Extreme heat, recurrent nationwide weather anomalies, and intense wildfires resulting in catastrophic loss of life by fearless responders have refueled Administration policy announcements working to define a regulatory approach to control carbon dioxide. These shocking and tragic events drive media coverage and release a torrent of policy debates on just what America should do about climate change. It is clear that a consensus on how to manage greenhouse gases from a public policy perspective is not at hand. Regardless of what the policy is, it should not limit the potential of communities and private enterprise (and the citizens and shareholders who depend on them) to survive and prosper. We suggest there are signals that the role of corporations and consumer demands are converging on this issue due to new business strategies and customer realities.
Business has discovered that the emergence of the “carbon conscious consumer” is a new reality influencing their strategy, operations, and products. The convergence of carbon within the consumer mindset has altered allocation of corporate resources. Corporations are now working to proactively engage their stakeholders to discover how best to align societal and business goals to achieve success.
The evolution of the “carbon conscious consumer” comes in many forms: the organic food buying mom, the energy efficiency evangelist uncle, the green car guy next door, the socially responsible grandparents, and the ecologically minded gardener. The carbon conscious consumer has taken shape in what could be called a “Sustainability Generation” of individuals seeking to exercise a sense of purpose within their lifestyles to address issues like carbon which inherently have economic, social, and environmental complexities. What to do about carbon can quickly draw fierce debate and confusion. But instead of falling flat on their faces consumers have chosen to take action in their own ways. Corporations have paid much attention to the shift in consumer behaviors, needs, and interests. As a result corporations are working to internalize a “carbon conscious” attitude within their management culture, so that a level of accountability infiltrates all elements of their business: R&D, product design, marketing, manufacturing, logistics, supply chain, product stewardship, and enterprise risk management.
If the merit of a free economy is the backbone of capitalism, then capitalism is now working hard to alleviate the constraints (real/perceived, today/future) of carbon on the ability for corporations’ freedom to operate. This view of carbon makes it a measure of inefficiency and lost profit. By minimizing the production or optimizing the utilization of carbon, business clarifies its purpose to shareholders and to society. The valuation of carbon further legitimizes that this once limiting factor is a commodity to be monetized. While political debate focuses on its regulation, entrepreneurs and capitalists focus on the value of carbon as a commodity, and so that it can be accounted for in the most resource efficient and productive way.
Within and throughout all industry sectors and segments of the supply chain, American businesses are putting pragmatic carbon reduction, management, mitigation, and adaptation strategies and goals into place. Companies large and small have begun to seriously examine their carbon footprint in the context of their economic futures. Companies in the transportation, electric utility, specialty chemical, consumer product, electronics, life science and pharmaceutical, food and agriculture, and other business sectors have committed significant corporate resources to address carbon attributable to their operations, product life-cycle, and their supply chain. For these businesses, tracking and managing carbon is not just a regulatory requirement, it is simply good risk management.
Paralleling the corporate response to the “carbon conscious consumer” is a new generation of entrepreneurs and policy-makers who are working equally as diligent as they can to declare their independence from a carbon constrained future through the design of new technology. The critical role of new technologies and well thought out policies cannot be understated in this fight for an innovative and independent economic future. However, America’s freedom to flourish or fail hinges upon how we will, as citizens and consumers, continue to address this issue in individually, and remain accountable to our decisions and actions. From this point of view, carbon is not just a commodity to be traded, or an element to be regulated. Carbon is representative of who we are, how we live, work, and play. The onerous of a carbon-free future should not reside solely on the shoulders of business or government. The opportunity to seize future independence from the impacts and challenges of carbon fall to every citizen. Technology and policy may get us only so far.
Independence, whether economic, personal, or shared as a society, is not achieved without individual commitment. While the depth of debate can cloud perspective, the maturity to comprehend that implementation is the key to achieve goals is necessary. Providing consumers and corporations the freedom to converge on what to do about carbon will lessen the potential for future economic constraints and allow Americans to remain the stewards of our freedom.
Dennis Minano is the former vice president and chief environmental officer of General Motors Corporation and serves on various profit and non-profit boards.
Mark Coleman is president of CMM and the author of the book The Sustainability Generation: The Politics of Change and Why Personal Accountability is Essential NOW!, www.thesustainabilitygeneration.com. Throughout his career Mr. Coleman has developed a strong focus on the critical areas of energy, environment, and sustainability. His career has spanned strategic and leadership positions in government, applied research, technology development, and management consulting organizations. Mr. Coleman resides in Auburn, NY with his wife, Aileen, and two sons, Owen and Neal.