The Business of Restoration & Stewardship: True Sustainable
By Rona Fried, Ph.D.
We are witnessing the beginning of a profound transformation - the successor to the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions - the Environmental Revolution. It seems to take a crisis for human beings to get serious about doing things differently. That is the silver lining to the grave environmental problems humankind is about to experience - out of the impending crisis will come true change. The transition to a green (clean) economy is underway. That's what we believe at SustainableBusiness.com.
The fundamental change will be a re-ordering of priorities. I believe that "Quality of Life" - the stuff that makes us human - will finally supersede profits (for business) and consumption (for "consumers") as the number one position. In the next stage of our evolution, humankind will turn its attention to clean water, air, trees, biodiversity, and people as the highest priorities.
Business plays a pivotal role. Many corporations have revenues and assets higher than the gross national product of many countries, and are as powerful, if not more so, than government. The role of business will change from thoughtless Industrial-Age producer of endless products and profits for an unsustainably expanding population and economy to Environmental-Age trader of services and products necessary to maintain a steady state balance for life on earth. In fact, the blueprint for how business is conducted is shifting from Industrial Age operating assumptions of "take, make and throw away" to fit the situation society faces today. It makes sense to use scarce natural resources sparingly, and keep them circulating in the system. Society, in its instinctual desire to survive, is tightening the screws on companies that refuse to play by the new rules. The authors of Interface Inc.'s 1997 Sustainability Report say, "We believe institutions that continuously violate these [natural] principles will suffer economically. The walls of the funnel will continue to impose themselves in the form of environmentally concerned customers, stricter legislation, higher costs and fees for resources and waste, and tougher competition from companies who anticipate the narrowing limits and adjust accordingly."
Completely new kinds of businesses are being spawned to solve the Industrial Age problems. Now that one of four people on earth doesn't have clean water to drink, a water recycling industry is emerging. Just as global warming is gathering steam, "CO2 cleaning" companies are rising to the opportunity. Legions of new types of companies will be required to give birth to the coming hydrogen economy. Industrial Age companies will re-invent themselves to take advantage of the infinite business potential of providing services and products that enhance life, rather than destroy it.
Oil companies are beginning to see profits in selling renewable energy; car companies are getting closer to providing clean transportation. Steel, often thought of as the symbol of the Industrial Revolution, now carries a recycling symbol (eight steel mills manufacture steel largely from scrap). In fact, more than half the steel produced today is made from scrap. Paper mills are moving from the forest to the cities, as they hone in on the source of abundant feedstock - scrap paper. In New Jersey, for instance, a state with little forest cover or iron ore, 13 paper mills run only on waste paper and . Why is this? Natural resources are increasingly scarce and thus more expensive; waste is plentiful and increasingly, abundant.
Many thousands of small businesses are leading the way, too, and the list of corporate visionaries is growing rapidly, paving the way for the rest to follow. The Dow Jones Sustainability Index and the FTSE Index are just two of the emerging financial indexes that cover sustainable companies worldwide. There are sustainability leaders in every industry: Interface and Collins & Aikman in floor covering, BP & Shell in energy, HOK in architecture and design, Herman Miller in office furniture, Scandic in the hospitality industry, IKEA in retail, Xerox in office equipment, Philips in Electronics, to name a few. In fact, the sustainable sector of most industries is where the action is, whether it's in agriculture & organic products, design & construction, renewable energy and on and on.
The corporate world is on the path to sustainability. As it learns to integrate eco-efficiency measures into core operations and philosophy, it sets the stage for dramatically reducing the quantity of materials used in production, product take-back and reuse, and the dematerialization of products, the next steps in the Environmental Revolution. Financial and policy market incentives are emerging as drivers toward that end.
Today, companies are assimilating and experimenting with the new guidelines, reflected in the "2-faces" of corporate behavior. BP enters the solar market on the one hand, and pressures the U.S. Congress to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling on the other. The new Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers with Ford at the helm, forms to lobby against on safety and environmental issues, while they promote clean vehicles. As corporations experience success in burgeoning environmental markets and engage further and further in sustainable practices their behavior will be more consistent.
In the coming century, the transition to sustainability will change the types of businesses that exist and the products they produce. The way we structure and manage our economy will be fundamentally different. Sustainability is, in commercial terms, a business driver of immense significance.
--- for an expanded edition of this essay, please visit the SustainableBusiness website.
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