Why 2017 was the worst and best year of my entire sustainability career

Of my 20 years in the corporate sustainability world, I’ve never seen a year like 2017.

Like many of you, I watched in shock as we inaugurated a reality TV personality as our 45th President. Since then this Administration has rolled back critical environmental and health protections and ceded U.S. government leadership on climate change and clean energy. Issues that I am passionate about and have devoted my career to advancing. Issues that affect kids like my son, who turned 6 this week, and the over 6 million other children across the country that suffer from asthma.

At the same time, our family members, friends, and colleagues from coast to coast have been impacted by heart-wrenching extreme weather events – made stronger by climate change. In the past 12 months alone, we experienced the country’s most devastating hurricane season (with damage estimates ranging to $475 billion), record breaking temperatures that grounded airlines to a halt, freezing temperatures in the Southeast that caused over $1 billion in agricultural losses, and wildfires that continue to blaze across the state of California.

Tom Murray, VP EDF+Business, EDF

Tom Murray, VP of EDF+Business. Follow Tom on Twitter @tpmurray

Day after day, the Administration’s response is to trap the country in the past rather than lead us towards the future. The list of examples is long, but proposing to repeal the Clean Power Plan, withdrawing our commitment to the Paris Climate Accord, and failing to have an official presence at the international climate talks are at the top.

Yet instead of feeling tired and defeated, I’ve been heartened by the dedication and determination of my colleagues, by the resolve of business leaders to defend and prioritize sustainability, and by the realization that climate change has, finally, become a topic of conversation at dinner tables across America.

I’m inspired and hopeful about the opportunity to build a stronger and more contagious environmental movement than ever before. A more diverse and inclusive movement, where companies and investors now playing a leading role.

That’s because companies know that in an increasingly connected and fast-paced world, looking to the past is not that way to position yourself for the future. My friend Andrew Winston’s recent blog calls this the “rearview mirror strategy” and points to a range of once dominant technologies like printed photographs and DVD movies that were quickly disrupted, leaving companies like Eastman Kodak and Blockbuster in their wake.

Credit: Flickr user Jonathan Haeber

In part, this is what attracted me to a career in sustainability. Growing up in New England I was surrounded by natural beauty, but also lots of small cities that were once home to thriving mills and manufacturing plants. Many of those mills and plants had closed, leaving behind abandoned and polluted industrial sites from companies that were successful in past, but failed to make the changes needed to be part of the future.

These childhood memories serve as a cautionary tale in my work today, forging high-impact partnerships that catalyze environmental leadership and collaboration across companies and supply chains.  And there’s good news. Most businesses and investors – the leaders – are not buying the “review mirror strategy” that the Trump Administration is selling.

Industry leaders are instead looking forward and adapting their products, operations, and advocacy to succeed in a thriving, low-carbon world. They’re also speaking up in support of sustainability at an unprecedented pace.

Over, 1700 businesses have signed the We Are Still In declaration and “half of America’s largest companies have at least one climate or clean energy target. The reason is simple: today’s captains of industry understand that investing in clean energy creates jobs and boosts U.S. competitiveness.” To date, over 325 companies are taking action on science-based targets, and over 1,000 businesses and investors have signed the Low Carbon USA letter, calling on U.S. leaders to continue to act on climate.

I’m also optimistic that many of the more than 365 businesses that publicly voiced their support for the Clean Power Plan in 2015 will do so again in 2018, showing the current Administration that a broad swath of businesses are key stakeholders in the transition to a affordable, clean energy.

Of course, we need more than bold commitments to move the needle on climate change. But I’m confident that 2017’s continued progress, in the face of strong headwinds, sets us up for a landmark year ahead – because companies and customers are paying more attention to climate change than ever before, and because leading on sustainability creates tremendous opportunities for innovation, collaboration and growth.


Follow Tom on Twitter, @tpmurray


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