Thank goodness for the "State of Green Business Forum," the annual roll-out of Greenbiz.com's State of Green Business Report. Unlike the plethora of studies and conferences on how well green business is faring, the "SOGB" is one of the only report cards on how green business practices collectively are actually affecting the environment. Unfortunately, the air, water and soil upon which all commerce (and human beings) depend, are not doing so well, even if the green economy is. As Joel Makower, the Forum's host and one of the report's lead author's put it, "If we're not moving the needle, then does all this work matter?"
Indeed, it does, and Makower walked the audience through some of the key findings. Thanks to the report's "Greenbiz Index," twenty indicators that include carbon intensity, water intensity, green power use, and toxic releases per unit of GDP, the report's conclusion is: It is a mixed bag.
On the plus side, sustainability efforts did not going away in the shrinking economy of 2009 -- quite the opposite. Companies are finding that reducing waste saves them heaps of money, so it makes good business sense, not just good marketing (duh). The recession gave a boost to practices like energy efficiency and fleet purchases of alternative-powered cars, taxis and trucks in the quest to cut expenses, and a new generation of packaging materials and methods brought big changes in this arena.
One of the biggest success stories in 2009 was the leap in green building, from materials to design. "Green IT" was also a big theme, with IT companies working on greening the collective 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions they cause, and figuring out how information technologies and services can help the other 98% of society green up as well.
On the downside, even though CO2 emissions in the US actually fell a bit, the drop was not nearly fast enough, it was probably from a relatively cool summer (less air con use) and the recession, and not from structural change. The emissions of higher intensity greenhouse gases (those that are less abundant than CO2 but heat the planet more), rose. Bad news indeed, and something to pay close attention to lest we get blinded by focusing almost exclusively on what to do about carbon dioxide. Van Jones put it well: "People get fined if they dump a cigarette butt on the street, but not for putting tons of warming pollution into the air."
Consumption was another prominent theme, with the head of sustainability at SAP saying that we are approaching "the end of consumerism." A shock to all shopaholics, except for the fact that he followed with the comforting notion that people will increasingly purchase services, rather than things. We'll lease cars, and for the things we do buy, hopefully there will be resurgence in customer demand for durability, not cell phones and laptops that die with increasing frequency.
Makower summed up the results about the same way he did last year. "More companies are doing more things, but they are moving the needle of environmental progress only slightly, if at all."
With climate change, disease-inducing air quality, species and habitat loss, toxics releases, and water quality and quantity shortages, the State of Green Business Report helps determine whether we are only tinkering at the edges of our environmental problems, or if the increase in green business activity will create the massive and fast transformation that we need. Fortunately, this annual report will help us track the race.
Holly Kaufman is CEO of Environment & Enterprise Strategies, an advisory firm that assists clients in integrating environmental and business objectives. She was a presidential appointee working on climate change and national security issues in the Clinton administration.