07/25/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Lessons Learned and Leading Change

Ten years ago, we didn't think it was possible to have standards around human rights. There was no regulation, little leadership, a lack of conviction that human rights was an issue people cared about. But the activists cared -- enough to make human rights violations the stuff of magazine covers and consumer boycotts. In response to the pressure -- and in the absence of set standards -- business set the standards for themselves. The result was a proliferation of codes of conduct, tons of redundant factory auditing -- companies complying with their own set of rules, but still no global standard or meaningful impact.

Over time, the field got more sophisticated; competitors collaborated, industry standards were created, resources were pooled... factories and brands and workers and activists began to problem solve together. Ten years later, the process "works."

What if we were to apply the same organic formula that worked to address human rights issues to environmental issues? Could we imagine the same progress?

We all wish there was one set of standards and consistent tactics to address climate change -- and indeed, there are plenty of great minds thinking about how to create it. But when you consider the fact that even among 50 states in the US there's no common approach to environmental regulation and action, how on earth do we expect to create one globally? In the absence of consensus and clarity, someone needs to start leading. Business knows how.

We can learn a lot from the human rights case history. We know active engagement is important: if we were brave enough to ask factory owners for a conversation about working hours or wages, we should certainly be able to manage a similar conversation about waste water and chemical use. We know collaboration is key: bringing together activists, factory owners and brands under the umbrella of common interest and with intent of creating the greatest pool of knowledge, skills and expertise yields the most potent and sustainable outcomes. Consider the progress being made by the Leather Working Group, a cross-brand collaboration aimed at improving the environmental performance of leather tanneries. Working together, the Group has managed to streamline the tannery assessment process, resulting in less audit fatigue and less confusion for factories about what environmental standards they're being held accountable for. Greater clarity leads to better performance, which leads to greater environmental "wins" for the entire industry. Absent any rules, we can write our own; absent any teams, we can make our own ... and absent any standards, we can and will measure against our own.

Thoughtful approaches to global warming matter, consensus-building efforts matter, forums like COP15 matter. Global standards would make the work of tackling environmental issues easier to understand, if not easier to implement. But we can't wait -- it took us 10 years to get the process to work for addressing human rights; we don't have the luxury of another 10 years of trial and error to solve the climate crisis. The need is urgent, the tools and knowledge exist... it's time for industry to seize the initiative to lead.