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What Will the “New Sustainability” Look Like?

comere_elisabeth_tetra_pakEarth 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”

Elisabeth Comere
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. 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.
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2 thoughts on “What Will the “New Sustainability” Look Like?

  1. Although I never heard of Earth Overshoot Day before, it would’ve helped if you said what date that was in 2015 and if it was earlier in the year than in 2014 or 2013. I’m just saying that little perspective would help to bring home the point that human activity is lessening our planet’s ability to heal itself.

  2. Kenneth: The author said “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.” In other words, it some dreadful day in the future when day when the yearly average waste created by the industry becomes more than the earth can clean up in a year.

    It is not like a solid day, nor something that happens once per year. It is a speculated future date. Our goal is to attempt (rather ensure) that it never happens. The current trend is that we are causing it to happen sooner and sooner with industrial expansion.

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