, however insufficient, or bemoan the S.O.S. signals the planet is sending? Do we point to the leadership organizations, large and small, and encourage others to follow or berate the laggards in the hopes of moving them forward?

And, significantly: How do we keep from getting discouraged by bad news or blinded by the bright, shiny light of the newest, coolest, greenest thing?

Of course, it’s an all-of-the-above, both-and world, a delicate dance of optimism and cynicism, amazement and befuddlement, hope and despair. These days, that’s how a sustainability professional needs to roll.

There’s no better demonstration of this duality than in the world of sustainable business. Each month, it seems, there’s plenty to celebrate and berate. During 2019, for example, we read the usual assemblage of encouraging stories. A sampling of what we reported over those 12 months:

There are lots more of these encouraging trends, some of which can be found in the report. I hope you’ll take the time to download and peruse it.

Of course, there is no end of discouraging news, too, from fossil-fuels companies doubling down on drilling and fracking, to auto companies supporting fuel-economy rollbacks, to food companies tolerating deforestation for key commodities.

And that’s just the business news. Political leaders — in the United States, Europe, Asia and South America — are variously stalling or backsliding on their climate and other environmental commitments or, in some cases, actively dismantling them. And even a casual reader of the daily news knows that the human impacts of climate change are already devastating and likely to worsen.

How will all this affect the fortunes of companies and economies? No one really knows. And companies, for their part, aren’t necessarily speaking up — or preparing for the worst.

And there you have it: The good, the bad and the unknown about business and the environment. As we’ve reported every year in these pages, there’s plenty of good news and more than a fair share of things to be discouraged about.

To be glad or sad? That is the eternal question.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter, subscribe to my Monday morning newsletter, GreenBuzz, and listen to GreenBiz 350, my weekly podcast, co-hosted with Heather Clancy.

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