Two Tipping Points to Sustainability (and other Takeaways from the 2012 NAEM Forum)

October 23, 2012

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“It changed my life.”

Some phrases take on a momentum all their own. Such was the case at the recent 20th Annual NAEM Management Forum, Driving Sustainable Business Performance through EHS.

Author and eco-visionary, Paul Hawken, was about to deliver the opening keynote address to 500 sustainability, CSR and EHS professionals. In introducing him, NAEM Deputy Director, Virginia Hoekenga, uttered five words that would echo through the rest of the conference: “His book changed my life.”

It's a sentiment I can appreciate, having emerged from the conference with a new view on the world – at least with regard to two conditions that are necessary for reaching the sustainability tipping point that MIT-Sloan Management Review claims we're nearing.

“… after all it was you and me.”

That lyric from the Rolling Stones' Sympathy for the Devil, underscores the first necessary condition: A sense of complicity. While the conference offered keen insights on what corporations, governments and NGOs can do and are doing to promote a more sustainable future, the fate of our planet is really up to us, to you and me.

Until we as individuals resolve to waste less, recycle more and make and demand greener choices, a tipping point in the right direction is likely to remain elusive. In a study cited during a session on green marketing, 95 percent of consumers entering grocery stores said they would consider buying “green” products. Only 22 percent actually did.

In a session on life cycle analysis, we were told that nearly one-third of mankind's global carbon footprint results from food production. Yet about that same percentage of household food purchases end up in the garbage. Add to that residential recycling rates that remain stubbornly modest and hybrid vehicle sales that make up only three percent of the automotive marketplace – and it's easy to see a lot of low-hanging fruit still on our own vines.

Sure, inadequate infrastructure, artificially high pricing, partisan politics and market confusion create barriers. But it will take individual accountability, not just corporate responsibility, to get us over the hump.

“First I look at the purse.”

I use this line from a 1960s Motown hit to highlight a second condition that would accelerate our journey toward sustainability – greater savings for greener choices.

According to the 2012 GfK Green Gauge Report, the willingness of American consumers to pay more for greener goods has declined in recent years. But, depending on the product category, 40 to 60 percent are still willing to do so. This is what researchers and marketers call the “Green Premium”. It's related to the common refrain among green marketers that “all things being equal” (i.e., price and performance), more people are apt to buy greener products.

Say what? A Green Premium? All things being equal? How about a Green Discount? What about lower prices for environmentally preferable products and services? If driving carbon, risk, materials and waste from the value chain is truly worth something, why not let that be reflected in the asking price?

Of course, not all greener choices command a premium, but many do. And yes, some green products or services cost more to bring to market, but others cost less. Or would, if the economies of scale were there.

I'm not suggesting that companies subsidize greener products. But charging more for these choices simply because under certain conditions they can, may be short-sighted. Talk about shared value¦ wouldn't it be better to build brands, increase sales and ultimately create healthier, more sustainable bottom lines by sharing the value of greener products with the people who purchase them?

In reflecting upon my experience at the 2012 NAEM Management Forum, I'm a more discerning and informed person for having attended. I have a better understanding of how NGOs help companies with limited resources engage with stakeholders around the world; how EHS skills transfer to the broader discipline of sustainability/CSR; and how a coating used in toilets can be applied on buildings to proactively remove NOx from the air.

If we are what we think, the conference did indeed change my life.