09 November 2009

The green wave breaks

When you look up from the individual grains of sand -- LEED certification, carbon offsets, Energy Star, recycling -- and you really see the wide beach, you can't help but notice the tide of changing attitudes coming in at last.

I remember when the only environmental issues in retail were those forced on business by activist groups such as PETA and the Rainforest Action Network. Ten years ago, the most controversial environmental issue in home improvement was sustainable forestry, and when Home Depot decided to source products made from certified wood, it was big news -- but retailers had to be harangued into it.

What a difference a recession makes. Businesses are looking for ways to cut costs, and suddenly everyone wants to save the planet, one utility bill at a time. Consumers are looking for ways to save, too, and when a green product offers that, it sells.

But deep in our hindbrains, a couple generations brought up in this post-Silent-Spring culture are not unwilling to look for other reasons to embrace eco-friendly products, now that they cost as much as traditional equivalents. The Lorax has made us more receptive to the idea of being more planet-friendly, and we feel good about our newfound acceptance of green practices and products. A number of research reports say consumers prefer green window cleaners, recycled carpet, and green bug spray -- products that don't save money on electric bills -- so long as they don't cost more at check-out.

And that evolving acceptance has wider ramifications. Take a look at a random sample of news out last week:
  • Information Management Online analyzed the agreement between the U.S. government and Wal-mart to both "start tracking the sustainability profile of their suppliers as well as their products and services." That's $800 billion in products that will now be scrutinized for environmental impact.
  • The Financial Times takes a look at ethical investing in retail and concludes, "What started out in 1984 as a quixotic experiment has now turned into a big business, as investors not only intensify their scrutiny of corporate practice, but step forward to exercise their voice and shape corporate behaviour."
  • Crain's Detroit Business reports on research revealing "80 percent of businesses have taken steps toward sustainability" in southeast Michigan. And if I may be so bold, as goes southeast Michigan, so goes the nation.
  • A commercial real estate company is bragging that its sustainability efforts are equivalent to planting 9 million trees or taking 4,500 cars off the road. For 108 properties, "the estimated total investment to optimize sustainability performance in these properties is about $59 million. Resulting annual savings from the investment will be about $19 million."
The sea change here is that alternative has become mainstream, that yesterday's Greenpeace activists are today's corporate sustainability officers and LEED accredited professionals. Tomorrow, the world.

Photo: green tide by Adamwithoutanyhands, used under a Creative Commons license.

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