Sustainability 2.0

Not so long ago, all corporations needed do to be considered sustainable, was to recycle, print documents double-sided and replace some old lights with energy efficient bulbs. This is simply not true anymore. Many of the large corporations have realized the potential for streamlining their operations by implementing best sustainable practices. Systems of production are being viewed not only as what can be done to conserve resources but, also how that equates to a more profitable business model.

This shift in thinking marks a new era in sustainability or what some are calling, Sustainability 2.0. Just as we saw the Internet evolve in the the beginning of the last decade toward e-commerce, social networking and exponential growth in mobile devices like the iPhone and the iPad, we are seeing sustainability evolve in the business world – the second generation of sustainability.

What’s driving this new interpretation is a better understanding in the business community of how sustainability can give them a competitive advantage. Corporations are concerned with how their businesses will function in a future where energy prices will undoubtedly rise, resources will be scarce and climate change will favor those who prepare in advance. They must compete effectively in this new business environment or risk being outdone by their competitors.

Ecomagination initiative by General Electric.

How is this new concept of sustainability different from the previous one? First, there is a deeper understanding of what sustainability means. Whereas the first iteration was quickly deemed, “green-washing” by the media (and for good reason), this iteration is about conceptualizing the larger picture. Corporations are now using sustainability strategies to strengthen their business’s future prospects while also having a positive impact on society.

The initial efforts by corporations were meager and the goal was to publicize their actions in the hope of being seen as a “green” company. DuPont (DU), Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and Exxon are among those that jumped on the opportunity to cloak themselves in an eco-disguise. In May of 2005 General Electric announced its $90 million “Ecomagination” advertising campaign, only to be deemed by many as a green-washing campaign.

But, by 2009 GE had embraced authentic sustainable practices with their signature programs, healthymagination, Developing Health Globally™ and Developing Futures™. They each represent a $130-million commitment to making a lasting impact in the communities where employees work and live.

A key component of Sustainability 2.0 is viewing employees as a “secret weapon”. Giving employees a way to be part of these strategies and goals gets them involved with a vision of the future. Employees know their jobs and their products better than anyone else, so they’re ideally suited to recognizing ways to make them more sustainable. Good examples of companies that are harnessing the hidden power of their employees are eBay’s green team and 3M’s Pollution Prevention Pays Program.

Companies today are also reaching out to their customers in a brand new way. They are creating two-way conversations between the company and its stakeholders by leveraging the power of the Internet and social networking platforms like Yelp, Twitter and FaceBook, not possible even 10 years ago. This conversation opens up the decision making process to include the consumer in how their products are created, and even the process by which they are created.

By involving customers in their sustainability strategies the consumer becomes empowered. They feel that they are being heard and can affect change at the corporate level. It also gives the executives better information on what is important to the people who buy their products – a win-win-win.

For some American corporations, sustainability has even become “business as usual”. With no hint of greenwahsing, L’Oréal has set ambitious goals for 2015: a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emission, waste and water consumption per finished product. Their fair trade policy and commitment to local communities has been fully integrated into their business decision making process. L’Oréal exemplifies what it means for a company to embrace sustainability throughout it’s business model.

Take a look at the major corporations today and you’ll see that they have a new breed of executive in their ranks – the Corporate Sustainability Officer or CSO. The core function of this individual is to see that sustainability is fully integrated with every aspect of how a business operates. They implement cost cutting strategies on operations that can include the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification for offices and production facilities.

Gone are the days where only the vanguards of corporate environmentalism such as Patagonia, REI and the like are embracing

Patagonia top made with 80% merino wool from farmers in Australia who practice sustainable land management and 20% chlorine-free, recycled polyester.

sustainable business practices. Even the mega corporations are getting  involved, because they have more to loose and even more to gain.

Wal-Mart, the undisputed king of all mega corporations, has tipped the playing field by introducing the “sustainability index“. According to Wal-Mart’s own website, this initiative hopes to “create a more transparent supply chain, accelerate the adoption of best practices and drive product innovation and ultimately provide their customers with information they need to assess products’ sustainability.”

This, from a company that buys nearly all of its products from China and has single-handedly wiped out mom and pop shops since its inception? In fact, a closer look reveals that Wal-Mart compels their suppliers to jump on the sustainability bandwagon long before they do. Wal-Mart has also helped establish the Sustainability Consortium to drive metrics for measuring the environmental impacts of consumer products across their life-cycle. Kudos, right?

That’s the question; now that the very corporations environmentalists have loved to hate for so many years, have begun greening themselves, are they all bad?

The answer remains to be seen, but the future is certain. Corporations will need to compete with one another in an uncertain future of diminishing resources, rising energy prices and increasing environmental regulation. The truly sustainable organizations will undoubtedly have the upper hand.

Stand by as Sustainability 2.0 takes hold and corporations either embrace it and thrive or greenwash and perish.


2 Responses

  1. All well and good, and every good step forward is worth celebrating, but corporations have not gone far enough. They–indeed our industrial consumer society in general–need to make quantum, sea-changes in the the nature of production and consumption if we want to nurish the ecology that sustains us, and on which we depend for our survival. We all live downstream. The faster we can minimize the toxic effluent that flows from the tail end of our industrial economy, and the closer we can get to cradle-to-cradle production and consumption, the faster Earth will be able to heal from the myriad toxins and disruptions we have inflicted on her, and ourselves; the result will be a happier, healthier and more prosperous human civilization. One Earth. One Future.

    • Thank you for your well-worded feedback.

      You are correct that our species needs to act quickly in steering our course toward a more sustainable future. Corporations, NGOs, communities and individuals will need to collaborate if we are to avoid the suffering that will undoubtedly ensue should we fail to heed the decades old warnings. We are truly living in a time of great change and upheaval – opportunity abounds.


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