Monday, June 18, 2012

Environmental Sustainability Programs: Is It Too Soon For Businesses To Go All In?

Guest post from Linda Zabriske

In the world of business, the new power word is “sustainability.” Manufacturers are looking for ways to use fewer toxins and more recycled products. Business schools are teaching sustainability practices in their masters programs. Service businesses are searching for low-energy servers and digital replacements for their paper. Stores are seeking more green labeled products and a greater dependence on the environmentally-minded consumer.

It comes as no surprise that many customers are starting to wonder what the real motives behind all this sustainability really are. After all, for-profit businesses are driven to create strategies to make money or improve their image. Other, more socially friendly tactics, tend to get left by the wayside. This leads to companies engaging in greenwashing, or simply pasting environmental-sounding logos onto their products without changing the product or process itself.

This has as Inc Magazine recently pointed out, led to a backlash among both analysts and consumers. Now people are eyeing, not marketing efforts, but the core practices of a business. Shrewder examinations are getting down to the nuts and bolts of sustainability, looking for long-lasting green programs showing real results. This has some corporations worrying about their initiatives...and if perhaps they jumped on the sustainable bandwagon a little too soon.

Too Much Too Soon

There is a case to be made for slowing down on sustainability programs among companies. For one thing, many companies choose sustainable practices because of subsidies, tax breaks, or regulations made by government organizations. Unfortunately, in both the United States and Europe, governmental policy is frequently influenced by popular opinion and current research. This means that in a few years subsidies and regulations could be changed or updated, rendering worthless all that cash the business dumped into sustainability.

The companies that are doing sustainability right begin with serious, independent research, high-cost consultations, and eco-efficiency analysis. They hire new managers devoted to greening up the place. They put aside a hefty amount of their budget to study the effects of the programs and make changes. These steps are, beyond most small or middle-sized businesses. For companies that can’t afford it, sitting back and waiting for better research may be a more attractive idea.

The Argument for Early Adoption

On the other hand, there are some powerful motivators for adopting sustainable practices sooner rather than later. For one thing, the core promise of eco-efficiency is cost savings. Low energy bulbs and cooling systems, for example, are designed to save money on running office buildings and are a win-win for most businesses. If a company does the green thing right, it should save money and even make money in the long-term.

On a deeper level, jumping on board with sustainable practices could be a way of jump starting business innovation. As the Harvard Business Review pointed out, sustainable development is one of the largest sources of new inventions, processes, and viewpoints in major corporations.  The constant tensions between government, business, and environmental organization have created some surprising synergies, not to mention the ability to make profit in entirely new technological fields. For a farsighted business looking for that special boost into prominence, sustainability may be just what Mother Earth ordered.

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