One of my favourite writers on environmental themes, particularly with his book Collapse, is Jared Diamond. He has an interesting Op-Ed in today’s New York Times, on the question whether big business can save the Earth? “There is a widespread view, he begins, “particularly among environmentalists and liberals, that big businesses are environmentally destructive, greedy, evil and driven by short-term profits. I know – because I used to share that view.”
But, having worked on the boards of WWF and Conservation International, he says, “I’ve … worked with executives of mining, retail, logging and financial services companies. In the process, I’ve discovered that while some businesses are indeed as destructive as many suspect, others are among the world’s strongest positive forces for environmental sustainability.”
He continues: The embrace of environmental concerns by chief executives accelerated recently for several reasons. “Lower consumption of environmental resources saves money in the short run. Maintaining sustainable resource levels and not polluting saves money in the long run. And a clean image – one attained by, say, avoiding oil spills and other environmental disasters – reduces criticism from employees, consumers and government.
Interestingly, though, I got an email earlier today from Steve Brant in New York, welcoming the piece but noting that Diamond had failed to celebrate the work of the catalytic organisations that help companies get onto the beyond compliance track – among them BSR, WBCSD and – it struck me – SustainAbility.
It also struck me that as leading companies continue to push the boundaries, the work of such catalytic, intermediary organisations will not only grow, but also mutate and evolve furiously. Finally, it struck me that – as SustainAbility heads towards its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2012 – I should take another a look at the work and agendas of what we called the ‘Green Keiretsus’ in an article in Tomorrow magazine way back in the 1990s.
Left to their own devices, companies – particularly from the BRIC nations – cannot be relied on to do all of this on their own. They also will need activist pressure, media scrutiny, government regulation and incentives, business-to-business pressures and the mutual support provided by organisations like BSR, WBCSD and, in different ways, by organisations like SustainAbility.