Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Bill Roth headshot

Can A Company Be Green If It Is Damaging Human Health?

By Bill Roth

Newsweek ranked Coca-Cola as the ninth greenest company in the world. Coke earned this recognition by doing things like pioneering bioplastic bottles. But one has to wonder how Newsweek’s recognition reconciles with the company's signature soda being “…considered a major contributor to health conditions such as obesity, type 2 diabetes and tooth decay.”

This begs the question: Should we applaud companies like Coca-Cola that take leadership in reducing their environmental impacts? Or should we recognize that 'less bad' is no longer good enough?

We have passed sustainability’s Band-Aid stage

I founded Earth 2017 to recognize business initiatives that deliver profits and a difference. Much has been accomplished since this website’s founding in 2007. Companies from Apple to Walmart are now using solar power to reduce costs and emissions. They have formed consortiums to share sustainable best practices. American corporations are leading the world in adopting a green supply chain.

But the volume of sustainability successes, while considerable, still pales in comparison to the size of the challenge.

For the first time in recorded history, the earth has reached levels of 400 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Our hotter planet is creating food and water scarcity on a scale that the U.S. Department of Defense projects will increase the threat of war around the world.

Approximately half of our food is sourced from the largest food companies. This Big Food diet has damaged our health. Thirty-seven percent of Americans are either diabetic or in a pre-diabetic condition. The health care costs tied to eating Big Food threatens our national solvency including the ability to fund Medicare.

We confront a future where incremental change cannot deliver meaningful solutions. We have passed the “Band Aid stage” of sustainability’s maturation. The path to sustainability now requires disruptive change.

Legacy resistance is blocking disruptive sustainable solutions

That our economy is still grounded on 20th-century technologies and business models is the core challenge confronting mass adoption of sustainable solutions. Specific examples include:

  • Reliance on a fossil-fueled electricity grid even though there is a technology path for achieving lower electricity bills plus reduced emissions through renewable energy, energy efficiency, smart buildings and distributed grid design.

  • Reliance on fossil-fueled cars even when the cost to fuel electric cars is equivalent to a 75 cents per gallon gasoline price. A major reason why we will buy a record 17 million gasoline-fueled cars this year is our failure to design and implement a national recharging system that would remove electric car range anxiety as a consumer adoption barrier.

  • A food system that is heavily shaped by Big Food lobbying that characterizes pizza served to school children as as a vegetable. Big Food’s overuse of sugar, salt and fat to grow sales has made their food and beverage products the “new tobacco.”

Resistance to change is a real economic and political force. Change can be discomforting. It is often painful for individuals and individual companies. However, resistance to change is futile if it creates unsustainable pain levels. The economy, environment and our health are now at this pain threshold. Paraphrasing Games of Thrones, “Disruption must come.”

How disruption will be the final step of the green economic revolution

Because we are a democracy and consumer-based economy, it will be the consumer/voter that will drive change. And the consumer/voter is in pain. Their health is being challenged by a diabetes epidemic and related diet-based illnesses. They are struggling through 15-plus years of stagnant real income growth. They are increasingly being impacted by externality costs like severe weather and wars fought over oil, made worse by a warming planet. This level of consumer/voter pain will drive disruptive change across our political and economic system.

We are approaching the tipping point where the consumer/voter will not accept as authentic a company like Coca-Cola being recognized as a top-10 green company when its principal products are linked to a national (and global) health crisis. Driven by pain, consumers/voters will increasingly demand of businesses and government:

  • sustainable goods and services that cost less while also delivering real human health improvements

  • sustained economic growth won through real productivity gains rather than government deficits, unsustainable commodity booms or Wall Street financial engineering

  • peace achieved by finally winning independence from fossil fuels and the wars fought to preserve their supply.

Based on my economic analysis, the future can now be told. We are past the point where businesses (and public policy) can have a foot in both the 20th and 21st centuries. The multi-trillion-dollar green economic revolution is moving out of its startup phrase. The focus on best practices that deliver incremental results will be replaced by a consumer/voter demand for disruptive change. The green economic revolution will then define the course of our 21st century.

Image credit: Flickr/Mike Mozart

Bill Roth headshot

Bill Roth is a cleantech business pioneer having led teams that developed the first hydrogen fueled Prius and a utility scale, non-thermal solar power plant. Using his CEO and senior officer experiences, Roth has coached hundreds of CEOs and business owners on how to develop and implement projects that win customers and cut costs while reducing environmental impacts. As a professional economist, Roth has written numerous books including his best selling The Secret Green Sauce (available on Amazon) that profiles proven sustainable best practices in pricing, marketing and operations. His most recent book, The Boomer Generation Diet (available on Amazon) profiles his humorous personal story on how he used sustainable best practices to lose 40 pounds and still enjoy Happy Hour!

Read more stories by Bill Roth