This post is part of our year-end “year in review” sustainable business writing contest. We’ve asked 3p readers to submit their own thoughts about the state of sustainable business in 2010. More information about the contest is available here. All submitted articles will be available on this page. Voting will happen in January!
When I reflect back on the year 2010 from the perspective of sustainable business and the triple bottom line, I am immediately reminded of the story of the tortoise and the hare. You remember the old Aesop’s Fable, in which the arrogant and fleet-footed hare mocks the slow-moving tortoise and challenges him to a race. By all measures the swift hare should have easily outpaced the slothful tortoise, but through a combination of determination on the part of the tortoise and overconfidence on the part of the hare, we have perhaps the greatest upset victory in the history of all sports.
I don’t think that anyone watching the sustainable business race, back when it started, would have imagined that the very sluggish and disinterested business community would have ever gotten out in front of the government, whose job it is after all, to look out for the larger concerns of society as a whole. But that is indeed what has happened.
Going back to our government’s tepid participation in Copenhagen at last year’s close, followed by an equally lackluster showing by our representatives in Cancun, the failure of the Senate to pass a climate bill, the dissolution of the House Committee on Climate Change, the hare that was once our government, after having shown true leadership going all the way back to the first Earth Day, has apparently lost all interest in the race.
Suddenly, with our new congressional balance of power ushered in on a tidal wave of dirty money, comprised of misinformed Tea-Party Climate deniers who undoubtedly got their skewed news from Fox and are prepared to drive science into the closet, we are now truly in the process of falling from global leader to laggard. It has already reached the point where we are receiving warnings from leaders overseas that we could someday find ourselves boycotted by countries worried about tarnishing their image by associating with, and purchasing from, us
Of course not all government efforts were such dismal failures. A number of federal employees did their best to improve the efficiency of their operations. And a number of states, including California and Hawaii took bold steps to enhance their sustainability, despite the federal government’s no-show performance.
But it was really companies like Wal-Mart, Naked Juice, SC Johnson, Coca-Cola, Frito-Lay, Chevrolet, Google, GE, Target, Verizon, Puma, even Burger King that really took the bull by the horns, making major announcements and taking meaningful actions. And this is far from a comprehensive list. Add to that a number of exciting start ups moving into the green space including: Vadxx (Waste to fuel), OPXBio (bio-fuel), ReVolt (zinc-air batteries), Sapphire Energy (algae-based fuel), and Vecarius (waste heat capture in vehicles). These are just a few that I happened to cover this year.
And while these actions certainly represent a growing trend that gives cause for hope, I do not mean to suggest that this is anywhere near sufficient to solve the problems that we and all of our fellow inhabitants of this planet face today. Nor do I mean to suggest a simplified scenario in which “business” has now become the good guy in the effort to save the planet while “government” sits idly by on the sidelines. Indeed, while these companies and dozens of others like them have taken meaningful action, they still most likely represent a minority of all businesses.
What has become increasingly clear is the fact that business today is far from a monolithic entity. While many of the more enlightened companies have recognized the fact that refocusing their efforts in a more sustainable direction is in their own long term best interests, for any number of reasons, there are still many companies out there doing their darnedest to slow down any movement towards real action on climate change, or other sustainability initiatives like healthy food, for fear that it will impact their short term profits. In fact, the millions of dollars that companies like Koch Industries, Exxon and Halliburton and other members of the fossil fuel lobby have spent on lobbying and distorted media coverage have done a nearly miraculous job, considering that this was the year of the largest environmental disaster in US history, (the BP Gulf oil spill, in case you need reminding) of keeping environmental concerns, or any kind of regulation off the congressional agenda. This is the biggest story of the year, the story of what didn’t happen. And yet this was no fluke.
In fact, this is nearly identical to what happened in the financial sector, where we also had a crisis of biblical proportions, which still has millions of people out of work. And yet we got little more than token reform there as well. One might have hoped that a silver lining coming out of these disasters would be that we would finally get some meaningful regulation of industries that, under the current rules, now have little to lose by playing fast and loose with our health, safety, life savings and planetary support system. But we didn’t and that, sadly, is the real story of 2010. (We were told we couldn’t afford to do anything, even as we just gave away hundreds of billions to the richest Americans.)
Coming back then to the tortoise and the hare, we can see that the only ones getting anywhere close to the finish line were a few green tortoises, virtuous and determined as they were. But the year we all just lived through might best be remembered in terms of what happened to the hare. He was clearly waylaid, stopped at every turn by lavishly funded temptresses that implored him to tarry a while and not to worry about that silly tortoise and the nonsense he was chasing.
Meanwhile the planet keeps heating up and the ice keeps melting, regardless of what Fox News says.
We’ve got a new year coming. Let’s try and make it a greener one.
RP Siegel is co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails.
Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.
Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.