Let’s change the business paradigm – and
save the planet
The scale of the planetary crisis is so big that a fundamental shift is needed from company leaders, as well as consumers
- Guardian Professional,
Changing lightbulbs, driving a hybrid, eating organic, shunning plastic: for anyone who cares about the environment, green lifestyles are the new normal – what every responsible citizen should do. Likewise, brands and businesses aspiring to sustainability have taken some basic steps such as reduction in packaging, cutting toxic chemicals, retooling for energy efficiency.
But in your company’s zeal to embrace these basics as part of your new triple bottom line of people, planet and profit, it’s tempting to think that if every enterprise on Earth followed your example, ecotopia would be at hand.
Unfortunately this is not enough. Many companies that take green initiatives are sincere in their commitment to sustainability; some are just greenwashing. While shrinking your company’s environmental footprint – for whatever reason – is a good thing, the scale of the planetary crisis is so big that more fundamental change is required.
On the one hand there is transactional change: laudable efforts to make progress within the current business paradigm. Reducing packaging, conserving energy and recycling are all transactional changes. On the other is transformative change: ambitiously – even radically – challenging the system – changing not just the way you do business but the reason you are in business.
There’s a parallel with consumer behaviour. Green shopping and lifestyle choices make people feel better about their individual environmental impacts. But by generating the illusion that progress is being made, green shopping may make consumers feel less compelled to engage in the broader social and political actions needed to make deep, lasting change.
Citizens’ real source of power to make change on the scale we need is through transforming the policies, business practices and structural context in which production and consumption happen.
We do that through civic engagement, not better shopping. Our real power is not in choosing from items on a limited menu; it is in determining what gets on the menu.
The way to ensure that toxic, climate-disrupting choices are replaced with safe and healthy alternatives – for everyone, not just those who can afford them – is by engaging as citizens: working together for bigger, bolder change than we could ever accomplish as individual consumers. We need a scaling-up of citizen action.
Now apply that thinking to corporate citizenship. What does a transformational green business look like?
Look at Patagonia, the California maker of outdoor clothing. First they took all the transactional steps: using organic cotton, detailing the supply chain online, taking used clothing back for recycling, donating some of their profits to green NGOs. But founder Yvon Chouinard said that wasn’t enough.
Patagonia adopted a radical mission statement: to “use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis”. Now the company asks customers to sign a pledge that they won’t buy something unless they really need it. They set up a used-gear shop on eBay, from which they receive no revenue, and urged customers to drag their old gear out of the closet and put it back to use. Most companies don’t want used brand-name stuff entering the market, since it discourages new purchases.
Sure, you say, that’s fine for Patagonia. They’re a niche company whose target demographic is outdoor enthusiasts. What about a multinational carpet company?
Interface is one of the largest makers and sellers of carpets in the world. Founder, Ray Anderson, looked at the huge amounts of energy, water and toxics his company used and the waste it generated, and committed himself to reducing the impact as much as possible. To do this, he had to go beyond transactional change to transform his company’s business model.
Anderson realised that most of the wear on carpets occurs on a small area. The old solution to a worn-out carpet was to pull up and replace the entire carpet, including the part that’s still perfectly good. Most businesses would see that as a savvy sales strategy.
Interface developed modular carpet tiles, which allow customers to replace only the worn sections while keeping the rest of the carpet in use longer.
Anderson also came to see that his customers weren’t really interesting in buying a carpet per se, but the things that carpets provide: attractiveness, noise reduction, comfort. By making carpets that last a long time, Interface reduces its opportunity to sell a new carpet every few years, but like Patagonia, earns long-term customer satisfaction and loyalty for a premium product.
We’re currently using resources and generating waste each year on a scale that would require 1.5 Earths to sustain. The companies that are true environmental heroes are those that are going beyond the green basics and rethinking their business models. This includes those who are unafraid to experiment with different models that would allow humanity to live within the limits of the only planet we have. Business as usual won’t cut it.
Annie Leonard is the creator of The Story of Stuff and other online films that explore issues in the take-make-waste consumer society, including how to make things better