Corporations: The Next Step in Creating a Sustainable World
By Liam Berigan
Stop and think carefully, now. When was the last time you heard an environmentalist praise a corporation?
It’s likely been a long time, if you’ve ever heard it at all. Rank and file environmentalists still view corporate greed as one of the greatest barriers to sustainability, based largely on the countercultural platform that gave birth to the environmental movement nearly 50 years ago. It’s time for this viewpoint to change, and for the environmentalist movement to acknowledge that more can be accomplished with the help of corporations than without them. Green NGOs (non-governmental organizations) such as Greenpeace and the Environmental Defence Fund have been using this strategy for over a decade now, and corporations are realizing that low carbon policies can be pursued without sacrificing large quantities of profit. The time has come for the general anti-business mindset of grassroots environmentalists to follow suit, and change towards a philosophy that encourages and embraces green practices in business, integrating corporations into the pursuit of a sustainable future.
Green Business and its Potential
More and more corporations are beginning to take environmental issues seriously, and realizing that it’s good business to do so. Executives are seeing their business partners and customers become concerned about these issues, and they’re beginning to worry that their products will be marginalized as new, green technologies develop that their consumers care about. The NRDC’s Onearth magazine ran a series through 2012 called “Meet the Changemakers” that shows excellent examples of this type of evolution in business, where sustainability is built into the framework of large corporations once they realize that these types of practices are in demand. These companies include industry giants such as UPS, Starbucks, and Verizon, who are often finding that carbon reduction practices requested by their customers are revealing new ways to increase their own profit margins through energy reduction. Moreover, the appetite for green technology (such as hybrid vehicles) is constantly expanding, and many companies are finding that this provides an excellent opportunity for growth into new markets while simultaneously decreasing carbon outputs. The majority of corporations have certainly not become environmental organizations overnight, but the potential certainly exists for profit to go hand in hand with corporate responsibility.
The environmental movement has in the past relied on legislation to affect industry, using such landmark legislation as the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts to force corporations into compliance. The days in which this type of massive legislation could be passed through Congress, however, are long gone, and our chances of passing sensible climate change legislation in the near future seems quite slim. We should pursue partnerships with corporations in addressing environmental issues, not just because there is potential benefit for both parties, but because the legislative opportunities that we’ve used in the past may no longer be an option.
The Path Forward
- Recognize that lawsuits and slap-on-the-wrist policies against corporations, while needed occasionally, should not constitute the entire interaction between businesses and environmental stakeholders, but should instead be used as a last-ditch resort to negotiation.
- Environmentalists have already recognized the threat of “greenwashing”, or labeling products as sustainable that really have very few green characteristics. Instead of taking it out on corporations, however, we should instead encourage corporate-NGO cooperation to help create products and practices that are truly sustainable.
3. The days where government regulation was an efficient way to change industry practices is over; Congressional gridlock has made passing environmental policy incredibly difficult, if not impossible. Taking environmental concerns directly to business owners may prove to be more efficient, and construct better relationships between environmentalists and corporations in the long term.
The road to corporate partnerships in sustainability will not be an easy one, but the potential benefits of this method are great. Corporations are some of the most adaptable organizations on the planet, and many (such as PUMA and Maersk) are already beginning to see how environmental responsibility can be integrated into the business model. Business need no longer be the nemesis of sustainability, and indeed, we may see them begin to wholeheartedly embrace sustainability over the next few decades if environmentalists are willing to lead the way.