In my last essay, I talked about an updated vision of environmental changemaking, one that recognizes that many businesses are potential allies in the transformation to a responsible sustainable economy. Not all businesses, mind you, but a good number really do want clean energy, safe products, and decently paid workers. This time, we’ll talk about what we can all do to scale up these kinds of solutions, whether we work within a business or we use its products and services.
When I talk to all kinds of people working to make today’s companies more sustainable, often they’re focused on getting the public to change their shopping habits. If people refuse to buy toxic junk, the thinking goes, companies won’t make it anymore. The theory here is that consumers control the manufacturers and we can change business-as-usual just by shopping differently because companies are just making what people demand.
Baloney. What mom is demanding her kids’ pajamas be pre-treated with neurotoxic flame retardants? Who’s asking for sunscreen with carcinogens? Before Apple spent billions advertising iPhones, who felt the need to buy a new phone every six months? Are any of these production decisions really driven by consumer demand? The real drivers behind toxic-containing or unsustainable production are out-of-date regulations and skewed economic rules that make it cheaper and more profitable—and thus more attractive in the short term—to make unhealthy and unsustainable stuff.
Of course, to truly ensure that businesses are a source of solutions rather than pollution, we need to engage not just businesses but government legislators and regulators too. They are the ones able to change today’s rules which support unsustainable products, level the playing field and open the floodgates for sustainable innovation in businesses. In my next set of essays, I’ll share some thoughts and action ideas to make our government step up and support a responsible, healthy and fair economy, but for now, let’s get back to building solutions in businesses.
Whether you work in a business, or just use its services and products, there are many ways to help advance solutions.
Making change from within a business:
- Walk the talk. Make sure your operations are powered by renewable energy, your buildings use green materials, your workers are paid a living wage, and the goods or services you sell are safe, sustainable, healthy and easy to upgrade, repair and recycle or compost at the end of their lives. Then look at your supply chain. Where do your raw materials come from? Are the workers and communities at the source treated fairly? If not, figure out how to change things.
- Do your homework. It may be a challenge to figure out if your business or suppliers are on the path to sustainability. Don’t worry—there are lots of resources available to help you grade your efforts and raise the bar. The Healthy Buildings Network will help you make the best decisions about your operations and facilities. The Biz-NGO Working Group will help you find substitutes for hazardous chemicals and products. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition is made up of hundreds of clothing companies working to better understand and lessen the impacts of their supply chains.
- Join the movement for solutions. Just as in citizen movements, the voices of business advocates for sustainability are louder when joined together. Join the American Sustainable Business Council, a national partnership representing thousands of businesses whose leaders want a better future. Likewise, bow out of business associations, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or the American Legislative Exchange Council, that are obstructing the solutions to the climate crisis, inequality and other problems.
Making change from outside a business:
What about the other side of the cash register? Customers can promote solutions in businesses with a carrot or a stick. Which is most effective depends largely on the businesses—some respond to carrots, others to sticks. Take the approach most likely to bring the most change.
- The carrot: We should reward enterprises that are environmental and social leaders not only with our business but also our recognition. Whether it’s a restaurant, hotel, clothing company or any business, sending a tweet, email or letter thanking them for reducing energy use, eliminating excess packaging, replacing toxic chemicals or paying workers fairly will help the company leaders see that their policies are appreciated and good for business. Some folks who want to reinforce good corporate behavior are joining forces to amplify their impact. Check out Carrotmob, which mobilizes people to support businesses implementing something the members care about, like switching to renewable energy. Just be careful: A lot of companies announce green initiatives but don’t follow through on them. Don’t be fooled by greenwashing. (See stopgreenwash.org to learn more.)
- The stick: Sometimes companies don’t respond to polite requests, customer calls for greener products or even scientific evidence of the harm their products or operations cause. Then we have to get tough. Many activist organizations today are skilled at market campaigns that push businesses to improve practices right away, even while working for government to pass legislation requiring the change. Rainforest Action Network campaigns get companies to protect forests and use clean energy. Safe Markets is a coalition of environmental and health groups that work to shift businesses away from hazardous chemicals and towards safer ones. Corporate Accountability International campaigns to pressure corporations on a range of issues, from selling tobacco to privatizing public water systems.
Too many modern corporations see their responsibility as limited to returning the highest possible profits to their shareholders. And too many of their customers feel like there is nothing they can do to influence corporate behavior except change how we shop. Both views are short-sighted. What we need are corporate leaders who will use their resources to seek solutions to the problems plaguing the planet, and citizens who will come together to not only condemn bad-actor companies but also recognize the ones who are doing the right thing while working together to change the rules so that the most sustainable and fairer options become the new business-as-usual.
Annie Leonard is the founder of the The Story of Stuff Project and the new executive director of Greenpeace USA. She has dedicated nearly two decades of her life to investigating and reporting on environmental health and justice issues. Her podcast, The Good Stuff, features interviews with inspiring activists, entrepreneurs, scientists and others who’ve succeeded in making change.