In a world where like-minded people across the globe are uniting to promote their common agendas, mindfulness about sustainability is not just a good idea for the environment, it’s a good idea for business. Sustainable companies will be the winners in the 21st century. Will yours be among them?
Each year, Earth Day presents an ideal occasion for all of us as consumers, capitalists and producers to consider the far-reaching implications of our actions. As business leaders, shoppers and investors, we have a responsibility – and the opportunity – to make the planet better, safer and more sustainable.
Even if our choices only extend as far as the way we conduct our business and the people we choose to do business with, we can lay a foundation for lasting success that affects ourselves, our employees, our customers and our communities.
Earth Day was originally conceived by Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin (1916 – 2005) after a horrific oil spill near Santa Barbara, California in 1969. The following year, with help from Denis Hayes and Co-Chair U.S. Rep. Peter McCloskey of California, he organized the very first Earth Day event – attracting 20 million people across the U.S. Since then, the observance has expanded to all parts of the globe – with conferences, rallies, protests and social activism that has led to real world change.
I have always felt a profound respect for the environment. Maybe that’s because I have lived most of my life in a part of the U.S. renowned for its beauty and spaciousness. To me the earth has always seemed fragile, and I’m continually amazed at its resilience – bouncing back as it so often does from the abuses it suffers at the hands of an ever – expanding human population.
I grew up and spent most of my career in Montana, a state of the U.S. whose early history was characterized by exploitation and extraction. With abundant natural resources and a sparse population, it was easy to overlook the then little understood damage being inflicted on the state by ambitious, sometimes ruthless men eager to reap the vast rewards of the industrial revolution. To this date, the state still suffers from the abuses inflicted in those days long ago.
But it’s getting better. Spurred by citizens and responsive leaders, state and federal agencies are cleaning up generations of toxic messes. Rivers are being restored. Fisheries are recovering. Biodiversity is improving. At the same time, the economy has diversified and quality of life has improved. To me, this is a perfect metaphor for what’s going on in business today. In fact, I think they overlap.
In 1970, long before digital media, everyday people by the millions were brought together by Earth Day to express their outrage at the damage being done to their planet. As a result of their activism, we now have the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act, the Water Quality Improvement Act, and other rules that have reversed generations of carelessness and wanton disregard for the planet.
Today, hundreds of millions of people are joined together every day by media they control to share ideas they care about most. If Senator Nelson had had social media at his disposal in 1970, imagine the numbers that would have gathered around the globe to support the cause of sustainability.
Set within this framework of an enlightened, empowered consumer, I believe we’re entering a golden age for business: A time when capital, great ideas and the best interests of humanity are all converging.
In the 21st century, consumers are choosing companies and products that speak to their higher selves. We want what we want, sure. And we want it now for a price that’s fair. But we also expect companies to be fair – to consider the impacts of their actions. When we find a company is mistreating its people or the environment, there are consequences.
Today, scrutiny isn’t the sole domain of the government or a press that is constrained or misled. It’s us. We’re watching. We’re talking. And we care about what business is doing. The good news is this. If your company is just as concerned about the well being of its people and customers, you’re probably perfectly positioned for success, a success that will last because it was built to last.
Seize the opportunities of this emerging reality. Give some serious thought to your company’s sustainability. Make it a part of your story and your operational strategy. Consider your actions’ impacts on all your constituencies, and take steps where you can. Add instead of taking away. The 21st century marketplace will reward you.
Does your company have an opinion about sustainability? How is it practiced? Can you think of a company you admire because of its stance on the environment, fair-trade and supply chain integrity? How does it affect the choices you make as a shopper?