Corporate Sustainability: Can Economics and Environmentalism be friends?

I am living in the US at a very pessimistic time in history, so I listen to kindness podcasts. I reduce the noise of the world telling me that we are all going down the tubes. I choose to believe that, collectively, we want the world to be better.

Hello, my name is Courtney, and I am an optimist.

(Hi, Courtney.)

My optimism about corporate sustainability is not the byproduct of heads-in-the-clouds-itis. Here is a prime example: companies that once scoffed at the idea of environmentalism are now considering green initiatives as the driving force behind their companies. This is one example in which I think peer pressure can be a good thing. (C’mon, you can recycle. All the cool kids are doing it.)

Nature's Path is one of Canada's Greenest Employers 2018

Let’s use Patagonia as an example of corporate sustainability. Patagonia is known for high quality, athleisure wear (I hate that word too, but let’s roll with it) that has activism built into its mission statement: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” CEO Rose Marcario walks the walk. Her practice of Buddhism had her examining how her own actions impacted larger groups of people. Prior to Patagonia, she felt, that she was transforming as a person, but [her] work [wasn’t] reflecting that.” Patagonia was a way for her to come home to who she had become while remaining successful. On Black Friday, they even gave away 100 per cent of sales earned to grassroots environmental groups.

The annual growth rate for Patagonia since Rose became CEO in 2008 is 14 per cent. Apparently, environmental and social activism is not only good for the planet, but also good for business.

Although Patagonia is a shining example of well, everything, they are not the only ones who are getting on the green train. My eyeglasses-loving father told me about Warby Parker, which for every pair of glasses sold, distributes a pair to someone in need. Environmentally, it measures greenhouse gas emissions from its operations and buys carbon offsets to obtain a neutral carbon footprint. A buy-one-get-one model may not seem like it would be profitable, but growth was phenomenal: Warby Parker hit its year sales goal within three weeks of opening in 2010.

There are also a bunch of Colorado companies (surprise, surprise) who are dedicated to responsible production practices and standing for something other than a bottom line. These include New Belgium Brewing, the third-largest craft brewer in the US and an environmental juggernaut. This includes diverting between 99.8 to 99.9 per cent of our waste from landfills, and even as a “Platinum certified Zero waste business” they still believe there is more to do. On their website, they insist, “While we pay close attention to our financial health at New Belgium, we know that we are not simply here to make money. We are here to make out-of-this-world beer, and ultimately, to be a force for good in the world.”

It is the “ultimately” that is starting to drive businesses more universally. Believing that you are spending your dollars on good is a whole other lens for consumers to view purchasing. Rather than just “I want” it is possible to think, “I want” and  “We want.” The “We are the world” construct may have been scoffed at decades ago, but now it has become an important consideration in mission statements and purchasing power. Millennials are far more likely than Generation Xers or Baby Boomers to say that it matters if a business gives back to society, according to a poll conducted by Fortune.

However, there may be a downside for companies who shout their good intentions from the rooftops. A 2013 study found that corporations who promote their philanthropic efforts heavily are also more likely to act irresponsibly in the future. The assumption is that after patting themselves on the backs, they may worry less about a lapse in morality.

Does this mean that you should throw out your efforts to align your values with the outside world and become a minimalist? Of course it is your call, but it is possible to consume responsibly. How we buy can directly impact the way the world cares for itself and the way people care for one another. That is no small feat.


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