State of Sustainable Business
By Rona Fried, Ph.D.
"There are several Microsofts waiting to come forth in the clean energy business, and
we'll all wish we'd have invested in them in the late 1990s when they were still tiny."
- John Palmisano, Enron Corporation
Steel, often thought of as the symbol of the Industrial Revolution, now carries a recycling
symbol. More than half the steel produced today is made from scrap. Paper mills are
moving from the forest to the cities, as they hone in on the source of abundant
feedstocks - scrap paper. In New Jersey, a state with little forest cover or iron ore, 13
paper mills run only on waste paper and eight steel mills manufacture steel largely from
scrap. Why is this? Natural resources are increasingly scarce and thus more expensive;
waste is plentiful and increasingly, abundant.
The blueprint for how business is conducted is shifting from Industrial Age operating
assumptions of "take, make and throw away" to fit the situation society faces today. It
makes sense to use scare natural resources sparingly, and keep them circulating in the
system. Society, in its instinctual desire to survive, is tightening the screws on
companies that refuse to play by the new rules. The authors of Interface Inc.'s 1997
Sustainability Report say, "We believe institutions that continuously violate these
[natural] principles will suffer economically. The walls of the funnel will continue to
impose themselves in the form of environmentally concerned customers, stricter
legislation, higher costs and fees for resources and waste, and tougher competition from
companies who anticipate the narrowing limits and adjust accordingly."
Companies, these days, find more freedom through adaptation and reinvention than by
retaining the status quo, an indication that a profound transformation is underway.
Leaders from many disciplines believe we are witnessing and participating in a societal
transition on a scale comparable to the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions - the
Environmental Revolution .
Societal Operating Assumptions
Industrial Age Environmental Age
Wasteful No Waste
Labor Productivity Resource Productivity
Presented by Ray Anderson at the 1999 CERES conference
What Lies Behind this Societal Transformation?
Ken Wilber, considered to be one of the great philosophers of our time, proposes that
succeeding world orders transcend and include previous ones. The limiting factors of
one Age cause its demise; it is subsumed by a world order that includes the best of the
outgoing Age, but transcends it. The microscope of science allowed us to study nature
down to its smallest parts and, during the Industrial Age, we discovered what the world is
made of. This empirical investigation of nature resulted in wondrous inventions like
plastic, televisions, and silicon chips. We have advanced tremendously through this
period but the exclusive focus on the 'left-hand path' now causes more problems
environmentally and socially than it solves. The worldview we are groping toward,
according to Wilber, includes this 'left-hand path' and transcends it by integrating the
equally important 'right-hand path' dimensions of subjectivity, quality, values and
Wilber also believes that society is evolving by widening and deepening its focus from
the small group or tribe to a global worldview. Individuals can appreciate our
environmental and social crisis, he says, and "more important, possess the moral vision
and fortitude to proceed on a global basis," only when we reach this global level of
consciousness. When this happens, for the first time in evolution, "we will look through
eyes that see a global world, a world that is de-centered from me and mine, a world that
demands care and concern and compassion and conviction."
How Do We Get There?
A 1997 survey of Canadian and American executives conducted by the Society of
Management Accountants of Canada asked business leaders why their company
considered sustainable business practices important. The most important reason given,
after compliance with legal requirements, was "because it's the right thing to do."
In our global economy, many corporations post revenues and assets higher than the
gross national product of many countries. Business is a more powerful institution than
government. As global consciousness and social values come to the forefront, the
private sector is increasingly called upon to go beyond compliance and participate in
fundamental ways as leaders of society. The Industrial Age view that business' sole
function is to produce products, services, and profit is less and less acceptable to
Carl Frankel sees it this way: "A handful of powerful forward-thinking decision-makers
and policy-formers can really make a difference. We are battling for the hearts and
minds of 50 people. That's why people like Ray Anderson of Interface are really
Anderson presented the "Amoeba Process of Progress" at the 1999 CERES conference,
depicted in Figure 2. It shows that people approach change along a bell curve. There are
small numbers of Early Movers, a great mass of Mainstreamers, and a small number of
Resisters. Since the precepts of sustainable business grind against business-as-usual
most people view it as "over there, on the other side." It seems laughably impossible to
all but the Early Movers who can sense the potential. As this pioneering small group
probes further and further into the waters of sustainability and prove it is indeed possible,
and profitable, the Mainstreamers follow. When the great mass dives in the very
definition of what "mainstream" is changes to the "new sustainable mainstream". At this
point, the few Resisters left are food for the regulators.
Ghandi said, "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then
you win." Where is the business community at this juncture? In the 37 years since the
publication of Silent Spring, the book that sparked the environmental movement,
corporations have learned to accept "compliance" as business as usual. Many of the
largest firms are well along the way toward reducing their footprint by embracing eco-
efficiency. Of course, there are still many firms, especially small ones, who still view
environmental concerns merely as a cost of doing business. But the number of firms that
understand the transition to sustainability offers them a true business opportunity is on
the rise. The argument of the 1980s, - that environment and economy are incompatible -
is no longer the conversation. The "fight" seems to be over.
What does "winning" mean? It means people capturing the vision that our lives will
indeed be richer when we bring "values," the stuff that makes us human, into the picture.
It means seeing the limitless business potential in re-ordering clean water, air, trees,
animals, and people as the first priorities. Like a World's Fair visitor observing future
trends with awe, it is exhilarating to watch an "oil company" re-invent itself as an
"energy" company; a company that expands its markets and prosperity by providing
clean, renewable energy. Or a company that can look beyond "making cars" to see itself
as providing clean, efficient transportation. Such changes require courage and a sea-
change in consciousness. As Bill McDonough says, the thrill is not in "getting to zero
waste," but in unleashing creativity through a new vision of abundance.
The list of corporate leaders with this vision is growing paving the way for others to
follow. Most everyone in the field knows of Ray Anderson's epiphany and subsequent
complete embrace of sustainability for Interface Inc. John Browne, CEO of British
Petroleum, surprised the world when he announced a $1 billion investment in wind and
solar energy, making it one of the world's largest manufacturers of solar equipment. BP
Amoco is converting 200 service stations in 11 countries to run on solar power, making
the company one of the world's largest users of solar power.
Royal Dutch Shell is running quickly behind, committing $500 million to renewable
energy, and exiting the Global Climate Coalition. Shell aims to capture 20 percent of the
international commercial market for rural solar electricity systems, worth an estimated
$1.1 billion, over the next five years. The heads of two natural gas firms, Ken Lay of
Enron, and George Verberg, of Gasunie in the Netherlands, see the natural gas industry
as a bridge from the fossil-fuel-based energy economy to a renewable-fuel energy
economy; the natural gas infrastructure can be used to carry hydrogen instead of gas.
Enron purchased Zond, a wind company, and is a major investor in Kafus Environmental
Industries. In fact, Early Movers are stepping forward in every industry sector. HOK,
stands out in architecture and design, Herman Miller in office furniture, Scandic in the
hospitality industry, IKEA in retail, Xerox in office equipment, Philips in Electronics, to
name a few. Universities worldwide are streamlining operations and insisting on
environmental construction of new buildings. Leading business schools such as Kellogg,
University of Michigan, and Kenan-Flagler are integrating sustainability issues into the
In addition to eco-efficiency efforts in internal operations, the sustainable sector of most
industries is where the action is. All that is lacking is a commitment from more of the
largest corporate players to turn the economy around.
Agriculture/Natural Food Products
Although it still represents less than two percent of total food sales, the U.S. organic
industry has been growing at 24 percent annually for the past 6 years. It is expected to
jump from its current level of $4.2 billion to $6.6 billion by 2000. Organic farmers receive
premium prices for their products and are expanding their acreage while conventional
farmers tied to the chemical/pesticide cycle have been hanging by a thread for years.
Similarly, traditional supermarkets grow by only 2-3 percent per year and operate on slim
The European organic food market, also at less than 2 percent of total food sales, is
expected to expand to as much as 10 percent by 2006. With a population of 370 million,
Europe has more potential than the U.S. The UK imports 70 percent of its food, and
Germany - the largest organic food market there at $1.6 billion and growing at 30-40
percent annually - imports 50 percent. The Japanese market is similar to Germany's and
will grow to $2.6 billion by 2000. Canada is also experiencing great demand for organic
Design & Construction
Thousands of green building pilot projects worldwide shows that sustainable design
principles and environmental building materials work. Now these principles are being
integrated into government policy. In the U.S., the GSA, DoD, U.S. Navy and Army,
USPS among other agencies, are crafting contractor guidelines to ensure the billions of
construction dollars they spend each year are deployed sustainably. The Naval Facilities
Engineering Command's Whole Building Guide, for example, defines sustainability,
details the principles involved, and lists 14 criteria to use when evaluating architectural
and engineering firms, including energy-efficient design, life-cycle analysis, and indoor
The world's first green post office opened in late 1998 in Ft. Worth, Texas, made entirely
with recycled-content materials and energy efficient systems. With more than 35,000
facilities nationwide, and about 700 new facilities constructed each year, sustainable
design is now policy at USPS. The concept is spreading to all levels of government
around the U.S. and New York is the first state to propose Green Buildings Tax Credit
The 48-story 4 Times Square building is the first skyscraper to incorporate sustainable
design principles. The companies behind the project are majors in the industry - The
Durst Organization, developers, Fox & Fowle Architects, and Tishman Construction
Corporation. Conde Nast Publications and Skadden Arps law firm contracted for 75
percent of the building's space before the shovel hit the ground.
Over 750 buildings participate in the U.S. EPA's Energy Star Buildings Program
including such notables as The World Trade Center, Empire State Building, Sears
Tower, the Transamerica Pyramid, Time Life Building, and Mc-Graw-Hill Building. To
qualify, a commercial building must be in the top 25 percent of comparable buildings for
Then there are energy efficiency products such as high performance windows, passive
solar design tools, solar water heating systems, transparent insulation, daylighting and
building-integrated PV systems that offer avenues for growth. Research in France shows
that simply using energy efficient windows with advanced glazing systems reduces
annual energy needs by 45 percent in southern regions of the country.
Even the intransigent tax system is showing signs of change. Public opinion polls on
both sides of the Atlantic show 70 percent of the public support tax shifting away from
income and toward environmentally destructive activities. The European Union has
begun to offset income tax cuts with taxes on activities such as fossil fuel emissions,
waste generation, and pesticides. A Japanese Transport Ministry advisory committee is
looking at car taxes based on fuel efficiency.
In the UK, a proposed tax on energy use in the business, agriculture, and the public
sectors would be returned as a 0.5 percent reduction in the employer's contribution to
payroll taxes, and for energy efficiency and renewable energy programs. A surcharge
would be applied for use of coal and gas, and for total energy consumption. Company
cars would be taxed according to vehicle's carbon dioxide emissions. Other measures
are being introduced to promote non-car commuting, such as a tax-free bicycling
allowance for employee business travel. France, the world's second largest consumer of
agrochemicals, is considering taxes on pesticides and fertilizers. Revenues would be
used to fund pesticide and fertilizer reduction programs.
Even as Americans are buying SUVs in droves, the automobile industry is spending
billions to bring alternative fuel vehicles to market. In the U.S., Zero Emission Vehicle
(ZEV) regulations become law in 2003 - a minimum of 10 percent (160,000) of new
vehicles in California, New York and Massachusetts must produce zero emissions or
earn ZEV credits from greatly increasing the proportion of ultra low emission or hybrid-
vehicles on the road. Alternative fuel fleet requirements already affect 90 percent of
utility vehicle purchases, and 25-75 percent of local, state and federal government
purchases. Daimler-Chrysler announced plans to produce 100,000 fuel cell cars by
2005. GM and Toyota, among major car manufacturers, are forming partnerships to
quickly commercialize renewable fuel vehicles. Auto executive surveys suggest that five
to ten percent of the global vehicle market will use alternative fuel by 2010, and the fuel
cell market may reach several billion dollars annually by that time.
By the end of 1999, almost a quarter of U.S. citizens will be able to purchase "green
power." People are signing up in record numbers for renewable electricity blends offered
by early mover companies like Green Mountain Inc. Eight states have instated 'portfolio
energy standards' that require suppliers to use a minimum percentage of renewable
energy and disclose their energy sources to customers.
In less than a year, 100,000 customers in both Pennsylvania and California have opted
for clean energy and power marketers are already shifting their strategy from selling the
cheapest electricity to the greenest blend possible. Commonwealth Energy Corporation,
California's largest supplier and one of its cheapest energy providers, is converting its
38,000 residential and small business customers to its GreenSmart program using local,
renewable energy sources. Unlike most green power programs, which require people to
pay a premium, Commonwealth will provide green energy at a discounted rate.
Patagonia, Toyota, the City of Santa Monica, New Belgium Brewing and about nine
churches are fueling the green power bandwagon, enabling the installation of new solar,
wind, geothermal, biomass and landfill gas capacity.
20 years from now, the Energy Information Administration predicts renewable energy will
account for 10 percent of energy use in the U.S. Coal and oil use creeps along
increasing at about 1 percent annually, while solar cell sales expand by 15 percent per
year, jumping 40 percent in 1997. Solar shingles, a new development, integrate solar
cells into a building's roof and have the potential to revolutionize electricity generation
Wind energy, racking up 26 percent annual increases over the last eight years, now
competes with fossil fuel prices. Experts predict it will be cheaper than fossil fuel within
10 years thanks to lower turbine prices, higher efficiency and availability. The U.S.
Department of Energy's Wind Resource Inventory shows that North Dakota, South
Dakota, and Texas alone can meet U.S. electricity needs with wind energy. Hundreds of
new high-tech windmills dot the Midwest landscape, dubbed the Saudia Arabia of wind.
Meanwhile, EU country wind investments are growing even more rapidly at 40 percent
annually in Germany, Denmark, Spain, and UK. EU power sector emissions can be
reduced by over 11 percent by 2040 using wind power. Costa Rica is committed to
generating 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2010. Denmark no
longer allows new coal power plant construction.
In only two years since the first forest certification body was accredited, more than 10
million hectares of forest are certified to meet the Forest Stewardship Council's (FSC)
criteria, equal to 115 forests in 25 countries. The World Wildlife Fund's new target is for
25 million hectares to be certified by 2001. In the U.S., the certifier Scientific Certification
Systems reports that requests for chain-of-custody certification have tripled in the last
year. Two years ago, according to Debbie Hammel, program director, there was more
supply than demand for certified products. "Now the situation is reversed and demand is
easily outstripping supply."
Due to deforestation and protection efforts, the area available for timber production is
shrinking. China banned timber production in its forests in 1998 acknowledging that
deforestation greatly exacerbated its recent record-breaking floods. The country is
employing some state timber firms for tree-planting instead. Beijing's official stand is that
standing trees are worth three times more than cut trees, because of the water storage
and flood retention services forests provide. Many countries, including Brazil, Cambodia,
U.S., New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Thailand, banned or imposed strict logging
restrictions in primary forests during the last year.
PricewaterhouseCoopers, an accounting firm, predicts after-tax losses of C$1 billion (US
$1.5 billion) for the British Columbia forestry industry. Their advice to the industry is to
implement sustainable certification or lose markets. As a result of an intensive
Greenpeace campaign, MacMillan Bloedel, the largest British Columbia timber company,
agreed to cease clear-cutting and apply for certification, and withdrew from the BC forest
industry association. Home Depot, the largest purchaser of forest products, is under
similar pressure to redirect its purchases to sustainable harvested timber.
Svetogorsk, a major pulp and paper mill in Russia, is completely phasing out ancient
forest wood in its production. Meyer International, the UK's largest timber trader pledged
that 80 percent of its timber would be FSC-certified within five years. Meyer sources
timber from 40 countries. According to Amanda Burton of Meyer, the firm has "always
kept a close eye on the development of certification and now, as FSC is entering the
mainstream we can see it presents an exciting commercial opportunity."
27 large U.S. corporations, accounting for over one billion dollars of the annual U.S.
market for paper, pulp, and packaging have made a commitment to stop selling products
or use packaging made from old-growth trees, and to influence their suppliers to do the
same. They also committed to reduce overall wood-related product consumption and to
increase use of recycled and tree-free alternatives (See Figure 3). To meet this demand
there are over 3000 products fashioned from certified wood available.
Companies Committed to Sustainable Forestry
3M Corporation Advanced Micro Devices Inc.
Bristol Myers Squibb Dell Computer Corp.
Estee Lauder Hallmark Card
Hewlett-Packard IBM Corporation
Johnson & Johnson Kinko's, Inc.
Levi Strauss & Co. Liz Claiborne
Lockheed Martin McGraw Hill
Mitsubishi Electric of America Mitsubishi Motors Sales
Mutual of Omaha Insurance
Mother Jones Magazine
National Geographic Magazine NIKE, Inc.
Pacific Gas & Electric Patagonia
Quantum Corporation Seventh Generation
Starbucks Coffee Company United Stationers Supply
Influencing the financial community's investment, lending, and insurance decisions is a
relatively new focus for sustainability efforts. Private groups, rather than world
governments are behind much of international development, especially as the World
Bank and similar groups increasingly partner with private banks. Between 1990-1996,
capital from private institutions to developing countries increased from 44 - 86 percent,
according to the World Bank.
Banking industry leaders increasingly perform environmental due diligence in decisions
to extend credit lines, finance projects or equipment. Over half the respondents to a
recent National Wildlife Federation world banking survey expect to intensify this focus
over the next three years (three-quarters of European banks). In the future, "eco-rating"
systems or screens may well be applied to equity investments.
While virtually no one targeted the environmental industry for investment two years ago,
two thirds of respondents now direct some credit or investment in the industry; some
institutions have environmental business units. Nearly every responding institution
expects to increase this activity over the next three years.
BankAmerica's Corporate Environmental Report portends future bank policy. In it, the
bank discusses its credit policy and how environmental issues affect its decisions
regarding specific transactions such as its controversial bond issue for the Three Gorges
Dam in China.
Socially screened mutual funds are an established investing sector and are offered by
many fund managers from Dreyfus to Smith Barney. Rather than screening out
companies social investors want to avoid the emphasis is shifting toward a more
proactive approach - investing in environmental and social leading companies. A recent
flurry of quantitative studies demonstrates that beyond compliance corporate
environmental investments increase financial performance and thus, shareholder value.
 Firms, which implement systemic measures - such as organizational change
initiatives and product redesign - show the most benefit.
Ecos Consulting Group surveyed the environmental performance of the top 150
companies on the Australian Stock Exchange. A "best of sector" portfolio of
environmental leaders out-performed the Australian All Ordinaries Index by four percent
from 1992 - 1998. Comparisons have been made for U.S. and Canadian companies,
with similar results. Mutual funds are emerging to tap into the enhanced performance:
Triodos Bank launched a fund in the UK and the Netherlands which invests in wind
energy projects; the Storebrand-Scudder Environmental Value Fund, SBC Eco
Performance Portfolio, and Swedbank's Environmental Fund invest in companies based
on eco-efficiency assessments and have shown dramatic performance gains over their
Innovest Strategic Value Advisors, a New York- and Toronto-based environmental rating
agency for the financial and investment communities says reason environmental
indicators work is that "environmental performance can invariably be used as a strong,
empirically demonstrable proxy for the quality of corporate management, which, in turn,
is a primary determinate of relative financial performance." Innovest's eco-efficiency
rating tool, EcoValue 21, uses more than 60 company- and industry-specific criteria to
link eco-efficiency with profitability.
Corporate Environmental Reports
Financial reporting was unreliable until the Securities and Exchange Commission
required a standard format. 10 years from now, corporate environmental reporting may
be accepted much in the same way. The debate has shifted from whether companies
should produce corporate environmental reports to what kinds of information should be
released and in which format. A growing list of stakeholders, each framing questions
from their unique perspective - customers, governments, NGOs, communities, and the
financial/investment sector - demand sustainable performance information. This
presents a significant reporting burden for a company, especially if it has global
operations. Without a standard reporting format performance across companies cannot
Several European countries, including Denmark and the Netherlands, have adopted, or
are in the process of adopting, laws that require companies over a certain size to publish
environmental reports. The Netherlands, for example, is developing an Energy Efficiency
covenant with energy-intensive companies. If a company can demonstrate superior
performance for their industry sector through international benchmarking they avoid
additional energy efficiency requirements. 
To meet the need for standard, reliable information, leading companies around the world
are participating in the Global Reporting Initiative, the goal of which is to develop
generally accepted "sustainability" disclosure guidelines. Environmental guidelines will
be cemented first, to be closely followed by social guidelines. Draft guidelines have been
issued and will be tested by 20 multinational companies.
The guidelines will have multiple positive effects:
• Companies will be able to produce one report for all stakeholders around the
• By conforming to a format all stakeholders agree on, the information will be much
more usable and valuable.
• Governments can track progress on implementing national commitments to
international conventions, such as the Kyoto Protocol.
• Corporate leaders will be able to tangibly distinguish themselves from under-
• Companies will have a useful system to track performance internally.
• Investors will be able to analyze corporate environmental performance.
Where Companies Are on the Sustainability Path
Two recent surveys of corporate executives, one by Business for Social Responsibility
(BSR) and another by Arthur D. Little (ADL), provide a snapshot of the status of
corporate environmental activities.  Sustainable development, according to the ADL
survey, "refers to the global push for companies to build their long-term business
strategies around three interconnected goals: economic growth, environmental
excellence, and social responsibility."
Executives in both surveys revealed they realize the value of sustainability initiatives; 83
percent of respondents to the ADL survey agreed that "companies can develop real
business value and economic growth from sustainable development initiatives." Although
most companies use the term "sustainability" to describe their efforts, activities currently
center on environmental rather than social issues, and continue to focus on eco-
efficiency efforts such as energy efficiency, pollution prevention, and environmental
audits. Companies are extending their reach throughout their supply chain and customer
About 13 percent of American companies, and 22 percent of European companies
polled in the ADL survey are well along the road in implementing advanced sustainability
concepts like design-for-environment, closed-loop manufacturing systems, and full-cost
A very promising development noted in the BSR survey is a new attitude of openness
and willingness to collaborate between companies and stakeholders. Unlikely
partnerships are springing up between former adversaries as they see the need to work
together as stakeholders with common concerns.
The corporate world is on the path to sustainability. As it learns to integrate eco-
efficiency measures into core operations and philosophy, it sets the stage for
dramatically reducing the quantity of materials used in production, product take-back and
reuse, and the dematerialization of products, the next steps in the Environmental
Revolution. Financial and policy market incentives are emerging as drivers toward that
Today, companies are assimilating and experimenting with the new guidelines, reflected
in the "2-faces" of corporate behavior. BP enters the solar market on the one hand, and
pressures the U.S. Congress to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling on
the other. The new Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers with Ford at the helm, forms to
lobby against on safety and environmental issues, while they promote clean vehicles. As
corporations experience success in burgeoning environmental markets and engage
further and further in sustainable practices their behavior will be more consistent.
In the coming century, the transition to sustainability will change the types of businesses
that exist and the products they produce. The way we structure and manage our
economy will be fundamentally different. Sustainability is, in commercial terms, a
business driver of immense significance.
Rona Fried, Ph.D., is president of Sustainable Business.com, the center for environment
and business on the Internet. Contact her: email@example.com
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"The twenty-first century will be anything but 'business as usual' and the institutions that
are able to balance the need to make a profit with the ability to honor the souls of those
who work for them will emerge as corporate America's strongest leaders." David Whyte,
The Heart Aroused