If you follow the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, you know he has a couple of consistent themes. Among them are education, innovation, and entrepreneurship, each of which he often discusses from a sustainability perspective or with a sustainability focus. When I read Friedman, I find myself nodding in general agreement with his sustainability views, frequently interrupting my husband’s breakfast reading to share a Friedman ideation that I found particularly poignant.
Here’s one, which Friedman delivered in his keynote address at the US Green Building Council’s 2011 Greenbuild International Conference and Expo. He begins, “I always love it when people tell me we’re having a green revolution. Really, us? Having a green revolution? Have you ever been to a revolution where no one gets hurt?” He goes on to point out that in our green revolution, “Each and every one’s a winner. General Motors is a winner. BP’s a winner. We’re all winners… That’s not a revolution, friends,” he notes, “that’s a party. We’ve been having a green party, but that has nothing to do with a revolution.”
I wasn’t there to hear Friedman deliver his message, but even reading his words delivered a jolt that made me reassess just how much progress we’re making in the sustainability movement.
With all the energy and effort that leadership companies and sustainability NGOs and practitioners—myself included—have been exerting since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and earlier, have we just been playing on the periphery of real sustainability? We might be asking the hard questions but we’re still going for the easy answers, or the easy wins. Sure, we’ve seen product redesigns, a whole lot of recycled content being added to products and packaging, material innovations like biopolymers, and lots of efficiency measures introduced into industrial processes and operations. We’ve even seen some companies set bold sustainability goals and ambitions—even if they don’t know yet how they are going to achieve them. Great stuff, but is this really a revolution?
As fate would have it, the day after I read Friedman’s Greenbuild remarks and started thinking about how much fundamental change we all have really driven in the world, I attended a Vision 2050 Solutions Lab co-hosted by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, Retail Industry Leadership Association, US EPA, and GreenBlue. Vision 2050, the result of a scenario planning project the World Business Council for Sustainable Development completed in 2010, lays out a pathway for business and industry that will lead to a global population of some 9 billion people living well, within the resource limits of the planet by 2050.
Talk about an end goal that’s going to take a green revolution! Yet as a representative of one prominent company admitted during a breakout discussion at the Solutions Lab, “We don’t even ask the “sustainable production/consumption” question.” In other words, we ask how can we make this widget with a smaller environmental footprint, but we don’t ask whether we should even make this widget. For me, that put Friedman’s provocative words into context.
We’ve been having a 20-year eco-efficiency party and companies have been realizing many economic wins. Yes, we should be celebrating that. But now, with the need for a Vision 2050 looming, we also need to be asking if it’s enough. I found myself wondering whether any companies have taken the bold step to ask:
• Should there be limits to growth?
• Should we really be making the stuff that we make?
• Is our fundamental business model unsustainable?
Happily, a best example of that kind of bold action came to mind as I learned more about Patagonia’s Common Threads Initiative. During fashion week, Patagonia Founder and Owner Yvon Chouinard announced the initiative with the following statements: “This program first asks customers to not buy something if they don’t need it. If they do need it, we ask that they buy what will last a long time—and to repair what breaks, reuse or resell whatever they don’t wear any more. And, finally, recycle whatever’s truly worn out. We are the first company to ask customers to take a formal pledge and be partners in the effort to reduce consumption and keep products out of the landfill or incinerator.”
Can Patagonia start a real green revolution? While Patagonia may have more flexibility as a private company, could their success inspire even publicly held companies to join this revolution? Is it time for “experiential capitalism,” an idea I introduced in an earlier post? A time when companies sell experiences and not just products? What do you think it going to take?