The jig is up. We – the human race – are damaging the planet and everything in it. Every time we take a flight, drive a car, or make certain purchase decisions, we are adding to the crisis. We need to acknowledge that this is not an Exxon problem; it is not a government problem. We are all playing a part in the Earth’s peril and we all need to play a part in its renewal. It is only though accountability that progress can be made.
And when it comes to personal accountability, for brands that means taking inventory of how business practices affect the world. For consumers, it means holding ourselves and the brands we choose to support to a higher standard, insisting that they become a part of the solution. If we take environmental concerns seriously, then only environmentally sustainable companies will have a place in our future.
How the corporate approach to environmental responsibility has evolved
As a society, what we consume, how much we consume and how we consume it is considerably different now than it was just a few years ago. Minimalists, vegans, and carbonless commuters are just a few examples of people redirecting the narrative towards an eco-first approach to consumerism. But what caused this shift? Even just a decade ago companies were subject to comparatively little scrutiny, and environmental concerns were the responsibility of international organizations and governments to solve.
For a long time, it was a matter of environment versus economy. Similar in theory to another widely-known prophecy – Harry Potter vs Voldemort – “neither can live while the other survives.” Often for the worse, this has long been the accepted viewpoint when it comes to supporting a thriving economy. Whether explicitly or implicitly, many have assumed that financial growth comes first, and that once we are “done,” the planet will bounce back. In this atmosphere, even “environmentally sustainable companies” were more brand culture and values, but light on action.
As we move into this century, comprehensive corporate social responsibility (social, environmental and economic) will be considered one of the core indicators of success for corporations and investors alike. While this shift has been decades in the making, we can attribute an increased environmental adaptation to several factors. First, the concerned, educated youth that are destined to inherit the consequences of our neglect and, second, a digital world that has made everyday business practices increasingly visible.
At virtually the same rate that consumers are learning about the impact that production and consumption has on the planet, they are demanding a swift, ethical solution. And there’s a zero-tolerance policy for “greenwashing” of any kind. Brands need to examine all aspects of their business through an environmentally conscious lens. And even while substantial changes and governmentally imposed environmental regulations will take time, the truth is that if you wait to be forced into compliance, you’ll likely be too late to survive in the new greener world.
How modern environmentally sustainable companies are leading the way
Industrial revolutions and the environment have historically been foes rather than friends. Understandably so given the first three were steam and water; electricity and assembly lines; and digital. But our transition into the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is said to represent a fundamental change in the way we live, work and relate to one another. This revolution is catalyzed by the convergence of our physical, digital and biological worlds through rapidly advancing technology.
As Professor Klaus Schwab – Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum – explains, “The resulting shifts and disruptions mean that we live in a time of great promise and great peril. The world has the potential to connect billions more people to digital networks, dramatically improve the efficiency of organizations and even manage assets in ways that can help regenerate the natural environment, potentially undoing the damage of previous industrial revolutions.”
A prime example of 4IG success is Daisy, Apple’s newest recycling robot created with recycled parts. Daisy can disassemble up to 200 iPhones an hour, separating and removing components as it goes. In turn, each Daisy can disassemble 1.2 million devices per year and, in 2018, the robots refurbished more than 7.8 million Apple devices and diverted more than 48,000 metric tons of electronic waste from landfills.
In an effort to fight the plastic pandemic, Hasbro just announced their plans to eliminate the use of plastic in new product packaging by 2022. Lego is rolling out sugarcane plastic bricks across most products by 2030 to overhaul its manufacturing processes and prioritize plant-based materials and recycled sources. Starbucks ditched plastic straws and, in the UK, launched a cup recycling program at London’s Gatwick Airport with the hashtag #cupcupandaway. And, in the world of government, our friendly neighbors to the North just announced a ban on single-use plastics by 2021. Oh, Canada.
The future of environmental sustainability
As leading environmentally sustainable companies like Apple, Unilever, and Amazon invest and innovate solutions for their industries and beyond, opportunities for partnerships and collaborations will increase. By raising expectations and developing a corporate ecosystem of environmentalism, brands will be poised to make an impact on a global scale. And those that turn their backs on the reality of the need for sustainability will fall – if not by consumer pressure, then the government regulation that will no doubt follow.
Those brands that embrace a, “leave it better than you found it” mindset and work to integrate that philosophy into every aspect of their business may even find themselves taking a leadership role in what could be the greatest collab of all time: People + Planet.
After all, as naturalist and writer Wendell Berry famously said, “The earth is what we all have in common.”