Corporate Sustainability Is Not Sustainable

By Auden Schendler and Michael Toffel

Green initiatives are ubiquitous these days, implemented with zeal at companies like Dupont, IBM, Walmart, and Walt Disney. The programs being rolled out—lighting retrofits, zero-waste factories, and car pool incentives—save money and provide a green glow. Most large companies are working to reduce energy use and waste, and many have integrated sustainability into strategic planning. What’s not to like?

Well for starters, these actions don’t meaningfully address the primary barrier to sustainability, climate change. According to the International Energy Agency, without action, global temperatures will likely increase six degrees C by 2100, “which would have devastating consequences for the planet.” This means more super droughts, floods, storms, fires, crop failures, sea level rise and other major disruptions. “Sustainability” simply isn’t possible in the face of such a problem, as Sandy demonstrated.

So despite perceptions that “sustainable business” is up and running, the environment reminds us we’re failing to deal with the problem at anywhere near sufficient scale. Because climate change requires a systemic solution, which only governments can provide, firms serious about addressing it have a critical role well beyond greening their own operations. They must spur government action. But few are.

“Green business” as currently practiced focuses on limited operational efficiencies—cutting carbon footprint and waste reduction—and declares victory. But these measures fail to even dent the climate problem. And the proof is easy: greenhouse gases emissions continue to rise. This month, we hit 400 parts per million atmospheric CO2 for the first time in 3 million years. Worse though, such small-ball initiatives are a distraction: we fiddle around the edges thinking we’re making a real difference (and getting accolades), while the planet inexorably warms.

The reality is that even if one company eliminates its carbon footprint entirely—as Microsoft admirably pledged to do—global warming roars on. That’s because the problem is too vast for any single business: Aolving climate change means we must switch to mostly carbon-free energy sources by 2050 or find a way to affordably capture carbon dioxide emissions, both monumental tasks.

Even several very large companies cannot, on their own, get us there. In fact, historically, no big environmental problem—from air and water pollution to acid rain or ozone depletion—has ever been solved by businesses volunteering to do the right thing. We ought not presume that voluntary measures will solve this one.

But nobody seems to have noticed. Most green scorecards, corporate strategies, media, and shareholder analyses of businesses focus almost entirely on operational greening activities and policies, but not on whether companies can continue on their current course in a climate-changed world. In other words, such analyses don’t actually measure sustainability.

So what does a meaningful corporate sustainability program look like in the era of climate change?

First, corporate leaders need to directly lobby state and national politicians to introduce sweeping, aggressive bipartisan climate legislation such as a carbon fee and dividend program. Strong policy in G8 nations is all the more important because it removes excuses for inaction by China, India, and other countries with rapidly growing carbon footprints.

Second, CEOs should insist that trade groups prioritize climate policy activism and withdraw from associations that refuse to do so, like when Pacific Gas & Electric, Apple, and Nike left the U.S. Chamber of Commerce over its opposition to regulating greenhouse gas emissions.

Third, businesses should market their climate activism so that customers and suppliers appreciate their leadership, understand what matters, and follow suit. Such marketing is also education on one of the key issues of our time.

Fourth, companies should partner with effective non-governmental organizations such as the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies, the Natural Resources Defense Council,, Protect Our Winters, and Citizen’s Climate Lobby to support their work, become educated on climate science and policy solutions, and understand effective lobbying.

Fifth, managers should demand that suppliers assess their climate impact and set public targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But companies that are multiplying their influence in supply chains—like Dell and Walmart—must not miss the larger and more important opportunity to change the rules of the game through activism.

Even in the United States, a climate laggard, some companies are already responding to climate change in the appropriate way.

Nike, for example, moved beyond operational greening by helping to create BICEP (Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy), which brings its members to Washington, D.C., to lobby for aggressive energy and climate legislation.

Starbucks has also taken out full page ads in major newspapers to raise public awareness about the importance of climate action and has lobbied the U.S. Congress and the Obama administration to explain the threat climate poses to coffee.

These companies are the exception. Unfortunately, even businesses that are sustainability leaders—like clothing manufacturer Patagonia, a business we admire—don’t recognize the primacy of climate change. Instead, they include climate in a basket of equally weighted issues, like protecting oceans, forests, or fisheries. But that’s misguided: climate vastly trumps (and often includes) those other environmental concerns.

Businesses that claim to be green but aren’t loudly making their voices heard on the need for government action on climate change are missing the point. They are not just dodging the key challenge of sustainability; they are distracting us from what really matters.

Auden Schendler is Vice President of Sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company, author of Getting Green Done, and a board member of Protect Our Winters. Michael Toffel is an associate professor at Harvard Business School, where he specializes in business and environment issues.

55 Responses to Corporate Sustainability Is Not Sustainable

  1. Superman1 says:

    “According to the International Energy Agency, without action, global temperatures will likely increase six degrees C by 2100”. And, if all major positive feedback mechanisms are added to the model, these numbers come forward much sooner. According to Mark Lynas, numbers of this magnitude mean end of many species, including ours.

  2. Superman1 says:

    As Anderson points out, we cannot get through the short-term by changing the supply mix; it has to come from the demand side. How do we implement the ultra-draconian reductions in demand REQUIRED to avoid the numbers shown above?

  3. Tami Kennedy says:

    When your business is impacted your voice gets louder as seen by ad. Now will governments turn up their hearing aids? Or maybe the industries shout a bit louder.

  4. Superman1 says:

    This issue of sustainability is addressed in its larger context in the Comments section of this excellent article on evolution.

  5. Bill D. says:

    Good article and right on the mark. Since the entire economic system of capitalism is based on rampant exploitation of all available resources for profit, it’s not too surprising that corporations are doing next to nothing to slow the march of global climate change.

    We don’t have much time before we’ll need to consider the question of whether capitalism itself can survive in a far warmer world of declining resources. With its magical thinking based on the “invisible hand” and mind-cure nonsense, capitalism has planted the seeds of its own destruction. This economic system ultimately will fail, not because of any actions by its detractors (supposedly evil socialists), but simply because the natural laws of the earth cannot tolerate capitalism for very long. Mother Nature, not humans, will have the last word on this matter.

  6. todd tanner says:

    Kudos to Auden Schendler and Michael Toffel. They nailed this one.

  7. Omega Centauri says:

    Some companies have the capability of making substantial differences. For instance for WallMart, it barely matters how much electricity the stores use, however the mix of efficient versus inefficient appliances and lightbulbs sold matters a great deal. By changing product placement and offering deals on the “greener” models they could make a real impact.

  8. Timothy Hughbanks says:

    Great cartoon.

  9. katy says:

    all things considered, i find this questionable: an add running on my local Sinclair Broadcasting station (ABC) paid for by the “environmental defense action fund” calling for congress to approve the nomination of Gina McCarthy to head the EPA… good? or no?
    i’m always leery of anything sinclair runs…

  10. SecularAnimist says:

    Superman1 wrote: “How do we implement the ultra-draconian reductions in demand REQUIRED to avoid the numbers shown above?”

    You have asked this question hundreds of times here, and you continue to pretend that it has not been answered hundreds of times.

    No “draconian reductions” (ultra or otherwise) in demand for goods and services are needed.

    What is needed is dramatic increases in efficiency, and the elimination of waste, to drastically reduce the amount of energy and materials needed to provide those goods and services.

    The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has shown that nearly 60 PERCENT of the USA’s primary energy supply is outright WASTED — just plain wasted, while providing NO value, no goods, no services at all.

    Simply eliminating that useless waste (which we know perfectly well how to do) would reduce demand for energy by almost 60 percent — and could do so virtually overnight, with NO “draconian” impacts on end-users whatsoever.

  11. fj says:

    Good post.

    Regarding climate change scale is everything and it is huge.

  12. Ken Barrows says:

    Are you saying the instead of 60% wasted that zero percent could be wasted? If not, what sort of improvement do you think can happen if your program is adopted and by when can it happen?

  13. Superman1 says:

    Ken, it’s the usual Secular diversion, and I’ve addressed it many times. It focuses on waste due to the approach and not waste due to the mission. First, we eliminate non-essential expenditures of fossil fuel, and in parallel reduce waste in the approach. Example, eliminate all fossil-based vacation travel starting tomorrow.

  14. dick smith says:

    Thank you for putting carbon fee and dividend legislation “FIRST” Auden and Michael.

    “First, corporate leaders need to directly lobby state and national politicians to introduce sweeping, aggressive bipartisan climate legislation such as a carbon fee and dividend program.”

  15. Superman1 says:

    The central problem, of course, which Secular conveniently ignores, is that a substantial portion of our economy revolves around mission waste, and eliminating this major component of waste will severely depress the economy. For obvious reasons, the Livermore article does not address this.

  16. Jan Freed says:

    This touches upon an important question: Even 2,let alone 6 degrees warming will totally eviscerate the “profits” of many of our largest corporations; Cargill, General Foods, the gambling industry on the East Coast, commercial fishing, cattle companies in Texas, wineries, etc. (can you think of others?), yet why don’t these companies lobby even harder than Exxon, Shell, the Kochs, etc.

    It should be Godzilla vs. King Kong, not Joe Romm vs. King Kong.

  17. The problem as I see it is the steps 1-5 as stated. Relying on companies to be a leader and inspire change is unrealistic.
    They cant cut cost to save their bottom line,why would the change to save the future?

    Facts are the solution.

    Most do not see anything wrong on a day by day basis. Most do not believe they are in a position to make a difference.

    As this issue is a growing concern for many. it will take much longer to reverse as it has taken to become main stream.

    Until the tide begins to reside. Anything done can slow the impact.

  18. Robert In New Orleans says:

    Let us cut to the core question.

    “Is modern man himself in the year 2013 and his creations sustainable?”

    IMHO: No because there are too many of us, we are too emotional and too intellectually primitive to survive as a species.

  19. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Very good Bill. We urgently need a new set of criteria by which to assess our progress (or lack of it). If we implemented a program based on restoring the livability of the planet and improving the quality of life, not monetary wealth, silly designs such as corporations would be replaced by genuinely productive organizations running on cooperation towards proven beneficial and shared goals, ME

  20. Merrelyn Emery says:

    This is yet another version of blaming the victims. When people are given a genuine choice of clean or dirty anythings at comparable cost, the overwhelming majority choose the clean ones. And when you educate women, they have fewer children. These facts demonstrate that people make decisions that maximize positive emotions in the most rational way possible at the time, ME

  21. Brooks Bridges says:

    I used to think your assertions were true.

    But I stopped after watching the video lecture with Kevin Anderson,

    I think increased efficiencies are a partial solution and should be pursued aggressively. But we are so far down the road to blowing past keeping temp rise below 2 deg that improving efficiency will take far too long. We need immediate if not yesterday reductions. Think gas rationing, etc. I’m not talking about politically feasible, I’m talking about what’s possible. I’m talking about what’s necessary.

    Before you protest, please watch the video. The guy even has a great sense of humor. Just wish there were CC’s or a transcript.

  22. Superman1 says:

    Brooks, you are right on target. We are now, at 0.8 C and 400 ppm, in a very dangerous situation. It is very uncertain whether we have passed a point of no return, as anyone objectively viewing events in the Arctic can plainly see. Under such conditions of uncertainty, we need to reduce fossil fuel consumption as much as possible as fast as possible, to minimize going further into the danger zone.

  23. Superman1 says:

    Step one is the low hanging fruit: eliminate all unnecessary uses of fossil fuel immediately. Next in line, implement existing technologies to improve efficiencies, such as increased insulation. Will take some time and probably government subsidies; people tend to be reluctant to proceed unilaterally with up-front expenditures like this.

  24. Superman1 says:

    After this, development and implementation times are long compared to the time scales required for fossil fuel reduction. Thermal conversion to electricity is limited by Carnot efficiencies; this can be overcome by conversion from fossil fuel combustion to renewables, but years/decades are required. Many efficiency increases might require extensive R&D; this could take many years or decades.

  25. Superman1 says:

    Modes of energy use and infrastructure topology can lead to large inefficiencies, but would take years/decades to correct. Long commutes; single driver large vehicles; oversize houses overcooled and overheated. As much a sociopolitical problem as a technical problem. All the above should be pursued, but the main one for reducing fossil fuel use in the required time scale is eliminate all non-essential uses NOW!

  26. Doug Grandt says:

    Just in case Congress or industry cannot get their act together to take appropriate effective action, what can we the people do to make concrete change that would avert the worst climate and ocean devastating effects?

    Three or four years ago, Rajendra Pachauri told me that we would need to begin reducing CO2 emission globally by 2012 — I believe the IPCC was calling for the decline to begin by 2015 — or so to stay within “1.5C” or “2C” (the actual increase and year is really irrelevant — the operative word is NOW).

    Now was last year, or this year, or next year … “already” already!

    Q: What is one way we the people could start the global decline now?
    A: We could purchase one coal plant or one refinery and shut it down.

    Are we the people really serious about this? If so, we could do it. Now!

    Oh yeah! We would have to retire about three refineries each month, without replacing them … and as for coal plants, that would be about 10 each month … EVERY MONTH WITHOUT REPLACING THEM OR BUILDING ANY NEW ONES. That reduction would, in itself, create the gradually increasing carbon fee we need. Let’s get started!

    However we adapt to this (efficiency, waste reduction, hunkering down, “going slow”), the bottom line is taking combustion facilities off line — that includes industrial and residential boilers, furnaces, HVAC and the like — order of magnitude: 5% per year … 0.4% per month. Across the board.

    Let’s get busy.

    Stop the talk, start the walk. SRSLY!

  27. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Thank God! Homo sapiens might be alright, after all.

  28. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Now it’s ‘ultra’- draconian. My, oh, my.

  29. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Capitalism has been plainly unsustainable, not just ecologically, but economically, for decades. The West recovered from the Depression of the 1930s through the ‘demand destruction’ of WW2, but the ‘Golden Age’ only really lasted until Nixon’s abrogation of Bretton Woods in 1971. Ever since the system has been increasing inequality, piling up debt, and transferring wealth from the many to the few. Capitalism’s fatal flaw is the insatiable greed of the capitalists, and their total indifference to everything else. The current, deepening, ecological, economic and geo-political debacle is capitalism’s Gotterdammerung.

  30. Superman1 says:

    Unlike the great strides forward in protecting the climate made by the Soviet Union and the Peoples Republic of China!

  31. Superman1 says:

    “Are we the people really serious about this?” Do you have one scintilla of evidence that the vast majority of people have any interest in taking energy sources offline? I have suggested elimination of the non-essential vacation travel now as a first step in the massive fossil fuel use reduction required in the near term, and on this supposed climate activist site, people run for the hills at this suggestion. No way you’ll get any meaningful support for your concept.

  32. Superman1 says:

    Of course. In the fantasy world in which you and Mulga live, the ‘people’ can do no wrong. All the fault lies with these exogenous institutions. You would sacrifice our civilization on the alter of ideological purity!

  33. Brooks Bridges says:

    Mulga, you keep harping on Capitalism. Yet all previous large civilization on this planet managed to do an excellent job of destroying their “world” without Capitalism as we know it. My personal view is that Capitalism, in some forms, merely enhances basic features of humanity – greed, short sightedness, stupidity, etc.

  34. Brooks Bridges says:

    ME, you really didn’t answer the question as it was asked but substituted a utopian ideal in which everyone is well educated and advertising, religious nuts, etc., don’t exist. Given such an environment (and regulations to control sociopathic tendencies), your premise becomes a possibility. It was emphasized in “World Hunger, 12 myths” (or close to that), written 15 or 20 years ago that educating women invariably caused a precipitous drop in birth rates.

    But Robert asked: “Is modern man himself in the year 2013 and his creations sustainable?”

    Obviously, the answer is no. The math and science says that major drops in CO2 cannot wait for education of the masses even assuming that were possible.

  35. Jan Freed says:

    I agree that we are all schmucks. But, I think we must admit that many of us have no choice. We heat our homes, get to work, buy food that is transported many miles, even want to fly out to see our kids. Most of this produces CO2. We cannot return to the world of Charles Dickens and before.

    However, the CEO’s of Oil and Coal (and their stock holders), the Pentagon, the Congress, could reasonably be expected to act with some maturity and responsibility in moving to a low carbon economy, rather than feeding the beast.

    A “moon shot” or WWII effort is required by our government, and we get TParty BS.

  36. Superman1 says:

    “we must admit that many of us have no choice…We cannot return to the world of Charles Dickens and before.” Nice-sounding words. However, Mother Nature cares not one whit about what you think you can or cannot do. She is in the process of offering us the following choice (assuming that choice is still open): either you rapidly cut fossil emissions to the max, or you go extinct before the end of the century. Then, the world of Dickens will look idyllic by comparison.

  37. Superman1 says:

    Ken, asking Secular for a detailed description of temporal emissions and temperatures in the transition period is like asking BernieMadoff for a detailed description of your investments.

  38. Guest says:

    There is a transcript and his slides are available:

  39. Superman1 says:

    Your excellent link emphasizes ‘planned economic recession’. When one adds on positive feedback mechanisms they excluded, a 1 C ceiling Anderson recommends as being far less dangerous, increased climate sensitivities due to recent reports, and greater share being borne by advanced nations, we would be facing deep economic Depression. That is the price of the last three decades of inaction!

  40. Gingerbaker says:

    So what does a meaningful corporate sustainability program look like in the era of climate change?

    First, corporate leaders need to directly lobby state and national politicians to introduce sweeping, aggressive bipartisan climate legislation such as a carbon fee and dividend program

    What a joke! This guy’s definition of a “sweeping and aggressive” government approach is a carbon tax?!

    Another article, folks, supposedly about the big picture and not a single word about large-scale public projects.

    In the ‘big picture’ scale, we could build enough renewable infrastructure on public lands to replace all our carbon fuels within 5 years and it would cost next to nothing in the long run.

    Seriously – *next to nothing* in the long term. It would cost a tiny fraction of what mitigation is going to cost if we don’t. It represents no more than what we already spend on oil and gasoline over the same time period.

    The answer is right there in front of us – and no one will write about it. Why is that, Joe?

  41. Superman1 says:

    “replace all our carbon fuels within 5 years”. What alternative did you have in mind for airplane propulsion?

  42. Gingerbaker says:

    I don’t have one for airplanes. I guess biofuel, which is supposedly carbon neutral. But I’d rather see high speed rail completely replace most domestic air travel.

  43. Superman1 says:

    PART 2. Along came technology, which enabled us to make clothes and build shelter, and migrate to climates for which we were intrinsically unsuited. Technology allowed us to both protect against and control other species and members of our own species. Technology produced labor-saving and life-extending devices that allowed survival of far more than the Fittest. Technology enabled the few to accumulate fabulous wealth through exploitation of the many.

  44. Superman1 says:

    PART 3. A major characteristic of technology was its requirement for resources: materials and above all, energy. Extracting these resources resulted in many scars on the face of the Earth, and disposing of the waste products from use of technology resulted in pollution of land, sea, and air. Resource extraction was, in many cases, no longer done locally, and waste disposal was no longer recycled and was also, in many cases, no longer done locally. Because of the imbalances in population and resource exploitation allowed by technology, we have today far more people than the planet could support sustainably using far more resources and generating far more waste per capita than can be supported sustainably.

  45. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Your motivation is becoming clearer by the day, ME

  46. Superman1 says:

    It’s called disseminating the truth; try it sometimes!

  47. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    More like inseminating it.

  48. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Capitalism, in my opinion, raises human destructiveness and certain character traits, principally greed and egotism, to quasi-religious status, and makes the pursuit of money, to the detriment of all else in existence, the ultimate purpose of life. In short it takes all the worst features of human life, exacerbates them, makes them more or less compulsory, and suppresses the manifestation of other human qualities, such as co-operation, generosity, collective concern and altruism. It is the final, caricaturish, expression of all that is negative and negating in humanity. There is little like it in the natural world, save the process of malignancy and the self-destructive drive to grow forever of the cancer. Plagues of destructive insects, the over-population and crash of groups that proliferate beyond the carrying capacity of their habitats, and epidemics of virulent disease probably can be said to be like capitalism, too.

  49. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Rubber-bands. And I fully expect you to volunteer as test pilot, what with you ability to leap tall non-sequiturs at a single bound.

  50. Superman1 says:

    Ah, The Whizzer of Oz, doing what he does best. BTW, you—>youR!!!

  51. Michelle M says:

    Airplanes are basically unregulated as far as carbon emissions. Just implementing some regulations for airplane emissions would be a step in the right direction. We are flying antique technology, it’s time we start redesigning aircraft.

  52. Michelle M says:

    Americans are used to their comfort and will consider any restrictions ultrs-draconian. They think their little piddling green steps will make enough of a difference to save the planet. But it will take real sacrifice from everyone to save humanity, and I see very few people willing to make it. I know, for example, a “nature-loving” birder who drove 10 hours to see a rare bird. 10 hours!~!!! He doesn’t love nature, he loves to put birds on his list. If he loved nature he wouldn’t have spewed all that carbon into the air to chase a bird. My sister just bought a house heated by oil. Another sister lives off the grid but has to drive 80 miles each day to get to work and back. These are the kinds of choices made by people who don’t consider themselves part of the problem.

  53. Superman1 says:

    PART 1. What is sustainability? At some stage of our recent evolution, we, like the other species, lived a minimal resource footprint life, in an appropriate climate, food, and other resource environment necessary for our survival. We obtained resources locally, and recycled them locally. Life for humans and other species alike was constant struggle: to find food, against other aggressive species, against the elements. That environment guaranteed population control for all species. That was true sustainability, which would allow us to survive for many millenia.

  54. Superman1 says:

    Michelle, “But it will take real sacrifice from everyone to save humanity, and I see very few people willing to make it.” You are exactly right. All these proposals for painless transition to renewables are pure fiction, whose only goal is to separate you from your assets. They will have zero effect in preventing us from going over the cliff.