06/29/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Too Green to Fail : While Environmental Policy is Stuck in Neutral, the Voluntary Green Economy Shifts Into High Gear

Amid a weak economic recovery and a stalled environmental policy debate, there is at least one significant bright spot: the voluntary green economy. Sustainability certification regimes, green consumer and corporate behavior are growing rapidly and having positive impacts on the environment and the economy.

Copenhagen yielded only a three-page non-binding agreement aimed at relatively modest goals, and although China and India signed on to it last month, the UN climate treaty process is a long, long way from an effective bulwark against climate change. The recent alternative "World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth" in Bolivia demonstrated just how contentious key treaty issues remain, and how little faith there is in some circles that elite governments and institutions will make real progress. "The only way to get climate negotiations back on track," said Bolivia's ambassador to the UN, "is to put civil society back into the process. The only thing that can save mankind from a [climate] tragedy is the exercise of global democracy."

Meanwhile, in Washington the Senate climate change and energy bill which was supposed to have been introduced this week has fallen through, at least for now. Some are working to revive it, but at this point, it could well be another year before the UN or the US Congress are able to take effective action on climate change. Other national climate legislation plans have also been shelved until after the next elections, like France's carbon tax and Australia's emissions trading bill. Not surprisingly given the tough economy, there is no political consensus yet on big environmental policy initiatives, and there may not be while recovery remains weak.

But while environmental policy is languishing, the green economy is on the move. For years it has sustained surprisingly rapid growth in size and impacts, right through the recession, and beyond. I'd argue it is a significant snapshot of what "the exercise of global democracy" would look like on the economic and environmental front. It's a diverse, participatory phenomenon, driven by consumer demand, and by sustainably minded entrepreneurship of all kinds, from small farms and forest operations to global companies.

Instead of imposing bailouts on taxpayers because they're too big to fail, companies of all sizes that have embraced voluntary sustainability regimes earn customer loyalty by making themselves too green to fail. It's proven to be a smart strategy for managing risk by making their supply chains more secure, their operations more efficient and attractive to investors, and their bottom lines more robust.

Unlike elite environmental policy debates, the expansion of the green economy hasn't been derailed by recession or uncertain recovery. Even in the teeth the downturn, survey after survey show about a third of us are willing to pay more for green products and services, and that number is trending upward. One study found 34% of consumers were more likely buy environmentally responsible products in 2009, not less, while another 44% said their green buying habits hadn't changed.

Despite the financial crisis and lack of transparency on Wall Street, in the green economy an opposite trend toward "radical transparency" helped fuel continued growth of corporate investment in environment, health and safety (EHS) and in green product development in 2009. 83% of large companies surveyed said they would match or increase those EHS investment levels this year.

In my own organization, the Rainforest Alliance, we've seen comparable growth. The number of companies sourcing from sustainable farms or forests we certify grew 26% last year. Four out of the five world's largest tea companies are committed to sustainable sourcing with us, our certified coffee volume grew 41%, sales of certified cocoa grew 27%.

Construction in general tanked in 2009, but certified green building soared. For example, square footage certified under the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED program grew by an estimated 40 percent last year. Demand for Forest Stewardship Council-certified building materials rose; Staples, Marks & Spencer, Unilever, Century Furniture and others ramped up sourcing of FSC-certified goods; and we expanded our FSC certified forest acreage 18%.

These market gains translate into environmental and social gains. 1.2 million acres of farmland and 145 million acres of FSC forest are now under RA certified environmentally and socially sustainable production, protecting biodiversity, habitats, sustainable livelihoods and worker rights, plus another 2 million acres of independently validated and verified forest projects sequestering carbon, with many millions more in the pipeline.

And that's just one organization. Multiply those impacts by the millions of decentralized organizations working for sustainability and social justice that Paul Hawken describes in Blessed Unrest, the billions of people whose natural resource-dependent livelihoods can be put on a more sustainable footing, and billions of green consumers around the world, and it's apparent that the voluntary green economy is an important part of the global solution to the global problems of biodiversity loss, climate change, social and economic justice.

As Hawken argues, the voluntary, decentralized sustainability movement is largely ignored by politicians, but like natural systems, it is organizing itself powerfully from the bottom up. We still need and should work for a strong treaty, strong legislation and strong regulatory reform. But as those debates continue to play out slowly, the rapid gains of the green economy may be an encouraging sign of the times.