What Will the “New Sustainability” Look Like?
Earth Overshoot Day keeps coming earlier, and it’s not an occasion we want to celebrate. It’s the day our annual demand for ecosystem goods and services, like cropland, timber, fish stocks and carbon dioxide absorption, begin to exceed what ecosystems are able to renew in a year. Calculated by Global Footprint Network, Earth Overshoot Day reminds us that we are consistently borrowing from the future, and a more aggressive approach to sustainability isn’t an aspiration, it’s a need.
Corporate sustainability is evolving. In its early days, sustainability was tantamount to reducing harm by making products and processes “less bad.” With a glimpse of the competitive advantage that could be achieved, companies began to embed sustainability principles at the core of decision-making. Sustainability today goes beyond the walls of the organization — it’s now about using brand, purchasing and political power to influence stakeholders and create positive change.
Two terms have recently emerged to articulate what the “new sustainability” will look like: the “activist company” and “net positive.” The activist company, a term coined in a trends report by Reputation Inc., refers to companies that “take ownership of issues they can influence beyond their organizations’ boundaries.” They do this by encouraging mindful consumption to reduce pressure on natural resources and minimize waste. They actively influence policy to create industry-wide change and collaborate with industry partners (and even competitors) to bring about innovation. They take a stance on social and environmental issues and create meaningful incentives to encourage their consumers and partners to act in ethical and responsible ways.
The activist company is broadening its sphere of influence to strengthen its connection with consumers and get in front of sustainability issues that may impact future growth. Such companies are willing to use their resources and influence to address issues that impact their company, other organizations, their surrounding communities and the planet overall. Patagonia’s “Don’t buy this jacket” campaign is a case in point. By encouraging their customers to value quality over quantity, Patagonia is shaping consumer preferences and reinforcing loyalty to the brand, all while staying true to the company’s longstanding ethic of corporate responsibility. Max Burgers in Sweden is deliberately encouraging its customers to eat less beef. Not only does their campaign build a relationship with consumers, it reduces their reliance on a costly and greenhouse-gas intensive product.
From “Less Bad” to “More Good”
The take-make-waste model has served companies well for decades but taking has its limits. Net positive has emerged to inspire a movement toward a restorative economic model that centers on giving back. Like the activist company discussed above, companies with net positive goals go beyond the boundaries of their operations to serve long-term business interests and create positive change in the process.
A growing group of companies are committing to net positive goals. Coca-Cola Enterprises, for instance, plans to “recycle more packaging” than it uses by creating transformative partnerships to enhance their reach and change consumer behavior. One such partnership is with OpenIdeo, an online innovation platform that leverages the power of a global online community to solve environmental and social problems. In the case of Coca-Cola, this community has been tasked with developing leading edge ideas to encourage at-home recycling habits.
Ten years ago, the notion of major brands committing to restorative business practices was considered radical — a theory promoted by ecological economists and NGOs as opposed to a business strategy embraced by the world’s biggest brands. Altruism isn’t driving this evolution. It’s a realization that reducing harm isn’t enough. The truth is we are running dangerously low on natural resources and playing a self-destructive game with the limits of our planet. My advice? Don’t stop when you hit the sustainability ceiling within your organization. Find a way to break through.
Elisabeth Comere is the director of environment and government affairs at Tetra Pak. She joined the company in 2006 as environment manager for Europe, where she helped define and drive Tetra Pak’s environmental strategy and contributed shaping recycling for cartons in Europe. Since 2010, she has been based in the United States, focusing on advancing the Tetra Pak’s commitment to sustainability in the US and Canada and is involved in various industry and customer packaging and sustainability initiatives. Prior to this, she served as a political adviser to a member of the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, and headed the environment department of the Food & Drink Industry group in Europe. She is currently a member of the board for the American Institute for Packaging and the Environment (AMERIPEN) and is vice president for Government Affairs for the Carton Council. Comere currently resides in the Chicago area. For further environmental insights from her, visit www.doingwhatsgood.us.
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