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Did We Move the Corporate Sustainability Ball Forward in 2010?

When I first sat down to write this month’s column, I told myself that I would not create a year-end “best of” or “worst of” list, nor conjure up a crystal ball as I attempt to predict what the new year may hold for corporate sustainability and environmental stewardship. Lists are too subjective anyway, and more often than not fall short when it comes to adequately helping us understand why the five or 10 items being highlighted deserve such praise (or in some cases disdain). But let’s face it: this is the time of the year for reflection, and despite my best intentions I kept coming back to a single question – have we moved the ball forward in 2010?

A few months ago, IBM released the results of a CEO survey in which “environmental concerns” ranked seventh among the top external factors expected to impact business operations over the course of the next three years. In some corners, this statistic was viewed as proof of corporate executives’ inability – or perhaps even unwillingness – to integrate environmental stewardship into the strategic fabric of their core business operations.

Ten years ago, though, where would sustainability have ranked on such a survey? Or for that matter, how many CEOs would have indicated that their businesses would be seeking to deploy new technologies aimed specifically at addressing issues of sustainability? According to a separate study from Accenture, more than 90 percent of respondents indicated that over the next five years they will be doing just that. So, is the glass half empty or half full?

It seems to me that after years of much discussion, environmental stewardship is finally establishing a toehold in the corporate (and industry) psyche. Reducing paper consumption and energy conservation (e.g. turning off the lights and powering down PCs when not in use), for example, are now commonplace, and rankings such as Greenpeace’s Cool IT Leaderboard are tracking the sustainability efforts of some of the leading global information and communications technology companies.

Yet ICT continues to be a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, by 2020 the industry’s emissions are expected to be approximately 1.5 billion tones carbon dioxide equivalent. So, if you want to really see where – and how – the ball is being moved forward, I suggest looking more closely at new programs that have emerged in 2010 like the GreenTouch Consortium in telecom and the Basel Action Network’s e-Stewards Program.

Rather than rely on the actions of single corporations, these initiatives represent a more collaborative approach to solving issues of environmental stewardship that spans industries and disciplines. In the case of GreenTouch, for example, organizations from telecom and technology are teaming up with top academic and research institutions to transform the energy efficiency of communications and data networks. And in the e-Stewards program, a concerted effort to establish a standardized approach to dealing with the alarming growth of e-waste which has drawn the support of government agencies, environmental activists, and most importantly the electronics manufacturers and recyclers central to dealing with this challenge.

Advancing sustainability commitments has to be viable on multiple levels in order to achieve any true momentum. What makes these programs different from their predecessors – and fuels my belief the ball is indeed moving forward – is their ability to not only champion a compelling environmental cause but articulate a business case that also includes the potential for sizable operational gains.

Is that to imply that marrying business and environmental objectives is a magic bullet? Not by a long shot. There will always be room for improvement and new ideas, not to mention an increased need for vigilance to guard against potential abuse and misrepresentation in the achievement of sustainability commitments. But understanding how to command the attention of executives and provide a framework for pragmatic action is a significant development.

Whether or not 2010 turns out be a pivotal year for corporate sustainability or simply another step in a long journey is something future experts and analysts will have to decide. If you have considered where the sustainability conversation has been, and where it’s going, I think you’d be hard pressed to argue that progress is going in any direction but forward.

Trade Wings’ Chief Executive Officer and Founder Todd Adelman is passionate about driving business model innovation within the Telecom industry. With more than 20 years of supply chain and asset management experience, Todd leads a number of strategic initiatives designed to establish Trade Wings as a trusted authority on the development and implementation of reuse optimization strategies for network assets.

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2 thoughts on “Did We Move the Corporate Sustainability Ball Forward in 2010?

  1. I have to disagree. The primary elements of “sustainability” have been in place for at least 20-years, and the movement has re-branded itself from “environmental management”, “Total Quality Environmental Management”,”Green Business”, and other compartmentalized labels. The senior management of most companies, large, midsized, and small, are woefully eco-illiterate. When communication inside the organization is limited to the “business case”, many of value-adds to the people, the company and the community are ignored and stricken from the dialogue. We might well be “moving the ball forward” but you have to take context into account that the Key Earth Indicators so we have lost a lot of ground. I believe it is now 4th down and very, very long.

  2. When I read John Elkington’s “Cannibals with Forks,” where he describes the triple bottom line and what we should be doing to accomplish it, I was excited. Then I looked at the date of publication (1997) and realized that we have made no improvements in the last ten years. In fact, with the US attitude towards GHG and oil use, we will not even admit that we have to play that 4th down.

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