A sweet and sour sustainability outlook

The Inside View

A sweet and sour sustainability outlook

sweet and sour
ShutterstockLev Kropotov
The good, the bad and the ugly forces shaping sustainability have been in full view during the past year.

In the past year, it's been hard not to see the reasons to be optimistic about the future of corporate sustainability.

Collaborations to address social, environmental and economic needs are growing like chumminess gone wild. Clusters of corporations are building coalitions with their business and NGO friends to recycle and to fight climate change and deforestation.

Commitments are escalating, too. The stretch targets for 2020 include creating no waste, achieving energy neutrality, sourcing sustainable products and developing sustainable supply chains. 

A growing number of business grads want to make a net positive impact in society. These young, savvy and bridge-building sustainability professionals are the new Peace Corps. Their passion and sense of service is aglow, but they now join Corporate America to make the world a better place.

Transparency is omnipresent. This is mostly good. Undercover videos, hacking, cameras on our streets and in our pockets — with social media access to billions in a second — are a de facto sustainability police force. Eventually, those doing bad will get caught. 

The power of the individual is only exceeded by the mistrust in most institutions, especially the multinational corporation. One person can topple a corporate behemoth and force the change of an ingredient in food and drink, or a component of a computer, car — and more. 

NGOs know how to use the bully pulpit of trust as well. Most are using this as a positive force, convening round tables for sustainable palm oil, forests, soy, beef and even cities.

This list of sweet sustainability trends seems like a rally in baseball. It’s as if the bases are loaded, ready for a big hit and tipping point to mainstreaming sustainability. 

Out in left field

That’s until you realize you don’t have all players on the field. Absent are consumers and government officials.

Consumers care a lot, but their good intentions and ethical values remain in the on-deck circle. Making and saving a buck and surviving the piñata-like swirl of life keeps most occupied. Economic inequity and racial discord are coupling to darken the American dream.

Our political "leaders" brag about not compromising. Our governments dither and bicker. Polarization seems popular, which is stupefying. They don’t take the field to engage in solutions. They attack and counterattack. 

Republicans deny climate change and decry immigration. Democrats demonize Wall Street and harangue those that achieve Horatio Alger status.

The good news: Rather than drag the sustainability movement down, these sour trends will fuel sustainable growth for 2016 and beyond.  

Even though green consumers are roughly the same 5-to-10 percent as 30 years ago, the Sustainability Triumvirate, representing the power of the individual, NGOs and transparency, will serve as the motor to keep companies collaborating and setting even loftier goals. This will translate into continued measurable progress.  

We’ll see some sorting out, too. The watchdog groups will keep an eye on these commitments, and bring down those that don’t try, don’t report and don’t care. 

Even though governments lollygag on most of the critical social and environmental issues of our times, their inaction will continue to catalyze the Sustainability Triumvirate, and companies will form more innovative coalitions to really solve tough issues, from deforestation to better labor standards.

They have to. The line between business and society is no longer horizontal or vertical. Businesses are smack dab in the middle of society and cannot, like government, sit on the bench. They’ll be out of business if they don’t engage with society on how to handle the intersection of their core impacts with the needs of society.

These needs are mammoth.

Consider this: There are 7.3 billion people in the world today.  When I was born, there were 1.7 billion.

Let that sink in. This is THE megatrend.

All of us deserve a good planet to live on, yet the World Wildlife Fund reports that we are already in debt to our planet, using 1.5 times the natural resource to sustain our one earth. 

Batter up

As far as integrating sustainability into business, the most comforting, long-term trend is the transition of C-suite leadership. The old guard is starting to wane. They embraced sustainability like a blind date, never knowing what it really was, never making a real commitment. 

In the next decade, younger leaders who see sustainability as marriage of corporate growth and societal benefit will take charge. 

The Jackie Robinsons of CEO sustainability leadership — the Ray Andersons, the Paul Polmans — will see sustainability mainstreamed into the C-suite.

Ultimately, to make sustainable living a part of all society, we need the power and engagement of all three legs of the stool that govern our society: civil society; corporations; and government.

This stool is way off balance, with an atrophied political leg, yet the corporate sustainability outlook is on the upswing, full of genuine intentions and reportable progress. There’s real momentum.

Look at the lineup of all-star brands addressing sustainability: Disney, Nike, Walmart, Unilever, Procter & Gamble, to name  a few. Look at the tens of thousands of local, national and global NGOs serving as a curative serum for our planetary problems.

Can the sustainability shift match the magic of the technology arena, where the power of computer processing doubles every two years? It’s very possible.

Within the next decade, envision citizens voting for political leaders who get stuff done and use their purchasing power to support societally engaged and responsible companies.  

The trends show that a corollary to Moore’s Law for sustainable growth is indeed within reach.

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