I had to update the "Meet Megan" section of this blog recently and realized I've been doing environmental work for almost 15 years. Shoot. Time flies. But then again, in such a fast-moving and constantly evolving profession as sustainability has turned out to be, that feels like light years ago. Particularly when thinking about the future I see for how corporate sustainability is shifting. And in this regard, the environmental movement and its theory of change going back decades has not yet embraced what I believe to be the greatest opportunity for corporate America to "step up". But before I can get to advocating for what I think is the answer, we have to get on the same page, and that involves dipping into how we all got here (I'll make it quick! Like ripping off a band-aid). But I really do have to give you the skinny on why the environmentalists got to their belief system on what causes corporations to reduce their impact on the planet. They have a really good reason for being that way.
In the days of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and the blue marble photo of Earth that sparked the environmental movement, there wasn't a political lens to it. I mean, consider: who doesn't benefit or get impacted by waterways, drinking water and air clean of pollution? Passage of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act were strongly supported on a bipartisan basis by Congress (I know...feels like a fairy tale to say that these days!). And then....came the reaction. The backlash. President Reagan's underlying principle of "economy vs environment" meant appointing a blatantly anti-environmentalist to lead the EPA and ripping out the solar water heating system installed by President Carter. Which all led to the formalization and codification of environmental issues being deeply partisan with the GOP being "anti" for all things environmental, and that divide has stayed the rule pretty much to this day. With the notable and extremely temporary exception of when climate had it's moment in 2007 where conservatives supported taking action until they collapsed into this still toxic and resistant strain of denialism. Deep roots that denialism has. Sigh. Anyways, that concrete-like hardening on the political front was a result of multinational corporations deciding that environmental regulation was onerous, expensive and corporates came in heavy to all levels of government against any further action.
So how did this play out outside of the Beltway? How were companies interacting on environmental issues in their business during the 80s and 90s before corporate sustainability became "a thing"?
(Read on below the jump)
These incidents are HEAVY and gross wrongs. And so in order to understand the environmental movement...you have to understand that this is what they were up against. Powers inside the U.S. government that were determined to dismantle the few protections that had gone into place while companies actions and inactions were literally killing people with a complete lack of environmental practices and human rights abuses.
So in that frame, it's not hard to see why and how activist oriented environmental non-profits sprang up. Law students started a non-profit dedicated to litigating on actions to protect the planet and so the Natural Resources Defense Council came to be during this period. Greenpeace formed in the 70s and so by 1995 it wasn't that surprising when protesters occupied corporate real estate on the Brent Spar oil storage station in the North Sea. And activist campaigns have led to changes. Notably there's the worker's rights campaigns in the 90s that seared these corporations into becoming leaders in the sustainability field: Gap Inc. which is now a showcase for how to engage stakeholders, and Nike who by any measure transformed their culture to lead in ethical practices, most notably evident by their commingling of sustainability & innovation. And most recently, Greenpeace's campaigns in Indonesia and Malaysia struggled to get wider traction with consumer behavior change until they pivoted to a supply chain campaign of downstream brands using paper/pulp from notable "deforester baddie" Asia Paper & Pulp (APP). A few protests against Disney and Mattel and within a year over 100 multinational companies had banned APP material in their supply chain, which ultimately led to doing their right thing, with measurable results.
This is all to say, I get it, and hopefully you do too. It's not hard to see why environmentalists picked their approach when it came to corporates. Name shaming is a tried and true practice that can lead to change beyond the one company when deployed well, particularly for the "bad actors" and making sure the low bar gets raised up (key word there being "can").
And to be fair, this portrayal missed out on the environmental NGOs that have clearly led with partnership, aka "the carrot" instead of "the stick". Some NGOs have made it their mission to work with corporations since the "how" to execute change can be just as critical to reducing environmental impact as the "why". Chief among them is Environmental Defense Fund, who partnered with McDonalds to get rid of their styrofoam containers and are the originators (and instigators?) of Walmart's ambitious sustainability goals. Walmart's President at the time - Lee Scott - gave his now famous 21st Century Leadership speech in 2005 in what is widely recognized as the "launch party" for corporate sustainability (and full disclosure of my bias, I was an EDF Climate Corps Fellow who now works on these issues inside corporates...so its safe to say I like their style)
Since then, sustainability as a profession has expanded even during the Great Recession to include many corporates, and sometimes in extraordinarily revenue-generating and strategic ways. Social enterprises have proliferated and flourished - with or without their B Corp certification - such as Ben & Jerry's, Method/Ecover...and we now have Unilever pointing to their sustainable products portfolio as growing 30% faster than the rest of their product lines. We've had brands connected at the core to the outdoors giving us spectacularly successful campaigns like "Don't Buy This Jacket" (Patagonia) and "#OptOutside" (REI) as a counterpoint to the consumerist bonanza of Black Friday. And a little company called GE which has not only launched their Ecomagination campaign with ambitious corporate sustainability goals, but their own business division dedicated to renewable energy that was the lone brightspot during their quarterly earnings earlier this year. Wow. We're talking about a company the size of a medium sized country's economy now on the side fighting to advance and advocate for renewable energy and climate change governmental action.
The corporate sustainability conversation is still pretty much mired in the frame of "do less harm". Shrink your carbon footprint, zero waste. The inevitable conclusion of this environmental philosophy is to do nothing, that the outside NGO community is pushing in essence for the company to not exist. It's a pretty difficult message to really get an executive engaged. I like to think of this overriding mindset as "the greenest way to be is to not make/exist/do anything, ever". And here's the thing. I started this blog precisely because I don't subscribe fully to that philosophy and to the associated shaming that always accompanies it. We have to be mindful of our impact, yes, absolutely. But just because there's an impact doesn't mean it should never be done. I am an environmentalist who encourages you to be environmentalish because following that logic to end of the line doesn't make sense, we all don't have to live in a potato sack off the grid and never go anywhere in order for our livelihoods and the planet to be sustainable.
To make the conversation concrete, here's a shining example of the problems with this anti-corporate environmental stance. In recent years, environmentalists in San Francisco successfully fought zoning rules and are so fervently anti-development that new buildings have not been approved to keep up with demand. Environmentally, this is in spite of the realities that urban densification of an exploding local population into new and efficient buildings would be the best thing for the planet.
It's not hard to see why the framework that environmental non-profits started with in the 70s and the issues they faced from corporates in the 80s and 90s need a long, hard, fresh look. So now IMHO you're ready my friend. We've arrived at giving you the enviro(ish) answer (don't be disappointed by how simple it is!):
The conversation has been so focused on the environmental impact - the cost - that we've plumb forgot to have the benefits side as part of it too. We've been missing part of the equation this whole entire time. In financial terms we discuss profit as revenue minus cost. It's not just cost. Duh. When deciding if an action is worth the effort, we need to have a bigger frame for deciding whether it has value. Instead of saying "there's a cost never do it", we should be saying to ourselves "does the benefit outweigh the cost? is it a good value?"
How does this translate into corporate sustainability? Not quite yet but thankfully it's already starting to. It's just not widespread yet (that's where you come in..spread the good word my people!) There's a growing movement for Net Positive, meaning does the company replenish the resources it uses and create a positive impact on society and the planet. To use the metaphorical language of the space, is the "handprint" of positive impact bigger than the "footprint". In other words, do the benefits outweigh the cost?
Here's the thing I can tell you that this conversation unlocks....AMAZING possibilities. So much more is on the table in this conversation, and more options mean that corporations can find the most impactful ways to activate in the ways that have value to the business too. In energy and carbon the conversation opens up not just to investments and offsets for renewable energy, but even more interestingly, to the carbon reductions enabled by the company's product or service. When it's used by customers, do their footprints shrink too? (Full disclosure of my bias, there's proof in the mobile technology space that it does...enables 10x the reduction!) Sometimes this net positive impact can be beneficial to the direct bottom line...I love the Coca-Cola example of water replenishment (first in the Fortune 500 to achieve 1-for-1 replacement of water used). When your product needs at its most central the use water, efficiency can only take you so far. So full replenishment achieved is awesome by any measure, and in this case, is not just net positive (yay) but helps ensure their operations can stay in the existing locations and watersheds by sustaining the water available locally.
My theory is this: some companies have adopted sustainability whole-heartedly and some have not. Most are in the vast middle struggling to "make it work people." So why don't environmental NGOs and all stakeholders make the conversation easier? Instead of always hitting corporate with "the stick" inducing fear and shame and walls...why don't they ask corporates whether they are having more benefits than they are costing the planet? Tapping into the similarity of the profit equation means leveraging the language corporates speak already, all the time (hello quarterly reports to the street). Let's use it. What if we stopped treating the conversation as adversarial (aka "swimming upstream" or "against the tide"...pick your metaphor) and instead engaged in this much more interesting conversation that started embracing the strength of markets and corporates to leverage their collective power.
So have I convinced you on the power of Net Positive? You're now an EXPERT on the next wave of corporate sustainability while it's still way off on the horizon...but you can see this awesome set coming in now yeah? :) Take this knowledge with you into your day-to-day whether at work, play or home!
And don't forget to leave a comment and let me know...should I keep doing posts like this? I'm just so glad you're still reading this and want to make sure I deliver on what you want.