Earth Day 2005: Still Optimistic After All These Years

Earth Day 2005: Still Optimistic After All These Years

Let's begin with the obvious: All of the indicators suggest that the fate of the earth is as precarious as ever. From forests to farmlands to fisheries to flora and fauna, the signs are discouraging and trending south. Our ecosystems seem headed over a cliff, and our political leaders seem hellbent to give them a shove. Meanwhile, the leaders of the environmental movement continue to debate its "death." And it turns out that there aren't 50 simple things we can do to save the earth -- just a half dozen or so fairly challenging things.

Happy Earth Day: There is still much to celebrate.

That's right. You heard me.

From my perch -- overlooking the landscape of business and how it is responding to the environmental challenges we face -- there is much good news to report. The world of commerce, still seen by many as the Earth's Evil Empire, is moving, slowly but ever so surely, toward a new environmental consciousness. Despite -- or perhaps in spite of -- the near abdication of energy and environmental leadership on the part of the White House, Congress, and most regulators -- the private sector increasingly is rising to the occasion.

I know this is heresy to say in some circles, and I don’t state this lightly. As a journalist and longtime consumer advocate, I view most companies’ environmental commitments through a jaundiced eye. And, to be sure, there is nothing absolute about this growing corporate environmentalism. The business world remains full of unrepentant polluters, boundless devourers of resources, and old-paradigm business models that seem to have little regard for their impacts on people or the planet. But even some of these companies, I can tell you, are at least thinking about their operations in some new ways, born of an all-too-visible horizon in which energy, water, clean air, and other precious resources become barriers to the growth, or even the viability, of future business operations.

The changes may be slow in coming and largely imperceptible to the general public -- but they’re very real. Some of the world’s largest companies are changing their thinking, their policies, and even their business models with an eye toward sustainability. In most cases, these shifts are still relatively small, limited perhaps to one business unit, facility, or product line. Few of these companies are talking publicly about what they’re thinking or doing, fearing the wrath of activists for not doing enough -- though I think that in the coming year we’ll see more big companies putting a stake in the ground on their environmental commitments.

All of this is impressive, but even more so when viewed from the perspective of Earth Days not that far behind us. In 1990, for example, a major multinational could announce that it was banishing polystyrene foam coffee cups from its corporate cafeterias -- and make CNN. That was the state of the art. (Of course, many of those foam cups have since returned, but that’s another story.) Today, as you read every week in these pages, there are new developments that at least some companies are starting to "get it" -- and a growing number of consumers are, too.

What a relative handful of companies are "getting" is that sustainability isn’t just a means of improving the bottom line by cutting costs and improving efficiencies, but a potential engine of top-line growth: increased sales, new business opportunities, expanded markets, and stronger customer relationships. This is the level at which embracing sustainability shifts from being a nice thing to do, to being a source of strength and competitive advantage. It’s the level at which sustainability becomes a mandate of shareholders and boards of directors.

Please understand: Few large companies are "getting it" of their own accord. Many -- perhaps most -- have been dragged kicking and screaming to their environmental ethic by activists, institutional investors, customers, competitors, and, occasionally, regulators. But as many of these companies have “gotten religion,” they become (as converts often do) strong adherents of the faith. I talk with many of these companies, read both their internal and external documents, and attend their conferences. It’s clear that the conversation around commerce and sustainability is becoming deeper and more sophisticated, albeit not yet holistic.

And then there is the exploding world of entrepreneurs who, whether by design or instinct, are integrating sustainability thinking into their business models and operations. And the hundreds of millions of dollars being poured into clean-technology companies by both large and small investors, with billions more going into R&D. And the stirrings of Wall Street analysts who are finally starting to grok the research showing the strong correlation between environmental leadership and overall management quality, one of the most important factors analysts weigh when evaluating companies. And the insurance industry, which is threatening to pull some companies’ directors and officers insurance if they don’t take a more proactive stance on climate change. And the new crop of MBAs entering the job market with strong ideals about business as an agent for change.

Cynics may cavil that all of this is too little, too late. And I know they can point to ten things that are “wrong” for everything that is “right.” It’s very easy to be cynical and discouraged.

But I’m not. As I take a few steps back to view the broad business landscape, I see many positive developments and accelerating changes. Not that far into the distance, I can see a few bellwether companies taking what not very long ago would have seemed a radically progressive stance on energy, the environment, and the fate of the earth. And not far behind them are their competitors.

And so, I repeat: Happy Earth Day. Despite the discouraging signs, there remains a great deal of hope.