Perspectives on greener product development and manufacturing from Sustainable Minds, our partners, customers and contributors.

Sustainability signs are promising

By Sandy Skees on July 26, 2010

These days, the talk of a double dip recession and the lagging job market could obscure several positive indicators that provide good evidence that a significant and lasting change is underway.

Pay attention to the more important transformation that is affecting product development, business formation, job creation and the very way we live and work. In any number of areas, you’ll find upbeat indicators where you might expect to find a downbeat story:

Social Capital
A month after the Sustainable Brands 2010 conference in Monterey, CA, it's worth noting that many of the presenting and attending companies are truly integrating social impact into their sustainability efforts. 

For example, environment and ‘green’ issues, which have dominated sustainability discussions in the past, have given way to more practical explorations of new strategy, measurement, metrics and marketing initiatives. This has moved social programs from the periphery to the core.

According to Jason Saul of Mission Measurement, the scale of impact and benefit to business is exponentially greater when social change is connected to the engine of the company -- driving product development and market expansion -- rather than being relegated to the ‘fumes’ of the business -- located in philanthropy or community relations only.

Takeaway: The true integration of environmental and social impacts alongside financials has found its footing and will forever change the face of business.

Green Consumers
The Green Brands Study – a fifth annual study by Cohn & Wolfe, Esty Environmental Partners, Landor, and Penn, Schoen & Berland – polled almost 10,000 consumers in eight countries regarding attitudes about the environmental and social initiatives of over 350 brands.

In spite of the economic challenges dominating the news and peoples' live, the study concludes that overall, concern for the environment is up 3.5%. It is interesting to note that respondents is China and Brazil selected the environment as a greater concern than the economy by a significant margin when compared to the US (70 versus 30%). When the effects of pollution and environmental degradation are experienced at close hand -- as air quality and rain forest issues are in China and Brazil -- the local citizens are far more concerned.

Takeaway: What the study showed is that consumers are still looking to change their purchasing behaviors and use their wallets to support companies whose products and initiatives have proven to result in positive environmental impact. This tendency is more pronounced in markets outside the US.

Renewable Energy
Despite experiencing a 7% drop in global investments in 2009, renewable energy surpassed fossil fuels in creating power capacity in the U.S. and Europe for the second straight year, according to two reports released in July by the United Nations.

Renewable energy in 2009 accounted for more than half of new electricity capacity in the U.S. and about 60% in Europe, the U.N. reported. The devastation in the Gulf caused by the BP Deep Horizon disaster is playing a role also, as a growing number of celebrities, organizations and average citizens see the results of oil dependency being played out in fragile wetlands and local economies.

Takeaway: Early stage companies and established players who are tackling energy creation will benefit from the growing support for a transition away from fossil fuels.

Sustainability Industry
MIT Sloan's Quarterly Management Review's recent report on sustainability indicated that "many corporations view sustainability as a strategic opportunity and are pursuing it as an operational excellence.... Although other initiatives tend to pivot about a particular function such as purchasing, IT or operations, sustainability applies to every role and every action of the enterprise. It therefore requires widespread operational as well as cultural changes."

Recent studies (and those scheduled to be released within the next few weeks) from the sustainability analyst firm Verndantix, demonstrate the reality of a growing nascent industry. A case in point is the rapid growth of sustainability software solutions.

According to David Metcalfe, director, "A new era of sustainable business software has arrived, driven by a boom in supply side activity which anticipates the increasingly strategic nature of sustainability. But our analysis suggests that software providers in this space must cross the chasm. During the next 18 months suppliers need to expand their customer base from visionary buyers like News Corp. and Tesco to early majority buyers."

Takeaway: A new industry is forming and the opportunity for companies to provide services, products and solutions to facilitate the integration MIT Sloan calls for, is wide open.   While the renewable energy sector might be getting all the media buzz, don't miss the broader market here.

Work (r)evolution
According to Small Business Labs, the way we work is profoundly changing. Enabled by the Internet and low-cost information technology, the number of personal businesses (one-employee businesses) has grown twice as fast as the overall economy over the last decade, and exceeds 22 million. They predict that, with the unemployment rate remaining high and traditional employment options limited, 2010 will be another year of strong growth in the number of personal businesses. 

Takeaway: More and more of us will be working for ourselves with others in distributed and ad hoc teams. Business models will be developed to leverage the mobility and flexibility required by this new work force.

So what does this all mean? Can we synthesize these indicators into an overall look for the next 12 months? The future, in spite of the massive changes underway, is full of pockets of real growth and opportunity. Pick one and invent something!