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Can Green Business Make Big Change Fast Enough?

Over 70% of Fortune 500 companies have sustainability mandates, but do they go far enough? In a sea of corporate social responsibility programs, green “seals of approval” and eco claims, business really has not changed significantly. Seeking to enable a deep green business transformation, the Environmental Defense Fund is hosting a series of Sustainable Solutions Labs across the U.S., “un-conference” think-tanks. Orchestrated by DigIn, the Labs bring together green business leaders throughout each region to share successes, lessons learned and needed future actions that will accelerate the sustainability shift.

At the Seattle event, on August 10th at the lovely eco campus of Seattle University, conversation catalysts from Microsoft, REI, Starbucks, Brittingham Partners, and the Bainbridge Graduate Institute shared their experiences to spur the ensuing discussions. Microsoft’s Director of Environmental Sustainability Steve Lippman described a successful new practice of billing data center energy use by square foot to individual business units. The result: business units specify more efficient equipment and share in the savings. “But it’s low-hanging fruit,” he said. “The systems we create [as a society] don’t harbor sustainability.” He went on to state that the real challenge is creating large scale change, and soon. Scientists say we have 10 years in which to bring down CO2 levels in the atmosphere to avoid irreversible climate change. Despite scientific consensus, many of our policy makers, business leaders and consumers believe it’s all hype. However, if green business is good business anyway, change will do us good regardless of the climate issue. Lippmann emphasized, “Don’t let small wins distract from the bigger task at hand.” Microsoft, REI and other NW companies are part of a business coalition pushing for bigger changes through tougher energy efficiency legislation in Washington State.

As one of the event’s facilitator’s, I spent the day with the Effective Collaboration for Sustainability discussion. Our discussion groups agreed that a big focus of collaboration should be getting major corporations to support green business policies, incentives and legislation. Additional suggestions repeated across many of the day’s topics. Whether discussing Organizational & Cultural Change, Urban Agriculture Infrastructure, or Green Investing, a consensus emerged. Attendees urge corporate America to ask better questions, establish industry-wide metrics that help everyone make better decisions, and educate themselves and each other about proven success strategies.

Kevin Hagen, Director of CSR at retailer REI, underscored the need to overhaul the business decision process; “Question your assumptions, which are almost always wrong!” When looking into the company’s carbon footprint the REI team expected product transportation would be the heavy hitter. Instead, employee commuting had twice the footprint, at 14% of their total carbon emissions. Another assumption overturned, REI says they save money by purchasing renewable power, by using long term contracts that hedge them against spikes in conventional power prices.

A good example of finding and addressing the larger environmental issues is the ubiquitous disposable coffee cup. Ben Packard, Starbucks’ VP of Global Sustainability, relayed the fact that consumer concern focuses on use of disposable cups. However, only 1.9% of those concerned customers bring their own cup. Furthermore, the bigger environmental impact for coffee drinkers is tropical deforestation, not cup disposal. Starbucks has integrated sustainable purchasing practices into its entire coffee supply chain, a fact that is relatively little known yet has enormous environmental benefit.

We have a long way to go, but a lot of good data is already out there. If you have something to share or want to get involved in creating change, visit the Sustainable Solutions Lab 2010 wiki and join the discussion.

Teresa Burrelsman is a senior sustainability consultant at Eco Via Consulting in Seattle. She has worked with private and public organizations on implementing green buildings and sustainability programs. She is also a member of the Sustainability Collaboration Network, a multi-disciplinary consultant collective that focuses on regenerative development and creating sustainable expertise through training and research.

Teresa Burrelsman
Teresa Burrelsman is a senior sustainability consultant at Eco Via Consulting in Seattle. She has worked with private and public organizations on implementing green buildings and sustainability programs. She is also a member of the Sustainability Collaboration Network, a multi-disciplinary consultant collective that focuses on regenerative development and creating sustainable expertise through training and research.
 
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2 thoughts on “Can Green Business Make Big Change Fast Enough?

  1. We have to be sensible before we are sustainable, so reducing energy consumption should be an integrated, smart business practice. Look at what companies are spending money to fight climate change legislation or block regulations to worker’s safety. We have lost the “big picture” in our quest for the “granular green”.

  2. “Fast enough” for what? To avoid catastrophic climate change? No; without a strong policy framework at the Federal level, US business simply *cannot* change “fast enough” to avoid catastrophic climate change. We need fundamental changes to our energy and transportation infrastructures, and well-minded businesses and the free market will not provide those changes by themselves (as much as I like both well-minded businesses and the free market).

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