Big Business and the Latest Trends in Sustainability

(originally published on September 22, 2017)

Last month’s issue of Marie Claire features the newest big name in fashion: sustainability. The magazine’s August 2017 issue highlights fashion designers and brands that incorporate sustainable practices into their operations, as well as some sage advice from eco-conscious leaders around the world. Marie Claire, a partner of NRDC and its Clean by Design initiative, is one of many companies currently underscoring the importance of sustainability in fashioning a better future for the planet.

While environmental stewardship was once sidestepped as the responsibility of governments and non-profits, a growing number of business leaders across the country are taking giant steps to advocate for the future of our planet. The bottom line: the health of our planet relies on big business leaders to make sustainable choices. And savvy business leaders know that a healthy planet is essential to company success: the purpose economy is emerging, access to information is increasing, and risks to companies’ bottom lines from unreliable access to natural resources are growing. These factors, combined with setbacks at the federal level, such as the U.S.’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, have left big businesses seeking greater positive impacts and greater returns by committing to sustainable practices.

NRDC isn’t a big business, but like any company, our expenses are directly linked to the sustainable operations of our physical assets. We pay attention to sustainability best practices and apply them accordingly. Here are a few notable trends at the intersection of business and sustainability, as well as a few ideas for what you, as a consumer, can do to continue shaping that trend:

Sustainability Reporting

A sustainability report is a report published by a company or organization that details the economic, environmental, and social impacts of its daily operations. Sustainability reports have the two-fold benefit of prompting a company to assess its environmental footprint, as well as providing a platform for a competitive edge when being compared to other businesses. Evaluating environmental impacts via reporting is important for establishing business values and levels of commitment to employee health, efficient operations, risk management, and ultimately the business’ bottom line. Moreover, sustainability reporting gives stakeholders a way of understanding what they are supporting and whether they want to continue providing support. Ultimately, sustainability reporting saves money and creates value.

Sustainability reporting comes in many forms. Many businesses choose to use an established framework such as the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) or Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), while others might make their own or have a dedicated webpage for sharing pertinent information. For examples, check out Apple, McDonald's, and Reformation.

Evaluating Products and Services for Environmental and Social Good

Resource scarcity and extreme weather caused by climate change, as well as trends in consumer behavior towards environmentally responsible products and services, are interrupting “business as usual.” According to a 2015 study, 91% of global consumers expect companies to “operate responsibly to address social and environmental issues,” and 84% say they “seek out responsible products whenever possible.” Consumer preferences are leaning heavily toward responsible products and services.

The response by businesses is to adapt — to continue to offer consumers what they need while having a net positive, rather than negative, impact on environmental, economic, and social well-being. That means altering a product or service, or at least making a commitment to do so. Apple, for example, has made the bold commitment to eliminate rare earth metals from their products. For-profits are beginning to mimic non-profits by committing to social and environmental missions. “B-Corporation” is a legal designation available to such organizations that are proving to fulfill those missions. Well known B-Corps businesses include Patagonia, Etsy, and Ben & Jerry’s.

Some organizations are taking sustainable production to the next level by challenging businesses to think about how to create a positive, or regenerative impact on the environment, rather than producing a negative one in the form of extracting natural resources and creating greenhouse gases from energy use. The International Living Future Institute’s Living Product Challenge, for example, asks product manufacturers to create more good than harm by creating a handprint that’s larger than their footprint, thereby restoring the environment. Mohawk, one of the world’s largest carpet manufacturers, reformulated the ingredients in their new carpet line, Lichen, as a part of the Living Product Challenge, to provide more resources to the environment than it uses.

What can you do as a consumer to support environmentally and socially responsible businesses?

Businesses are doing an incredible job integrating sustainability into their operations. They are influenced by the consumer, which gives us a lot of power to continue shaping the trend. In an era of increased transparency and access to information, we have more tools than ever to understand what it is we’re supporting with our dollars. Here are a few ways you can support responsible businesses:

For more information on NRDC’s commitment to sustainable operations, check out NRDC’s sustainable performance and Sustainable Operations plan here:

See an abbreviated version of this on Marie Claire’s website.

Environmentalist, sustainability & wellness professional, yogi. Often found outdoors.