A lot has happened in the world of sustainability since I wrote my first article here almost five years ago about a bicycle courier service in Paris (which no longer exists). It is hard to believe this is my 1000th article on TriplePundit, which says a lot about my own OCD, loyalty to this fine group who have built one of the best sustainable business news sites on the planet — or a little bit of both. I have to say the best perk from being a writer is what I’ve learned from all the business leaders, activists and government officials I have met in person and spoken with over the phone since I started here in early 2010.
I have written a lot about corporate social responsibility, social enterprise, clean energy, and architecture and design here — so while I would like to think I have gained a vast body of knowledge miles long, it's really only a half an inch or so thick. A lot has changed in this space in five years — much of it encouraging, some of it exasperating. So, what has stuck in my brain 1,000 posts later? Here is a sampling:
Business can be a force for good. In a past life I sold business services to Fortune 1000 companies and their corporate law firms, so I gained a very healthy skepticism about how companies conduct themselves on social and environmental issues. After all, the point of a public company is to maximize value for shareholders (I think I learned that in one of my business school classes), while the point of a privately-owned company is to disclose as little as necessary so the business can grow with as few impediments as possible. Yes, that is a jaded view, but things have changed. Businesses can be force for doing good, from skills training to opening new economic opportunities for some of the world’s poorest people.
As an American, I find it embarrassing my government ranks alongside Turkey and Brazil when it comes to listing the most polarized countries on earth. The halcyon days of the first President George Bush working with Democrats to pass legislation to stop acid rain seem like decades ago. Heck, Nixon’s presidency, which saw the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and the launch of the EPA, is akin to the Revolutionary War era to me. I share many others’ views that our government is not working for us.
But business can, will and should make progress while government does little except be less than useless. I see more business leaders talking about the need to be resource efficient in a world where we are consuming more than we can replenish. Despite the future of clean energy incentives largely in doubt, more companies are investing in renewables because it is a hedge against volatile energy prices and shows a commitment to reducing carbon emissions. Most of the sustainability work going on in the business world is hardly done for altruistic reasons, but I don’t care as the ends more than justify the means.
We have the power to hold businesses accountable. At the same time, we have to keep a wary eye on how businesses conduct themselves. So thank goodness for social media. One trend I have noticed at TriplePundit is that we write a lot less about “greenwashing” than we did when I started here — back then it was quite the regular topic. But social media is a great tool to hold businesses accountable. Hell hath no fury like stakeholders scorned when a corporation eats it due to some poorly thought-out decisions: Uber, McDonald’s, Starbucks and Safeway are just a few examples of companies that have seen their messages thrown awry thanks to Facebook and Twitter. We no longer have to put up with corporations’ one-way marketing and public relations messaging — now the only choice businesses have is to have a conversation with their customers and shareholders.
Youth is making a difference. I have never had the patience for the “kids these days” argument, especially now. If anything, young professionals (I refuse to use the term “millennials”), are doing more in the nonprofit and social enterprise sector than ever before. Part of it is because more workers want to make a difference with their skills and experience. Plus even if one wants to climb the corporate ladder, few are able to anyway because of companies’ proclivities to downsize as soon as Wall Street rattles their cage over a disappointing quarter. The financial crisis of 2007-2009 also put a wrench into many graduates’ hopes worldwide, forcing them to become more entrepreneurial. Not every social enterprise out there will survive, but that is just as true of startups. And the lessons learned from such failure — a very underrated human experience, in my opinion — will carry over to new ideas.
But let’s include our seasoned professionals as well. At the same time, too many businesses that are quick to tout their employee engagement programs are ridding themselves of older workers in the name of cutting costs. Too many of my peers over the age of 40 are always worried about being let go during the next down cycle.
The knee-jerk reaction to hire younger workers because they are “more hungry” (clearly, they are paid less) ends up hurting these businesses in the long run. Plus, we can all benefit from the perspective of professionals who remember when no one thought about environmental protection, working conditions overseas or the effects of living in a wasteful society. With all the endless banter over “diversity,” we have to remember that “pre-millennials” bring a lot to the table, too.
The momentum is shifting our way. Five years ago few of us could have predicted the rapid drop in solar costs, improvements in electric vehicle technologies and increased transparency in global supply chains. Of course we have a long way to go and there is plenty of room for improvement. Some fear the current drop in oil prices will hurt the sustainability movement, but past experience proves these cheap gasoline prices will not last for long.
More businesses know they are held accountable for their actions, more consumers want to know what exactly they are buying, and the younger generations are teaching the older generations about the virtue of caring about the planet and people — and vice versa. In the end, there is a lot more awareness than five years ago, so I am more confident and hopeful long term change for the better is on the way.
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.