Seizing the Sustainability Opportunity: Business Must Make the Leap, Now

The world is crowded. Global population reached the 7 billion mark in 2011, and is expected to reach 8 billion by 2030. At a minimum, each person needs food, fresh water, shelter, clothing, health care and some form of energy just to survive. But most of us consume much more than these necessities and well beyond what we need.

That’s where the problem begins.

In its 2012 Living Planet Report, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) informs us that today we are using 50 percent more resources than the planet can provide. Our overconsumption of resources, specifically fossil fuels, is linked to increasingly higher levels of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, a major contributor to climate change, and a 30 percent global decline in biodiversity since 1970. In a similar report WWF issued in 2002, the trends were comparable but less alarming. Resource consumption has increased exponentially in the last 10 years to the point where we will need another planet – or half a planet today – just to meet our present demands.

The alternative: Get serious. Really serious about how we manage and use the Earth’s natural resources so we don’t have to move to Mars.

Finding the Real Change Agents

While governments should undoubtedly be taking more aggressive action to regulate the sustainable use and protection of resources, the real change agents must come from industry – the companies that produce the goods we consume. A decade ago just a handful of companies were talking about climate change and clean water as germane to their businesses and reporting on their efforts to address these impacts.

Ford Motor Company was among the early leaders, stating in its 2003 Corporate Citizenship Report that it was at a crossroads.

“We must choose the right path on climate change. Our customers are demanding accountability from us in this area. It’s a leadership choice … we must deliver.”

Ford was acknowledging the need to focus on delivering more fuel-efficient cars. And that’s exactly what it did and continues to do.

Unilever was also on the forefront, establishing performance targets prior to 2003 aimed at reducing energy and water use and GHG emissions, as well as tackling other impacts. In its 2003 Environmental Report, Unilever acknowledged that business must play a role in protecting and preserving the environment and enhancing long-term sustainability. Its focus on reducing emissions from its manufacturing operations resulted in a 55 percent absolute reduction of GHG emissions over 1995 levels – equivalent to taking nearly 670,000 cars off the road – all while growing its business.

Since 2003, more and more companies – a majority of the world’s largest – have been migrating toward understanding what the principles of sustainability mean for them. The exercises have led to numerous commitments, agendas, measurement of resource use, establishments of reduction targets and reports on their progress. All this suggests that industry gets it – that overconsumption of certain resources will have long-term consequences – and that they accept their responsibility to find more efficient and sustainable approaches to operating their businesses.

So this is good news, right?

Progress in Context: Emissions on the Rise

Yes and no.

Yes, it’s encouraging that companies are heading in the right direction and taking incremental steps to capture efficiencies and reduce their use of resources, output of GHG emissions and the amount of waste they generate. Some short-term progress has, indeed, been made to reduce GHG emissions in the United States with the Environmental Protection Agency reporting that U.S. emissions in 2010 were 5 percent below 2005 levels.

But the steps being taken today aren’t enough to alter the long-term trajectory of rising levels of GHG emissions in the U.S. or globally.

Last year the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported that global GHG emissions in 2010 were 30.6 gigatons, the highest level ever. In 2011, global emissions rose again by an estimated 3.2 percent, according to IEA.  Recently, the Organization for Economic Development (OECD) projected that by 2050, global GHG emissions could increase by 50 percent if the majority of our energy continues to be derived from fossil fuels.

ExxonMobil, the largest U.S.-based corporation, sees a similar, but slightly rosier scenario. In its2010 Corporate Citizenship Report, Exxon projects that by 2030, global population growth and higher incomes will be key factors behind a 35 percent rise in demand for energy over 2005 levels, even with substantial gains in efficiency. Exxon expects this increased demand will come primarily from non-OECD countries, including China and India, and that energy-related emissions from these countries will account for two-thirds of global emissions.

Most importantly, ExxonMobil states that oil, natural gas and coal will continue to be the most significant energy sources available, making up nearly 80 percent of the energy mix with alternative energies comprising the rest. Further, by 2030, ExxonMobil believes energy-related CO2 emissions will increase about 25 percent over 2005 levels.

Whether you accept the OECD’s projection or that of ExxonMobil, it’s not promising news. Study after study concludes the same thing. Significant increases in GHG emissions threaten to drive the Earth’s temperature up, causing changes to our climate that could have a negative ripple effect on our oceans, fresh water supplies, plant and animal life – essentially on our entire ecosystem.

Plenty of Bold Ideas, But No Major Leaps

There are plenty of bold ideas surfacing about how to radically decrease our current resource use and dependence on fossil fuels. But it will take major leaps forward to actually do any of them. Consumers obviously have a role to play – in the simplest terms, we could start by consuming less.  But doing that will have negative consequences – if fewer purchases are made than companies will have declining revenues and that will lead to job loss. Instead, consumers must make smarter, better informed purchases so the most sustainable brands are rewarded.

The hope for the future rests largely on the private sector and its willingness to make a much greater investment in sustainability. If it determines there’s a business opportunity in saving us from life on Mars, then expect for innovation to flourish, the best ideas to rise to the top and breakthrough solutions to be delivered to markets.

When this happens, there will be positive returns for business and for society.  It’s time to leap.

This article was originally posted at CSRwire
Liz Gorman
is a senior vice president at Cone Communications in its corporate responsibility discipline. For more than 10 years, Liz has been developing communication and engagement strategies that provide greater visibility for her client’s key CSR and sustainability initiatives to both external and internal audiences. She also has an extensive background in CSR reporting.