A number of positive things happened in 2010. Sustainability finally made the perceptual shift from a 'green movement' to a more holistic business strategy that defines, rather than attempts to limit, economic growth and opportunity.
In support of the 'customer is always right' philosophy that serves as the basis for free market capitalism, we seem to have finally moved beyond the question of whether consumers care about the environmental impacts of the goods and services they purchase.
For me the question was fundamentally put to rest by the release of the new Federal Trade Commissions' (FTC) 'green marketing guidelines.'
1. The U.S. Government Signs Off on Green
With the release of these guidelines, the FTC as a representative of the U.S. government is clearly putting its imprimatur behind the idea that consumers have and will continue to have a vested interest in the accuracy of environmental claims. That may be the best sign yet of a market-wide expectation that environmental efforts must be part of the marketing/advertising/messaging.
2. A Universal Reporting Standard
The continued efforts to establish universally accepted measurement and reporting guidelines is a significant step for sustainability. A robust set of standards, and a 'real' discipline, rather than an advocacy-based effort will cement the strategic case for sustainability.
However, for continued progress, it is going to be important that we move the dialogue from global warming to a more reasonable awareness that we are consuming the resources necessary for life on this planet at an abominable rate. At the same time, we are producing prodigious amounts of waste that the planet – despite the vastness and efficiency of natural systems – simply cannot absorb. These two facts – well acknowledged and understood – are at the core of the concept of environmental sustainability.
3. Assets and Liabilities: CSR Weighs on the Balance Sheet
We finally seem to have begun to understand and appreciate some of the lessons of the familiar economic cycles of speculative growth ('irrational exuberance') followed by the inevitable bursting of the 'bubble' (a phenomenon that goes back to the Tulip Craze in the 1600s).
Because this bubble was so large, it impacted many people and crossed national borders in a way that has forced people to reevaluate the realities of both 'shared fate' and the need to build a sustainable economic model: One that includes a far more accurate asset valuation calculation that includes intangibles such as intellectual property and reputation along with a company's tangible physical assets.
On the liabilities side then, a true and complete accounting must be expanded to include processes and procedures that compromise safety and the environment and, therefore, have a financial (as well as moral) risk associated with them.
4. Shared Fate: Moving Beyond Philosophy
The concept of shared fate – that what happens to some of us has an impact on what happens to the rest of us – is more than just a philosophical perspective. As we increasingly understand the cause and effect of our actions – particularly those that are separated by both distance and time (making it harder to observe and easier to deny) – we must become more deliberately conscious about our actions.
The concept of 'not in my backyard' is obsolete in a global world; when we become aware that, even on a massive global scale, everyone's backyard is someone else's front yard.
5. The Sustainability Career Path
Sustainability also emerged as a distinct profession in 2010, with universities and colleges adding sustainability components to their curricula.
Business schools, for example, are increasingly adding and integrating the concept of 'built to last' rather than focusing on models that emphasize quarterly returns leading to buy-outs. In addition, there is an increased call for people not only with 'green' backgrounds such as LEED accreditation, but also the idea of globally certified CSR practitioners such as the CSR-P designation through the Centre for Sustainability and Excellence (CSE) that is accredited by the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA).
We still have a way to go, but I am pleased to see that when people talk about sustainability they are increasingly including the need to embrace social justice and economic opportunity along with environmental stewardship. Or simply going back to the basic difference between a 'cause' and a business model.
And ultimately that is what sustainability is really about: A culture of making profits in a manner that advances the human condition and the planet.
--By John Friedman, CSR-P
John Friedman has more than 20 years' experience in internal and external communications and a decade in the area of corporate responsibility and sustainability.His background includes developing and implementing effective and award-winning programs that maximize stakeholder engagement, community relations, organizational development, change management, and strategic philanthropy.Recognized in 2010 by Fast Company's Brandfog blog as a thought leader in CSR, John’s insights on sustainability, strategy and current events are a regular feature on Sustainable Life Media. He is also cofounder and serves on the board of directors for the Sustainable Business Network of Washington (SB NOW).
Commentary on the FTC's Green Marketing Guidelines: Exceeding and Defining Industry Standards
CSR 2010, Part V: New Times; Old Challenges
CSR 2010, Part IV: Corporate Social Responsibility Shifts From Cubicle to Boardroom
CSR 2010, Part III: Don't Let Your Job Search Define You
CSR 2010, Part II: Emerging Career Choices in Supply Chain & Sustainability
CSR 2010, Part I: The Sudden Explosion of Commentary on Corporate Social Responsibility
CSR 2010: Lasting Impressions From a Volatile Year
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