Business, Not Government, is Leading the Green Movement

Many people were disappointed with the recent Rio+20 summit, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. The 100 international leaders who attended made little progress and few commitments beyond reaffirming the same environmental goals they set 20 years ago at the 1992 Earth Summit.

coca cola

But the summit did reveal something important: Even as governments and politicians drag their feet on sustainability, businesses continue to take large steps.

At the summit, dozens of companies unveiled plans for how they intend to lower their environmental footprint. Microsoft committed to being carbon neutral by end of fiscal year 2013. Kimberly-Clark, parent of Kleenex and Huggies, unveiled it would cut the amount of wood fiber it uses from natural forests by 50% by 2025. And Coca-Cola pledged to recycle the water it uses by 2020 and increase water efficiency by 20% by 2015.

You can rightly argue that these initiatives aren’t bold enough to counteract global warming or other large-scale environmental problems. However, it’s a good sign that companies are voluntarily taking steps even when they aren’t required to by government regulation.

It shows the tide is turning: Businesses are realizing the benefits to being environmental stewards and setting sustainability goals on their own.

What’s going on? In the past, businesses found few incentives to invest in earth-friendly practices. But in recent years, consumers have started to factor sustainability more into their purchasing decisions as there’s a growing awareness about the health and lifestyle benefits to being green. Governments have provided financial incentives to help companies’ implement eco-friendlier practices. And as companies embarked on these initiatives, they started to realize many benefits from sustainability.

Here’s a look at the benefits big and small businesses alike have reaped by undertaking sustainability initiatives:

–   Good publicity. Touting  environmental good practices has shown itself as an excellent way to draw positive attention and more customer loyalty to a business (as long as it’s not “greenwashing.”) Check out any corporation’s web site these days, and you can pretty easily find its page devoted to sustainability initiatives.

–   Bottom-line savings. Sustainable business measures often come with upfront costs (think installing new energy-efficient equipment or hiring a sustainability consultant). But the paybacks on many sustainability measures, whether lower energy bills or lower transportation costs, can save businesses a lot of money over the long run. (Coca-Cola says it saved $90 million in 2010 alone by reducing its packaging waste.)

–   Happier people. Whether or not they choose to do business with you because of sustainability measure, many customers feel good knowing they are supporting businesses doing the right thing by being environmentally friendly. This can also spill into employee morale. With many younger workers now seeking to work for socially conscious employers, it’s in a business’s best interest to be that.

Given the many benefits businesses are finding to “going green,” it’s likely that more and more businesses will continue to do so, regardless of what government leaders do.

How have environmental sustainability efforts affected your business? Have you discovered any benefits to being green?

Coca Cola Photo via Shutterstock


Kelly Spors Kelly Spors is a former small-business and entrepreneurship reporter and blogger for The Wall Street Journal who has also written for Yahoo!, Entrepreneur, NFIB's MyBusiness magazine and The New York Times. Kelly is now a freelance editor and writer based in Minneapolis and has previously managed communications for an environmental non-profit that helps businesses find ways to be greener.

6 Reactions
  1. There’s little-to-no downside to launching a sustainability effort at your business, and plenty of benefits. Thanks for shedding a little light on the topic, Kelly!

  2. The private sector will always be a better way of “going green” than the public sector. In fact, government probably hinders progress. Good article, but I take issue with the fact we have global warming. We don’t. This myth has been now dispelled by numerous sources.

  3. Mafalda Marques

    I absolutely agree – whereas governments have little interest in actually changing something, the business sector has understood, that sustainable development is a way not only to save, but even to earn money. Not only Coca Cola, but e.g. Siemens as well has some projects in Brazil.
    I live in Rio and I`m glad, that some companies are trying to help making the city less noisy and dirty.

  4. Based on our experience, I have to respectfully disagree with the negative comments on governments. Here in the U.S. certain government policies and incentives have made it possible for our company to implement sustainability program that otherwise would have been precluded by a failed ROI calculation. Of course as a business we look at sustainability saving expense and improving profitability. But our experience is that government is helping, not hindering, progress.

  5. Brent, You make a good point. Many local and state governments have enacted policies that encourage (or require) greener business practices. They also had federal stimulus funds to give out to consumers and businesses for energy-efficiency and other green initiatives, though much of that is tapped. What’s happening now is that businesses have taken initial steps, discovered the benefits, and are moving forward on their own.

  6. Although some may be surprised when learning large businesses and corporations are voluntarily leading the sustainable movement, it’s a concept that makes sense in more ways than one. As companies become more environmentally-conscious, they meet the needs of eco-friendly consumers around the globe and achieve business goals. For example, sustainable choices can increase bottom-line savings over 80 percent, enough for any company to want to make the switch over to green. As leaders in sustainable furniture asset management services, our team at The Refinishing Touch has seen this form of satisfaction exemplified over and over again. We’ve helped our clients in the hospitality, higher education, and government industries save an average of 80 percent of budgets and carbon emissions when refinishing furniture compared to buying new. That’s a saving both Mother Nature and business executives can appreciate.