The following is adapted from the 12th annual edition of State of Green Business report that looks at key trends and dozens of metrics assessing how, and how much, companies are moving the needle on the world’s most pressing environmental challenges. The report is produced in partnership with Trucost, part of S&P Global. In addition to the 10 trends sustainability professionals should be tracking, the report offers more than 30 metrics for nearly 2,000 companies, assessing the progress, or the lack thereof, on a wide range of topics, including supply-chain impacts, natural capital impacts, greenhouse gas emissions and investment in greener products and business models.
“We find ourselves in uncharted waters.”
That was part of our assessment 10 years ago, in 2009, when we published our second annual State of Green Business report. It was a time of both bright hope and dark uncertainty: On the one hand, there was regime change in America, a new presidential administration promising green jobs and renewed action on climate and other issues. There was a race by the global automotive industry to transition to electric vehicles — and growing action by companies to reduce the toxic components of their products and manufacturing processes.
“So many emerging technologies and business trends of 2009 are still unfolding a decade hence, slowly but surely striving to find mass markets.”
On the other hand, there was a global “great” recession, roiling companies in all sectors and pushing environmental issues to the back burner for some, and little progress on addressing climate change and its impacts, as greenhouse emissions continued to ratchet up.
As we wrote back then:
This year’s update is a mixed bag of encouraging and discouraging news. But on balance, despite a growing chorus of corporate commitments and actions, we’re less optimistic that these activities, in aggregate, are addressing planetary problems at sufficient scale and speed.
Suffice to say, it’s déjà vu all over again. So many concerns of 2009 are concerns again today, albeit with a heightened sense of urgency. So many emerging technologies and business trends of 2009 are still unfolding a decade hence, slowly but surely striving to find mass markets. So much progress we saw back then is still giving us hope.
But the headlines aren’t doing much to shore up our optimism.
Let’s start with climate change, because pretty much everything else hinges on that. As 2018 wound down, we saw a raft of headlines that were, at best, distressing:
• Rising heat from climate change threatens crop yields
• Climate may force millions to move
• Climate cost: Overheated employees too miserable to work
• Climate change could lead to threefold increase in powerful storms
• Climate change will make roads even worse
• Climate change will shrink economy and kill thousands
• Banks fear climate change will render homes uninsurable
• World hunger rose for three years — climate change is a cause
• Climate change already a health emergency, say experts
• Climate-heating greenhouse gases at record levels
And that was over just two weeks in November.
The year saw wildfires in Greece and the United States, floods in Japan and Nigeria, a heat wave in Pakistan and mudslides in India—and enough human carnage from all these to provide a sobering preview of what might await us in the decades ahead.
The news in 2018 wasn’t all bad. Renewable energy procurement continued on the impressive growth curve we’ve been watching for a decade. Electric vehicle purchases, while still a relatively small slice of the market, continued to grow as automakers around the world promised dozens of new EV models in the next few years, including electric buses and trucks. Eliminating plastic waste became a global cause, with efforts both symbolic (banning plastic straws in restaurants) and significant (corporate commitments to eliminate all single-use plastics). Ideas that not long ago seemed fringe—regenerative agriculture, a circular economy—were becoming commonplace, including within some of the world’s largest companies.
In the end, it’s another mixed bag, with many of the same challenges we’ve seen for years. “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes,” Mark Twain is reputed to have said. The history of sustainable business may be a verse-case scenario.
So, which will win out—the good news or the bad? The answer depends in part on the headlines of the day—more cataclysmic signs of a planet under siege or the hopeful signals of a world taking action?
As we concluded back in 2009:
At the end of the day, the questions remain: Are we moving far enough, fast enough? Does the ever-growing green activity in the business world represent a true transformation, one capable of adequately addressing pressing issues like climate change, air quality, the loss of species and the looming water crisis? Or is it merely nibbling at the edges of the problems? Reasonable minds can justifiably argue both sides.
Plus ça change—the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Article by Joel Makower, Chairman and Executive Editor, GreenBiz. Joel is an award-winning writer and strategist on corporate sustainability practices and clean technology who, over 25 years, has helped a wide range of companies align sustainability goals with business strategy. He is the bestselling author or co-author of more than a dozen books, including The New Grand Strategy: Restoring America’s Prosperity, Security and Sustainability in the 21st Century, and a sought-after speaker to companies and business groups around the world.