Top 10 Green Business Stories of 2011

12/22/2011 12:29 pm ET | Updated Feb 21, 2012

Yes, it's December again somehow: time to look back on what we've learned and oversimplify into a handy list. Here's my take on the 10 big stories in sustainability and green business this year:

1. The usual sustainability drivers got stronger
Ok, this one is cheating a bit, but on a fundamental level, the top themes in green business haven't actually changed too much (see the 2010 list). So, rather than take up valuable list real estate with these perennial favorites and big-picture drivers, I'll quickly list them in one big bucket of mega-trends:

  • The rise of the consumer around the world, related to...
  • China, China, and China. From relentless demand for resources to bamboo-like 9% growth to vicious competition for the technologies and industries of the future, China will be the big story for a long time.
  • The greening of the supply chain. Big organizations keep asking more of their suppliers.
  • Increased demand for transparency and its close partners, (a) the quest to define and develop useful sustainability metrics and (b) the growing sustainability data explosion.
  • The military continues to lead the way on energy and climate.
  • The ongoing failure of policy at a global level (with the important exceptions of some successes/workarounds such as new mileage targets for cars and trucks and a carbon tax in Australia).

These drivers underpin a number of stories from 2011, but a few new themes came out as well. Here's the rest of my top 10 stories, with callouts for companies and examples that typify the trend.

2. Malthus strikes back: Coca-Cola takes an $800 million hit on commodity costs
Coca-Cola was not alone in facing increasing costs in 2011; one of my clients, Kimberly-Clark, took an earnings hit from record pulp prices. These companies are notable victims of a new reality: resources are constrained and input prices are fundamentally rising.

For over 200 years, from Thomas Malthus to the Limits to Growth gang, many people have made the case that it won't be long before we'll run out of food, energy, materials, and on and on. It's an idea that has enthralled many, but has seemed to be wrong. But this year, something felt different as we hit 7 billion hungry, striving humans on the planet. While "running out" isn't really the right phrase, it's clear that delivering many commodities to market is getting harder and more expensive (we don't dig for oil a mile under the ocean for the heck of it). And the dangerous mix of supply crunch and rising demand is only increasing, across nearly all commodities.

In January, China "seized" its rare earth metals (meaning it wouldn't export them anymore). In June, the New York Times declared a warming world hostile to food production. The best analysis of the resource scarcity mega-trend came from asset manager Jeremy Grantham. His analysis of commodity availability on a finite planet is compelling, thorough, and absolutely fascinating. Here's the gist: after 100+ years of fundamentally declining resource prices, the data show a rising trend for nearly every input into our society. Business as usual is no more.

3. Climate Change Arrives: Texas weather triumphs over (some) ignorance
Climate change is here. The list of "once-in-a-century" storms, floods, and droughts this year is too long to list. I know, I know -- no single storm or season "proves" climate change. Was a year like 2011 possible in a world without climate change? Of course. But please. Was a year like 2011 likely? Not at all. In the words of climate scientist Jim Hansen, we've loaded the dice in favor of extreme weather events.

From Thailand to Pakistan to Texas, some areas are deluged with water, while others have absolutely none. Please look at the numbers for how dry and hot Texas was this summer (I'll wait). The data speaks for itself: Texas' heat was literally off the charts this year. What was once temporary drought is looking more like permanent change. For another angle on a changing "normal," read Jeff Goodell's piece in Rolling Stone on "Climate Change and the End of Australia." Finally, if the immediacy of the "look out the window" method of gauging climate change didn't work for some, at least one major climate skeptic changed his tune based on longer-term data. Richard Muller ran the models himself and discovered that, surprise, the thousands of scientists before him had gotten it right. It's probably wishful thinking, but I believe the climate debate is actually over (and a solid majority of Americans agree).

4. High-profile "failures" shake up clean tech: Solyndra has its day in the, um, sun
What can one say about the failure of solar company Solyndra? It certainly has become a media darling for clean tech skeptics. Soon after this quasi-fiasco, a few other stories seemed to indicate that corporate America was backing off of green tech. Google stopped its high-profile pursuit of cheaper-than-fossil-fuel renewables, and California utility PG&E quietly pulled the plug on its carbon offset program. In my view, none of this is all that distressing. So one technology and company failed miserably (and perhaps the government made a bad investment choice). And some initiatives didn't work out as planned. So what. Whether it's government money, venture capital, or corporate initiatives, you gotta place lots of bets to get some winners. These were all experiments, and you always learn from what doesn't work. But the real reason I'm not too worried is that...

5. ...clean tech is rising fast: Renewable investment tops fossil fuels for first time
Markets have a remarkable way of sorting the wheat from the chaff. While the overall carbon emissions news is not good, the renewable energy market is growing very fast. The sector is larger than most people realize, with clean tech investment hovering around $200 billion globally. Total investment in new power generation is a good indication of where we're headed, and for the first time renewables beat fossil fuels globally. Right now, the U.S. and China are entering a trade battle over solar subsidies, which tells me it's a real market now. They wouldn't be arguing if the prize were not very large.

5b. Nuclear on the outs

Following the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, the once-resurgent nuclear industry is flatlining: generation actually fell globally in 2011, with Germany alone shutting down 8 gigawatts' worth. In September, Siemens, one of the world's largest nuclear power plant suppliers, exited the business. CEO Peter Loscher declared Germany's plans to move aggressively toward renewables "the project of the century."

6. Water rising -- both literally and as a serious issue for business: Honda's supply chain gets slammed, Levi's gets creative
A list of floods that devastated lives, homes, and countries this year would be tragically long. So it's no wonder that business started to wake up to the serious danger that storms and shortages present to their operations, both from direct damage to property and from massive production interruptions (i.e., "business continuity"). Think back to the January floods in Australia which covered an area larger than France and Germany combined. The extreme weather seriously disrupted coal production, one of the most important economic engines in the country. At the microeconomic level, consider what Thailand's floods have done to the market for disk drives, or to supply chains for Honda and Toyota (which are dealing with a double flood hit from the tsunami as well).

On the use side of the water issue, companies with products that depend on water in production (beverages) or in use (shampoo, apparel) are also seeing the writing on the wall and getting creative. Levi's announced a low-water jeans production method, Unilever started asking customers to shorten showers, and beverage companies are working with farmers and NGOs to drive water use down throughout the value chain (see my last blog, co-written with Andy Wales from SABMiller). In 2011, the phrase "water footprint" became a lot more common.

7. Value chain and transparency partnerships growing: The apparel industry bands together
One of my favorite new partnerships is the new Sustainable Apparel Coalition, an impressive mix of powerful retailers, apparel manufacturers, and NGOs. The group is leveraging extensive data from Nike and the Outdoor Industry Association on supplier sustainability performance (energy, water, toxicity, etc.) for "every manufacturer, component, and process in apparel production." The goal: to reduce negative environmental and social impacts of the $1.4 trillion market for clothes and shoes.

The larger trend here is the continued growth of "open" -- open data and open innovation, including new value-chain business partnerships and cattle-call contests inviting in any and all ideas. The movement has been building for years, from P&G opening up its product development pipeline early in the 2000s to the launch of the GreenXchange for sharing green patents early in 2010. But the trend accelerated this year, with GE's expanded Ecomagination Challenge and other coalitions and open competitions.

8. Valuing and internalizing the externalities: Puma Calculates its Environmental P&L
A few very cutting edge companies are starting to ask some deeper questions about the value they create and destroy in the world. Puma, in a surprise leap to the front of the sustainability leadership pack, commissioned TruCost and PwC (full disclosure: I have a partnership with PwC) to assess the value of its total environmental impacts from operations and supply chain, including carbon pollution, water use, land use, and waste generated. The total: 145 million euros. In a similar vein, Dow Chemical launched a 5-year, $10 million partnership with The Nature Conservancy to "value nature" (so called "ecosystem services") as an input into their businesses. It's unclear what companies can do with these numbers since externalities are by their nature, well, external to the regular P&L. But it's the beginning of something very important -- companies are starting to understand the real value and costs of their businesses, to themselves and to society. Watch this space.

9. The people speak: Keystone and OWS
Speaking of getting companies and governments to think longer term about value and costs to society: against all odds and expectation, the protests against the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada -- led most prominently by uber-environmentalist Bill McKibben -- were successful (for now). And what can one say about Occupy Wall Street? The movement is, in part, about this larger question of value and values. Do we value the right things (equity, fairness, justice) or just promote growth and profit above all? Currently, our businesses are driven entirely by quarterly profits. Pursuing the short-term payback can cause a firm to deviate wildly from actual, long-term, sustainable profitability. This disconnect was bound to stir some passions eventually. Whatever your politics, ignoring or dismissing this movement is a big mistake. The concerns underpinning the anger out there stem from concern about what's good for the long-term, and what's truly sustainable. None of these questions are going away.

10. A path to sustainable consumption begins to emerge: Patagonia asks us to buy only what we need
Perhaps the most heartening business story of the year came from perennial thought (and action) leader, Patagonia. Its Common Threads campaign/business model questions consumption at its core. The company announced that it would take back its clothing and refurbish, resell, reuse, re-whatever. The website proposes a grand bargain - we make clothes that last, and you don't buy what you don't need. A holiday ad got more specific and demanded we "Don't buy this jacket." Patagonia is testing new ground and it's not a gimmick -- it's a sign of the future.

Looking Forward to 2012 and beyond: New business models coming
Patagonia has always been at the leading edge; it was one of first companies to buy organic cotton or to turn recycled plastic into fleece. Now it's showing the way to new business models. I've written about this kind of heresy before, but the few examples out there are generally B-to-B (Waste Management, Xerox). Patagonia's move is a warning shot over the bow that the consumer-facing consumption question is coming. The near future will hold more questions about how businesses can and should operate in a resource-constrained, hotter, drier (or wetter) world. And companies will increasingly question the wisdom of focusing on quarterly profits. It won't all come to fruition in 2012, but it's on its way.

As usual, I'm sure I'm missing many great stories in my list. I look forward to your suggestions. Happy holidays and Happy New Year!

(This post first appeared at Harvard Business Online.)