Corporate sustainability must give way to corporate responsibility
Today we consume more than twice as much as our relatives did only 50 years ago. In the US, this means generating upwards of 500 billion pounds of garbage every year that’s trucked to one of our 10,000 landfills. This accelerated consumption is exhausting global ecosystems, depleting 30% of global resources and nearly 60% of animal populations since the 1970s.
These sobering numbers are fueling a consumer revolution. People are shifting their consumption habits, with leaders like Lauren Singer helping others to live a lifestyle of zero waste – two years of Lauren’s trash fits inside a single mason jar.
As efforts like these gain steam, a growing segment of conscious consumers are successfully demanding a shift in the marketplace, with 88% of millennials believing businesses have the power to create positive social change. But 70% don’t think businesses are doing enough, and they’re right.
It’s tough to find a business without some form of sustainability messaging emblazoned on their platforms or packaging. And while that’s great to some degree, according to the EPA, more than 75% of greenhouse gas emissions from many US industry sectors still originates from our supply chains. So just how authentic is all of that sustainability messaging, and how much of it is simply pandering to the modern consumer?
Sustainability isn’t just marketing, it’s a responsibility for all businesses to emulate those like Ray Anderson by evaluating their supply chains with clear eyes, making the right choices for our planet and courageously acting on those choices with urgency.
This process has never been easier from a business perspective. According to the Carbon Disclosure Project, 40% of participating members report meaningful cost reductions after teaming with suppliers to decrease their environmental impact, while more than 1/3 have unlocked new revenue streams.
When Siemens announced a radical commitment of more than $100 million to lowering their carbon emissions, former CEO Eric Spiegel used a powerful word to describe the project – calling it an investment. Siemens would invest in the latest technologies, retrofitting factories, purchasing new efficient machinery and transitioning all operations to renewable power by 2020. This investment would not only make the world a better place, but would return more than $20 million each year – paying for itself in fewer than six years.
Patagonia is perhaps the most emblematic of all north star brands I personally follow in terms of their tireless commitment to making the world a better place. They deliberately use the word responsibility when discussing the incredible work they’re doing to ensure their suppliers embody their values.
When Patagonia – led by visionary CEO Rose Marcario, who believes “we live in an interconnected world” that our actions affect “profoundly” – identifies aspects of their supply chain that aren’t aligned with their organizational values, they do their best to fix the problem instead of simply moving on to another vendor. A practice all businesses should consider as it raises standards across the globe while driving value for customers. Patagonia is poised to break the $1b annual revenue mark this year.
Levi’s is another iconic brand pushing the boundaries of environmental stewardship by sharing learnings with competitors. When Levi’s discovered a method to reduce the water used in garment finishing processes by 96%, saving over 1 billion gallons of water since 2011, the company not only open sourced their innovation but provided their entire staff with water conservation training.
Levi’s has since announced their intention to use 100% sustainable cotton and achieve zero discharge of hazardous chemicals by 2020. I’m sure the open source reports following the successful realization of those two goals will not only be fascinating reads, but will help competitors transition to more responsible practices too.
As our population continues to grow, it’s incumbent on us all to make adjustments for a more balanced future. Businesses in particular can no longer be sustainable in name only, they must rise and meet the responsibility our times demand.