Many observers in the environmental movement were dispirited by the US election results in November, with the election of several prominent climate-change deniers and the power switch in the House of Representatives.
Political reality around sustainability varies a lot with location. Western Europe has been pushing hard on green technology leadership for years, combining business and government to drive the change. From simple innovations like a light/heavy switch for toilet flushes to the complexities of generating significant power from offshore and mountaintop wind farms, Europe has made it clear that carbon reduction and energy and water conservation are priorities. China, using an approach dictated largely by government policy, has become a world leader in solar.
However, both the European and Chinese systems send out mixed messages. Europe relies far too heavily on dangerous and un-green nuclear power; China has made an even larger commitment to dirty, health-killing coal.
In many parts of Africa and Asia, NGOs and nonprofits—often more than government or private industry—are taking the lead, bringing low-cost and highly portable energy technologies in to disadvantaged villages, replacing polluting, unsafe, and carbon-spewing kerosene, wood, and charcoal with clean alternatives—decentralized to the level of a single home.
Turning back to the US: I beleive the election shows that Americans can\’t rely on the federal government to deal with climate change on our behalf; as business leaders and thought leaders, we have to do it ourselves. Nothing meaningful will come out of Washington for the next two gridlocked years, on climate change, going green, or many other issues.
But this doesn\’t mean the work will stop. Not at all.
Individuals within companies will continue to spearhead the movement for change, and those companies will slowly turn to embrace the change. Individuals within households will continue to make better choices for themselves and their families, and the machinery of commerce will continue to make those choices ever more widely available and affordable.
First, of course, is the pioneering work done for the past several decades by companies that were founded with a strong environmental chromosome. When companies like Whole Foods or Ben & Jerry\’s take steps to go more green, it\’s totally in keeping with the corporate culture—the company DNA—and with the needs and desires of their customer base.
But wider change must be driven by companies considered much more mainstream. \”Fringe\” businesses—small innovative concerns that will grow to become the Whole Foods and Ben & Jerry\’s of the future—may show us how to get there, but to really make a difference, much bigger players have to get involved.
Will this happen without government carrots? Actually, it\’s happening already. Let\’s take Walmart as an example. The largest retailer in the world—that sounds pretty mainstream. Founded by a conservative, pickup-driving rural American from the South (the most conservative region in the country), Walmart certainly doesn\’t kowtow to tree-huggers. In fact, it\’s often been criticized by environmentalists for a host of issues ranging from store siting to labor practices.
Yet in the last few years, starting with the appointment of Lee Scott as CEO and continuing past his term, Walmart has taken numerous major steps toward sustainability in both its operations and its product line. Why?
- Walmart\’s always been awesome at slashing the cost and boosting the efficiency of its logistics. So the dozens of green operations initiatives that actually save the company millions of dollars are a no-brainer. Examples range from fitting its long-haul trucks with separate temperature systems so the big diesels don\’t have to run just to heat or cool the cab, to switching to LED parking lot lighting in some stores—which slashed energy consumption by 48 percent and maintenance costs by 75 percent—to saving 678,000 barrels of oil and 290,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases a year just by cutting plastic shopping bag waste by a third.
- The company realized that bringing in green product lines (from energy-efficient lightbulbs to organic food to healthy cleaning and body care lines) opened up enormous revenue and profit potential.
In other words, the company realized it could both save a fortune and make a fortune. So what\’s not to like? And this is the future of going green in the US for the next two years: companies stepping forward to do the right thing out of economic self-interest.
Of course, if the Obama administration had engaged in a massive Marshall Plan-style program to create hundreds of thousands of jobs by converting to green power sources, we might not need to ask ourselves how to move forward without the government\’s help. But that\’s a topic for a different post.
Shel Horowitz, shel at greenandprofitable.com, shows you how to “reach green, socially conscious consumers with marketing that has THEM calling YOU.” He writes the Green And Profitable column and is the primary author of Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green (John Wiley & Sons, 2010).