Human Rights & LGBT Archives

January 4, 2017

9 Sustainable Business Stories That Shaped 2016

In 2015, the world pivoted in a historic way toward sustainability. Debates about climate change melted away. Every country committed to action in the form of the Paris Agreement. Even the Pope spoke to the issue, reminding us that we’re all connected. It was a productive 12 months, to say the least.

Then came 2016.

Every year, I find big themes or specific company stories that I feel are impressive, important, or indicative of where the world is going. In 2016, two dwarf the rest: the election of Donald Trump and significant action on climate change. The context for sustainable business in 2017 may center on the competition between these two stories; that is, how will Trump and his team impact or impede progress on climate and other sustainability issues? So let’s focus on these two first, and then run quickly through seven other interesting stories.

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1. Trump Shocked the World

It’s not yet clear what Trump’s election means for issues that impact companies’ efforts to manage environmental and social issues. Climate change, building a clean economy, reducing inequality and raising wages, providing health care to support general wellbeing — all are big unknowns now. The early signs from the Trump team are not promising, in my view. He wants to appoint as head of the EPA a man who denies climate change and led legal battles against the EPA. His pick for Labor Secretary is staunchly opposed to covering overtime pay or increasing minimum wages (something many leading companies have been doing on their own since 2014. His choice for Secretary of State is the CEO of ExxonMobil, a company that has, for decades, attacked climate science when it knew better. A leaked memo from the Trump transition team shows an intention to move away from the Paris agreement and almost all climate and clean economy action.

In response to Trump’s election and his statements doubting climate change, many countries that signed the Paris climate accords in 2015 made it clear they would power on (China in particular — see story number three, below). Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy even proposed taxing U.S. goods if the country pulled out the Paris agreement. And throwing his weight in, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg publicly declared that cities would fight on, with or without Trump. Finally, hundreds of companies signed the latest declaration from Ceres showing their support for Paris. This is all promising. For this and many other reasons, the sustainability journey in business will continue.

But given Trump’s likely stance, any global progress on climate will happen in spite of headwinds from the U.S. federal government. In the U.S., the action will have to move to states, cities, and the private sector. Businesses in particular will need to lead in a way they never have before — and they will.

2. Public and Private Sector Action on Climate Change Increased

For most of 2016, the world moved quickly on climate. I’ve already mentioned the historic Paris agreement, but there are more positive steps worth noting. With the support of chemical companies, more than 170 countries also agreed to phase out HFCs, the high global-warming-potential chemicals used in air-conditioners and refrigerators everywhere. The UN also agreed to slash emissions from the airline industry. Norway banned deforestation and both Norway and Germany moved toward banning fossil-fuel-powered cars. This week, Canada announced it would tax carbon nationally by 2018.

In the U.S., the Obama administration started to incorporate the “social cost of carbon” in decision-making and the Pentagon made climate change a military priority. President Obama, with his counterparts in Canada and Mexico, agreed to some aggressive regional targets on renewable energy and efficiency. At the state level, New Jersey passed a big new gas tax, and Oregon, Illinois, and California developed robust energy and climate policies. All of this will affect companies of all stripes.

Business itself wasn’t quiet on the climate front either. Many invested heavily in renewable energy (see number five on this list), and some big companies dove into policy debates this year. More than 100 companies called for action on the Clean Power Plan (Obama’s big move to reduce power sector emissions), with tech giants Apple, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft even filing a legal brief in support of the policy. Nine big brands with operations in Ohio publicly pressed the state to reinstate energy efficiency and renewable energy portfolio standards. Many previously quiet companies, like food giant General Mills, spoke out about how important it was to their business to tackle climate change.

Why all this progress? First, evidence of a radically altered climate system has become crystal clear. After 2015 shattered climate records, 2016 got even hotter and more extreme, creating weather events that brought physical destruction, massive economic costs, and loss of life. Second, the financial world is getting better at evaluating what’s at stake. The World Bank estimates that $158 trillionworth of assets are at risk from increased natural disasters. The London School of Economics tells us trillions of financial assets are also vulnerable. And in the U.S. alone, floods in Louisiana and North Carolina caused $10 to $20 billion in damage.

3. China Stepped Up

While many countries accelerated their climate and clean economy work this year, China is a special case. Early in the year, China said it would halt new coal mine approvals, close 1,000 mines, increase wind and solar by 21% in 2016, and even eat less meat to control carbon emissions. But last month the country also indicated coal use would rise until 2020 (albeit at a slower rate than the growth of renewables). So it’s not totally clear where China’s emissions will head. But the country clearly wants to lead the world in the clean economy transition. Speaking from this year’s UN global climate meeting – which happened to coincide with the U.S. election — Chinese ministers sent a message to Trump that climate change is no hoax. Then China’s President Xi said he’ll be attending the annual bigwig gathering in Davos for the first time, with reports of China’s interest in filling trade gaps left by Brexit and possible leadership gaps on climate left by Trump.

4. Renewables Kept Growing and Getting Cheaper

Renewables have been trouncing fossil fuels for a few years as the costs of the newer technologies have dropped remarkably fast. The world record for cheapest solar plant was set in Mexico… and then broken within weeks in Dubai with a bid of 2.99 cents per kilowatt-hour. Countries with big investments in renewables are reaping the rewards. For four days in May, Portugal was 100% powered by renewables, and on a single windy day Denmark’s windfarms gave the country 140% of what it needed. The U.S. finally got into offshore wind near Rhode Island. In a subtle tipping point, the total global generating capacity from renewables passed coal this year.

As prices dropped, companies noticed, and corporate purchases and commitments to clean energy grew. Walmart set a 50% renewable target for 2025. In the last few weeks, Microsoft and Avery Dennison announced big purchases of clean power, and GM and Google said they’d target 100% renewable energy within a year. A growing number of companies signed the RE100 commitment to go for 100%. And in Nevada, both MGM and Caesars filed papers to stop purchasing power from their utility, NV Energy, because it doesn’t support renewables. New capital is still flowing to the clean tech — Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and some other business leaders just announced a $1 billion fund to invest in “next generation energy technologies.” All of this activity convinces me that Trump can’t stop the clean economy.

5. Investors Focused on Climate, Sustainability, and Short-Termism

Larry Fink, the CEO of Blackrock — the world’s largest asset owner — followed up his 2015 letter to S&P 500 CEOs with another treatise against short-term focus. He disparaged the “quarterly earnings hysteria” and asked companies to submit long-term strategy plans and address environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues. BlackRock also issued a “climate change warning,” telling investors to adapt their portfolios to fight global warming. Many banks heeded the advice, pulling funding from coal. The London School of Economics also estimated that climate change could slash trillions from financial asset values. Because of this economic and systemic risk, a high-powered task force from the G20’s Financial Stability Board issued important guidelines for companies to make climate-related disclosures. To help investors evaluate their holdings, Morningstar launched sustainability ratings for 20,000 funds, and 21 stock exchanges introduced sustainability reporting standards. Finally, to educate the next generation of analysts, the CFA exam will now include a focus on ESG issues.

6. Business Defended Employees’ and Customers’ Human Rights

Companies are getting more vocal on human rights issues for many reasons. For some, it’s about the commercial opportunity to appeal to a new or growing market of rights-focused consumers. Others want to attract and retain diverse talent. But in general, society is expecting companies to broaden their mission. In one survey, 78% of Americans agreed that “companies should take action to address important issues facing society.” Millennials feel even stronger. A global survey this year showed that 87% of Millennials around the world believe that “the success of business should be measured in terms of more than just its financial performance.” This generation — which will be 50% of the workforce by 2020 — seeks employers that share their values.

And so, after a divisive U.S. election, many CEOs felt the need to email employees, restating their commitment to diversity and inclusion. Earlier in the year, when Gov. Pat McCrory of North Carolina passed a bizarre law to control which bathroom transgender people use, many companies spoke up. The CEOs of dozens of big brands — including Alcoa, Apple, Bank of America, Citibank, IBM, Kellogg, Marriott, PwC, and Starbucks — signed an open letter to defend “protections for LGBT people.” Paypal and Deutsche Bank canceled plans to expand and hire in the state, and the NCAA actually relocated some championship events. (In an important side note, after costing the state $600 million in business, the law is widely credited for losing McCrory his reelection bid.)

7. More Evidence Emerged That Economies Can Grow Without Increasing Carbon Emissions

So far this century, more than 20 large countries, as well as 33 U.S. states, have “decoupled” GDP growth from GHGs. One energy hog, the IT sector, has managed to level off energy use in data centers. There’s serious talk again about “peak oil” — not of supply, but of demand.

We’re seeing a fundamental shift in our relationship with energy for many reasons, including the improving economics of efficiency and clean tech (see #5). But companies are also getting more systematic, strategic, and fun — yes fun — in slashing energy. More organizations are using some old tools like “treasure hunts” and reimagining them as “energy marathons” (26.2 days of innovation). Others are competing to slash energy use — see Hilton and Whole Foods energy teams go head-to-head in a streaming reality show.

8. Levi’s Shared What It Knows about Water

Big themes are great, but periodically a specific example of leadership seems worthy of extra attention. In this case, Levi’s had spent a decade identifying great ways to cut water use in the apparel value chain. Realizing that water issues are too big to tackle alone, Levi’s celebrated World Water Day this year by open sourcing its best practices in water management. In essence, the company decided to promote system change and even invited competitors to its innovation lab for the first time in its history.

9. The Circular Economy Inched Closer

With a growing population and ever-rising demand for resources, it’s becoming necessary to find ways to eliminate waste and reuse valuable materials endlessly. We’re seeing some interesting innovation in policy and business practice. Sweden is planning to offer tax breaks for fixing things instead of throwing them away, and six EU countries started a four-year project to help small and medium-size enterprises move to circular models.

A number of companies also made moves into this space. A supermarket opened in the UK filled with only food that would’ve been thrown out. IKEA is expanding its circular offerings like reselling used furniture and creating new products from leftover textiles. More than 25 companies in Minnesota, including 3M, Aveda, and Target, launched a circular initiative to share expertise. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Kering both created curricula in circular thinking for fashion and design students. And finally, the Closed Loop Fund, which invests in recycling infrastructure (using funds from some large retail and CPG brands), reported on substantial progress, including launching single stream recycling across Memphis.

What’s in Store for 2017?

Given how far off pundits and prognosticators were this year, I have to proceed with caution. Who really knows what a Trump presidency will bring to the U.S. and the world, or what the corporate sustainability agenda will look like with so much uncertainty?

I do believe companies will expand their horizons, looking more at systems, not just their operations and value chains. They will increasingly partner to tackle big global targets like the UN’s Sustainable Development goals. Demands for more transparency about how everything is made — from consumers, employees, investors, and other stakeholders — are unlikely to slow down. The food and agriculture sectors in particular will feel even more pressure to cut carbon and food waste and simplify ingredients.

And no matter who’s in charge politically, macro trends are hard to stop — a changing climate; increasing challenges around water and other resources; higher expectations of companies; rising concern about inequality and wages; and technological disruption from AI, machine learning, and autonomous everything. These trends will continue and companies will need to adapt — fast.

(This post first appeared at Harvard Business Review online.)

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(Andrew's book, The Big Pivot, was named a Best Business Book of the Year by Strategy+Business Magazine! Get your copy here. See also Andrew's TED talk on The Big Pivot.

February 8, 2017

Is it Time to Add Morality to the Business Case for Sustainability?

(I'm really interested in everyone's opinion on the below. I started this conversation on Sustainable Brands site last week and there are some good comments. But I always re-post here for my subscribers. Please share with the sustainability community and send me your thoughts (or post them here). Thanks.)

Every manager (or consultant) who has pitched an initiative under the banner of “sustainability” has faced the same question nearly every time: what’s the business case?

On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with the question. Business is all about allocating some form of capital, be it financial, human, or organizational. So it’s not unfair to wonder what the return on the investment might be. But usually, when executives pose the question about sustainability initiatives, they’re asking about the business case in the narrowest sense: Does this thing pay back, in cash, within some short payback period (1 or 2 years)?

In response, we’ve all put a lot of effort into making the case in financial terms. And given the common assumption that sustainability somehow equates with philanthropy and saving the polar bears, it’s generally smart to make it all about money. Certainly, that’s a big part of the case I’ve made for a long time. But maybe I’ve been missing something.

Maybe, in trying to answer the business case question narrowly, we’re overlook something critical about what motivates the decision maker. Or we miss how much the world is changing. Perhaps it’s time to inject the moral case into the discussion and say, boldly, “This is the right thing to do.”

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Let’s face it: given the constant attack on our rights and democratic ideals happening right now, companies – some of society’s largest institutions – are finding themselves in uncomfortable territory. The moral position of a company and its leaders individually are facing more scrutiny. The conversation in executive meeting rooms is not just about shareholder value anymore. Will we defend LGBT rights or protect immigrant employees? Will we continue to tackle climate change, the human and planetary crisis of our time? These are not idle questions anymore.

I will write much more about the macro-level question of the role of business in society over the coming months and years. But for this discussion I want to rethink the specific question about how sustainability professionals and managers make the case for social and environmental action.

So, back to the nitty gritty. Do we have the right arguments for why we should invest in sustainability projects? Let’s consider four broad buckets of initiatives – three that create value for the business and one that’s more about value for society – and explore how (and when) they create value:

(1) short-term financial wins that meet all hurdle rates;

(2) clear financial wins, but with longer paybacks;

(3) investments that have less certain paybacks in cash, but create indirect (yet real) and internalized value, such as improved employee engagement, increased customer loyalty, greater license to operate, brand building, or risk reduction;

(4) projects that create externalized value for stakeholders and improve the shared commons

Of course these categories are not mutually exclusive – any of the first three will create externalized value as well. But for most projects there’s a core bucket of value. A simple lighting retrofit would fall mainly in group 1, for example, while employee volunteering, or providing water infrastructure for the community around a factory, would be mainly group 4 activities. Something like auditing and raising environmental or social standards in the supply chain, or investing in circular models, could hit all four areas, but would hit bucket 3 hard.

For each bucket, the business case we make should vary.

Category 1 is trivial, and the cash benefits of, say, eco-efficiency projects are now broadly accepted. Of course there’s always competition for capital, even between projects with quick paybacks, but it’s not hard to make the case that these things save money.

Category 2 requires more finesse. You can make the case for bending the rules on the hurdle rate for strategic reasons at times. Or, more frequently with sustainability projects, we get these through the system by shifting the conversation to category 3 value and point out that, by the way, it will also save cash, but later.

So category 3 is where so much of the effort lies. I’ve sacrificed many trees (and digital bits) writing about the importance of recognizing internalized value, even if comes in ways we can’t measure it perfectly. We all make the case that environmental and social initiatives can reduce risk, drive innovation, create employee engagement and loyalty, build the brand, and much more. That case is strong. Most large companies have realized that just considering the attraction, retention, and engagement of talent (especially socially-minded Millennials) can justify many investments in social and environmental progress.

But let’s look at category 4, the “save the world” value bucket that I’ve mostly avoided during my career. A new, challenging political environment is making me even more philosophical about why business should act, or even why a business exists.

Here’s the nub of it. Consider the following benefits a company might create: employee happiness, being a good member of the community, solving a customer need (the original, and some would say only, reason a company exists), and, yes, making sure the polar bears survive. Aren’t these things good in their own right, regardless of how or when they create business value? Maybe this kind of query falls in value bucket three-and-a-half, between the cracks because it begs the question of what value is.

My mini existential question was partly spurred by an interesting article I read recently in the Guardian. Focused on “why time management is ruining our lives,” the essay laments our obsession with personal productivity and talks about creating life balance and having more free time. In the article, John de Graaf, a founder of a group called “Take Back Your Time” challenges what I would describe as the business case for life balance: “People argue that more time off might be good for the economy, but why should we have to justify life in terms of the economy?”

It’s a great point. And it’s a good question to ask about all our efforts to improve employee engagement, connect to purpose and meaning at work, or drive sustainability in business. Why should everything that supports general well-being for people touched by a company – its employees, customers, supply chain workers, community members, future generations, and so on – have to be put only in economic terms?

The time may be ripe to broaden how we talk about sustainability and bring in a moral dimension. Consider one of my favorite sustainable business stories from 2016. After North Carolina passed the absurd “bathroom bill,” some big company CEOs sent an open letter to the Governor saying the law didn’t reflect their values. Companies are increasingly standing up for LGBT rights, and in the last week, for immigrants (bravo Starbucks for pledging to hire 10,000 refugees). A somewhat cynical interpretation would say that companies just want to stay in the good graces of a segment of their customer base. True, so there is some business logic. But it’s also clear that many of these companies and their executives just felt it was the moral thing to do.

I’ve talked to senior executives for many years about why they care about sustainability. And very often it stems from a personal journey. They went to the rain forest, or their children asked them about their work and their legacy.

So am I saying we should abandon the normal business case and stop focusing on how much value sustainability creates for business? Of course not. We should absolutely talk about the cash payback and all the indirect and hard-to-measure internalized value. But perhaps we (or at least I) have gone too far to counteract the “green equals polar bears” view of the world. Depending on the audience or particular executive, it may be time to throw in an element of “hey, this really is the right thing to do and your kids will be proud.”

Yes, the traditional business case will still be critical, particularly in public companies. But it might play the role of justifying something a leader wants to do in her heart anyway. Given what behavioral psychology tells us about the “confirmation bias,” this is how many decisions are made anyway.

My bottom line is this: how we make the case for sustainability needs to vary depending on the category of initiative (from slam dunk in cash terms to indirect value to “other” and societal value), the situation (a CFO presentation meeting vs. drinks with your boss), and a reading of the people involved.

But more and more, I’m wondering if a combined logic of “good for business” and “good for the soul” will work best. I welcome your thoughts.

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If you enjoyed this article, please sign up for Andrew Winston's RSS feed, or by email. Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewWinston)

(Andrew's book, The Big Pivot, was named a Best Business Book of the Year by Strategy+Business Magazine! Get your copy here. See also Andrew's TED talk on The Big Pivot.

(Photo credit: Flickr, Joel Duggan)