No “alternative facts” needed: leading on sustainability is smart business strategy

A Businessman is looking out the window in a modern panoramic meeting room in New York. The concept of the meeting of the Board of Director of the huge transnational corporation.

For the people who dedicate their lives to helping keep the planet livable, it’s hard to wrap one’s mind around our new weird, warped, post-election world. Every day seems to bring some new government official denying facts and science (aka reality), or doing unthinkable damage to the suddenly-less-venerable institutions they now lead.

As someone who has a 20-year track record of working side-by-side with the private sector to create positive environmental change, I can just imagine how anxious business executives must be feeling these days. The specter of a three a.m. tweet from the White House demanding that they run their company according to a Presidential whim, rather than the realities of the global marketplace (or the expectations of shareholders), can make for a lot of sleepless nights.

Unlike certain “business-executive-Presidents", however, real CEOs have to be fact-driven.

And the forward-thinking executives—the ones who are thinking hard about the long-term growth, profitability and resiliency of their companies—are well aware of the facts. They know that human-caused climate change is real, and carries with it huge costs. Executives selling food grown in rapidly changing landscapes and/or products dependent on materials from across the globe aren’t playing in a fantasy world where climate change is a “hoax invented by China.”

And they know that how we deal with climate change will determine whether we will be a driver or a destroyer of business value. As a peer-reviewed study in the journal Nature recently found (and the New York Times reported): "even if the world is able to stave off an increase in atmospheric temperatures of 2 degrees Celsius or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit — a goal agreed to as part of the Paris deal — climate change could wipe out $1.7 trillion worth of global financial assets."

So, I’m hopeful that, at least in terms of sustainability, the rational decisions being made on Wall Street will act as a counter-balance to what appears to be erratic decisions coming out of Washington. Consider just a few of the recent announcements and actions of the private sector:

  • In just the past 3 months, Google, Microsoft, Pepsi, Smithfield Foods, Walmart and many others have continued to lead the way and prove what’s possible through bold, science-based goals, investments in clean energy and expanded efforts to drive down emissions in their operations and supply chains.
  • At the recent World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Unilever CEO Paul Polman said “to make America great again, climate action is very logical. This is a very convincing story for job creation and economic growth.” My colleagues at EDF Climate Corps back this up with data; the sustainability sector is booming with jobs that 1.) can’t be outsourced, and 2.) are readily available in all fifty states.
  • A WEF report on the future of retail talks about “the golden age of the consumer” and the implications and opportunities that are created for sustainability by addressing how goods are delivered—what is called the “last mile of delivery”—and how products are packaged.
  • Commenting on that same report, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon pointed out that sustainability will impact retail in ways far beyond logistics and packaging: in this age of social media sharing, the push for transparency in supply chains will be customer-driven. McMillon knows that “retailers will only survive if their business creates shared value that benefits shareholders and society.”
  • Finally, in a recent op-ed entitled Why Walmart is doubling down on its commitment to climate change, Walmart board member Rob Walton, gave a simple answer: because it’s good for business! “We set [our climate goals] because we wanted to help address climate change and improve lives, while also strengthening our company and reducing expenses,” he said. “We thought it would be a win-win: good for society, and good for Walmart.  Eleven years later, that's exactly what we've seen.”

    Elizabeth Sturcken, Managing Director, EDF+Business

    Elizabeth Sturcken, Managing Director, EDF+Business

That’s a long list—and one that adds to the mounting evidence that corporate America “gets it”:

momentum for business leadership on sustainability is here to stay. Which is in no way surprising, because after my many years of working with business, I’ve seen firsthand the immense value creation that comes with moving forward—not backward—on environmental issues.

So, for all that has changed in these times of “alternative facts,” those who care about having a livable, thriving planet can feel confident that they have a powerful ally in business. Because when it comes to our climate, our health and our planet itself, if we’re not making progress, we’re losing.