Communication for Sustainable Development

No Downturn for Corporate Sustainability Initiatives

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Now that the economic downturn is colliding with corporate sustainability initiatives, what's the result? Does going green remain a high priority or does it get back-burnered?

It's a question lots of people are asking. When I spoke with media representative Ashley Imsand to schedule an interview with Walmart, the first words out of her mouth were, "That's a popular topic these days." The next person I called was Gil Friend, president and CEO of Natural Logic, Inc., a business-and-sustainability consultancy. He responded similarly: "Whenever I talk with a journalist lately, that's their question."

So: we journalists have our eye on the ball, it seems. Only, we seem to be swinging and missing, for here's what Friend said next: "When I talk with business people about their sustainability initiatives, their attitude is, 'Let's get going!' We've never been busier."
Friend cites multiple reasons for the business community's continuing interest in going green. "Sometimes they want to reduce their energy costs. Sometimes they're concerned about mitigating carbon risk. Others are keen to pursue the business opportunities that are underscored by the new (Obama) administration's green commitment."

It's also the case, Friend notes, that crisis can inspire deep introspection about plans and priorities. "For some business executives, this is a time to do some fundamental re-thinking about what their value proposition really is—and this isn't necessarily a bad thing for corporate sustainability. It can lead to a strengthened commitment."

Not that it's full speed ahead on all corporate sustainability fronts. "Everyone is facing credit constraints," notes Friend, "and this could slow down capital investments. However, well-designed sustainability initiatives often have a really attractive return on investment, so this shouldn't be an insurmountable barrier."

Friend's view is corroborated elsewhere. Scot Case, executive director of the EcoLogo green labeling program, reports that he talks "with companies that are slicing their marketing budgets by 50-60% yet opting to seek eco-certification. The economic challenges are forcing them to choose between investing in advertising that people doubt and discount, or in proving that their claims are true and accurate. They're seeking legitimacy and believe eco-certification is the better investment."

Nicholas Eisenberger, managing principal of GreenOrder, also sees continuing robust interest in sustainability. In his view, there are two competing vectors. "On the one hand, organizations are going into survival mode. At the same time, there's another and bigger vector based on the realization that sustainability-related issues are precisely the ones we need to be addressing at this point in time. We need to reduce energy consumption and address the climate crisis, and we can create sustainable long-term economic growth by investing in green jobs, energy independence, and so on. This realization is in the air and being amplified by Obama. At some companies, this tension is being resolved by the twin strategy of becoming more eco-efficient while remaining committed to the larger transition."

Meanwhile those pesky journalists are coming to the same conclusion. Recent articles in and Fortune both come to the same conclusion: green isn't going away.

In the midst of all these positive assessments, it's important to remember that not every corporation is staying the course. The Fortune article cited a study by the trade association Business for Social Responsibility in which 43% of respondents said they expected corporate social responsibility budgets to go unchanged, while 31% predicted a decrease. That points to something less than boom times in the world of corporate sustainability.

On balance, though, the overall takeaway is the same. Corporate sustainability initiatives are proving to be surprisingly slump-resistant.
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