The Promise of Green Business Is A Lie

As a person who pursued sustainable business strategies at the country’s largest organizations for close to 14 years, this statement is as painful as it is honest.

Green business is not just a marketing ploy. For many it was, and remains, a great hope. It goes something like this: Utilizing the limitless power of entrepreneurship and “free” markets, capitalism would most cost-effectively solve the greatest environmental and social challenges of our time – issues such as climate change, the shocking rates of species extinction, growing wealth inequality and the persistent toxicity of our land, air and water.

If these are among the goals of green business, let’s start with some good news: We can measure our progress. Seems sensible, right? If you were diagnosed with high blood pressure, shortly after choosing a course of treatment you undoubtedly would schedule follow-up visits to see if things were improving.

So let’s take green business for a little checkup on just one of the many problems it’s supposedly solving: climate change.

The scientific consensus is unequivocal that current warming trends are most materially affected by human activities – and that a warming planet will create significant challenges for the relatively fixed infrastructure that supports our communities.

Solving climate change requires addressing two vectors simultaneously – scope and timing.

The scope of the changes we need to enact triggers the gag reflex in anyone who cares about this topic. Scientists and serious policymakers are pushing for an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 using 2000 as the base year. If that number isn’t daunting enough, keep in mind that nations such as India and China plan to add 3 billion people to their burgeoning middle classes by 2030.

What is the recommended timing of these reductions? Now. Literally. Under emissions reductions scenarios that some scientists are beginning to think are not aggressive enough, emissions need to peak by 2015, and fall every year thereafter, in order to stay within safe climatic boundaries.

So how is green business doing in its attempt to leverage market forces to solve the climate change challenge? By 2035, global emissions are expected to have increased 43 percent. To put that a different way, it’s as if green business is a silent bystander watching a runaway trajectory it barely understands.

Green business cannot shoulder the full responsibility for this obscene failure to act in the face of such a significant societal threat. That responsibility is borne by all of us. But my beef with the green industry is this: To read the marketing materials and engage the multiformat, perfectly scripted scenes of smiling children and happy farm animals used to sell “green” products, I think it reasonable for the average person to assume our greening efforts are working – that incremental progress offered by companies who remain tethered to quarterly profit expectations for disembodied shareholders is going to lead us to the promised land. It will not. This propaganda – intentionally or not – lulls people into deeper complacency at a time of peril.

An honest corporate sustainability report would feature pictures of fire and dry land, contaminated well water and sickly children. The only people smiling would be wearing suits. It would tell you to stop buying things that distract but that do not fulfill. And – finally – it would tell you to get off the couch and participate in the democracy which is still, on some structural if not practical level, yours to direct.

For all of my dismay with the relative lack of progress green business has made, I see a glimmer of hope. When the people for whom the democratic process was enshrined remember their responsibility to harness the power of markets for greatest long-term community – not shareholder – value, businesses will undoubtedly, rapaciously and efficiently direct resources to solve our important problems.

But it is policy change that must lead the way for business transformation, not vice versa. Until that happens – until we aggressively price pollution like greenhouse gas emissions and stop pretending that corporate profit is the arbiter of all that is good – a green future is as far out of reach today as it was when I began my career 14 years ago.

This content first published in The Durango Herald’s Thinking Green Column here.

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