Tomorrow is “recycling day” for my family. This is our shorthand for making sure that I put our overflowing recycling container at the curb every other week. It makes me feel good to do my part to keep plastic out of the ocean and save trees from being turned into ever more cardboard boxes for my deliveries. But it’s still challenging to figure out what exactly to put in that container. How much of a difference do my actions really make to sustain the natural resources on our planet?
The challenge of environmental sustainability is to make it directly relevant to our daily lives. Collectively, we increasingly realize that our behavior as consumers and individuals has consequences for the planet we call home. But it remains hard to understand and appreciate the impact of our individual behavior. How does my hot shower have anything to do with shrinking ice caps in Greenland? (One answer: Heating your shower — and other home energy use for water — accounts for 5-7% of all greenhouse gas emissions.) We are drawn to simple explanations that show how our actions impact the world we inhabit. Humans want instant gratification: Show me how my actions make a visible difference!
To avoid a “tragedy of the commons,” companies are taking a leading role on sustainability. Some may see that as opportunistic. The reality is that there is a direct economic benefit for leading the charge. The most inspiring reason for companies to lead is economic opportunity. One factor is risk and cost avoidance. Increasing scarcity of natural resources will make them more expensive if there is no good plan to replenish them. Severe droughts, for example, put loans to farmers at risk. Elsewhere, flood insurance policies become more costly. And increasing government regulation will impact the bottom line – the UK Producer Responsibility Obligations Regulations, as one example, requires businesses to track and recover their products and packaging.
Conventional wisdom has been that to do good for the environment means that we need to give up on conveniences in life that we have gotten used to. But that might not be true – innovation can show us another way. Does washing in cold water really clean my clothes? Tide seems to think so. Can electric cars really be fun to drive? Tesla has proven that point to their investors. Can urban farms like 80 Acres Farms really produce great produce at scale using 97% less water? Just taste for yourself next time you shop at Kroger.
The sustainability challenge also is a catalyst for new business models. TerraCycle, led by CEO Tom Szaky, started in 2001 to transform food waste into quality fertilizer. It has now grown into a 21-country operation with $27 million revenue, focused on eliminating waste. Their efforts go beyond recycling, as a catalyst for a “circular economy” where products and packaging are designed for reuse.
Ambitious sustainability goals can bring together unique business collaborations. The 50L Home Coalition, which includes organizations such as P&G, Kohler and the WEF, is specifically set up to address water shortage, one of the most pressing sustainability issues around the world. With increasing urbanization and more erratic weather patterns it is expected that over 25% of the world’s population will live in water-stressed areas by 2025. It is not just limited to cities in developing countries, such as Cape Town, South Africa, or Chennai, India. Just two weeks ago Salt Lake City in the US already declared a water shortage advisory for this spring and summer because spring water runoff is about 50% below normal, and California is facing another record year of drought . The 50L business coalition wants to work toward a goal that households would need no more than 50 liters of water per day. This requires not only substantive innovation in how we use water, but especially education that drives people to change their behavior.
The actions needed to make our world more sustainable are not complicated. What is complicated is that it requires individual motivation and actions to make it happen. We need to adopt a mindset that, using our collective ingenuity, it is possible to enjoy and improve our individual lives while taking care of our planet, for us and future generations. After all, it’s our home – the only one we have.
Stan Joosten & John Battelle,
Co-Editors-In-Chief, Signal360 / Co-founders, Signal P&G