This article is part of a series on “The ROI of Sustainability,” written with the support of MeterHero. MeterHero helps companies and organizations offset their water and energy footprints through consumer engagement. To follow along with the rest of the series, click here.
By McGee Young
As we confront the fact that we’ve long since surpassed greenhouse gas concentrations that will irrevocably change the climate, we have to ask: What can “sustainability” achieve for future generations at this point? How will business lead on critical environmental issues in the coming decades?
Faced with the sobering reality that we will not be able to engineer our way back into ecological balance -- the scale is too vast and the costs are too prohibitive – our conversation must shift to how we become more resilient in the face of climate instability.
My overriding hope is that we will minimize the effects of climate change and support each other in the wake of inevitable ecological hardships. The truest test of our humanity will come when competition for scarce resources is greatest.
In the nearer term, our best progress will come from re-imagining how we manage energy and water. Soon, our houses will be capable of consistently producing more energy than they use. This electricity will replace fossil fuel-sourced energy in our communities, and it will transform how we view our utilities.
We may continue to harvest water from rivers, lakes and aquifers, but our water reclamation and reuse infrastructure will drastically reduce the volume of fresh water needed to support our communities.
In our homes, our battery storage units will communicate with the grid and learn the patterns of our daily lives to find the right time to recharge. We will be able to use blockchain transactions to purchase energy directly from our neighborhood school, with its large solar array, earning extra revenue for our kids’ science programs.
On the way to these technological breakthroughs, we must change how we invest in water and energy conservation. The promise of a lower utility bill is simply insufficient to move the needle. As long as our water and energy utilities maintain monopoly control over the value of these resources, we will fail to address the root causes of global warming and water scarcity.
We need a framework for collaborative conservation, which means we have to treat conservation as more than a sacrifice. We must treat conservation and ecological sustainability as valuable in its own right.
In our resilient future, companies will be leaders because their survival will depend on it. The modern economy is utterly dependent on efficient resource allocations. To borrow a line, “no water, no beer!”
Second, companies should make investments in onsite production of renewable energy and water reclamation and reuse. The less reliant on traditional utility infrastructure they are, the more resilient they will be in the face of disruption.
Third, and most important, companies must invest in the sustainability efforts of their customers. A few companies have taken steps in this direction. Levi’s encouragement to wash blue jeans less frequently is a great example. But this is a baby step. The real change will happen when companies become buyers of sustainability, not just sellers of sustainable products.
The Bonneville Environment Foundation is a good example of how such investments might work. There, companies can purchase shares in watershed restoration projects, carbon offsets and renewable energy certificates, and offset some of their own consumption with the savings that are achieved by the projects.
But we need to take this good idea one step further. What if companies started purchasing conservation offsets directly from their customers and their communities? Savings elsewhere in the community could offset every gallon, kilowatt-hour and therm used by a company. This is true net-zero. And by purchasing the savings (as opposed to relying on altruistic behavior), companies will spur investment into greater water and energy efficiency in their communities.
These types of programs could take several forms. Companies could directly fund water and energy efficiency projects in schools, nonprofits and other community centers. They could fund conservation rebates through MeterHero, so that their brand would receive greater recognition across the community. Or they could invest in employee engagement, along the lines of what Cool Choices does.
Under any scenario, the payoff is measurable across the triple bottom line. The environment benefits from a lower carbon footprint and greater water security. The community benefits from access to greater funding for energy and water conservation.
Ultimately, however, the greatest payoff is for the companies themselves. Across all demographics, when a company proves itself committed to sustainability, customers are more loyal and more vocal in support of that company’s actions. The successful companies of the future will be the ones who invest in that future today.
Image credit: McGee Young
McGee Young is founder and CEO of MeterHero, a water and energy conservation platform. MeterHero allows companies to fund conservation rebates that consumers earn as they reduce their water and energy consumption. McGee was a winner of the Midwest Social Innovation Prize, a finalist in the Clean Energy Challenge, and his company was selected for the charter class of startups in the Global Freshwater Seed Accelerator. Prior to MeterHero, McGee founded H2Oscore, while also serving as an Associate Professor of Political Science at Marquette University. He is the author of "Developing Interests: Organizational Change and the Politics of Advocacy."