Delving Deeper and Deeper Into Sustainability Dimensions

Posted: September 30, 2009 by
Wendy Jedlicka

While companies in the U.S. wring their hands about whether or not to get into this "green-y thing," fuel prices continue to climb ever higher. Companies in the major U.S. trading markets around the world (where fuel prices have long been way over $5 per gallon), however, are already enjoying technology and efficiency advances they've made over the years and are looking to widen the advantage gap even further.

On June 9, 2008, Mindy Lubber, president of Ceres, delivered the keynote address at a special session of the United Nations General Assembly for a program on "Global Private Investments and Climate Change." Ceres, pronounced "series," stands for the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies. For companies whose world stops at the walls of a box, this UN event would have gone totally unnoticed. But for forward thinking Ceres member companies like Aveda, Clif Bar, Seventh Generation, as well as corporate giants like Coca-Cola, Dell, and General Mills, Ms. Lubber's address to the UN was another event underscoring how well Ceres members understand the issues. They know that for their efforts to have any real impact, the whole of their business needs to be as clean and green as the thing the consumer sees.

Responsible energy use

For our regular readers of the Sustainable Packaging Update column, you'll already know that you can make a box from as eco materials as you can find, and that's fine. But to create a truly innovative solution, you can't treat packaging as just a thing. The package must be addressed as a system; otherwise, you've really not done much at all. For all efforts, better addressing the system means better understanding —and better using—energy.

In the UN speech, Lubber reported: "Global clean energy investments quadrupled in the past four years, to $150 billion in 2007. Toyota is growing at breakneck speed because it saw that consumers wanted hybrids and other fuel-efficient vehicles. U.S. automakers ignored climate change [and the energy issues tied up with it], and now their large sport utility vehicles are sitting unused in car lots and their very survival is at stake. "

No wonder one of America's leading venture capitalists, John Doerr, calls clean energy and other climate change solutions "the biggest economic opportunity of the 21st century."

Using the lessons from the car industry, how much longer can companies afford to do the same old thing before some (more nimble) upstart makes a play for their market share? It's not a mater of if it might happen—but when. For all industry sectors, taking advantage of opportunities found in the drive to move to a more sustainable market, from materials to the energy used in their systems, means those first to the low-hanging fruit will be better positioned once the pickings become quite a bit harder to get at.

Cone LLC (, a strategy and communications agency, in their 2007 Cause Evolution and Environmental Survey, found that of their respondents:

• 93% believe companies have a responsibility to help preserve the environment.
• 91% have a more positive image of a company when it is environmentally responsible.
• 85% would consider switching to another company's products or services because of a company's negative corporate responsibility practices.

Looking well ahead

How has your company begun to translate these ideas into your product? As we've pointed out in this column many times, one of the fears growing louder within industry in the U.S. is that if the industry does not adopt sustainable business practices soon, those same practices will be legislated into action anyway—and not in an advantageous way. The farsighted have recognized this and are working to stay ahead of this curve to be best positioned when the inevitable comes.

Given the upfront costs of some improvements, it would be fairly easy to dismiss sustainability efforts as only the luxury of production giants. Looking further at the list of Ceres members though, it becomes clear that to those who control investments and manage risk (banks and insurance companies), understanding and getting in front of sustainability issues—and learning how to profit by them—is part of the new paradigm. When being scrutinized for capital investment, looking at the sustainability efforts of businesses of all sizes across the whole of their operations will be a normal part of assessing a company's value and worthiness for investment.

Of course, Green/Eco/Sustainable is not a magic wand that guarantees success. Perfectly "good" companies are subject to the same economic volatilities and realities of human fallibility as "bad" ones. But there is a rule of thumb becoming more commonly used each day: Transparent and open reporting of environmental efforts indicates a well-managed company. Companies with vague, unverified, or missing environmental efforts disclosures are probably hiding other things too, and so might not be considered a good investment risk. Company value plus sustainable design and business practices are intertwined. A green box cannot be produced by a brown company and truly be considered green.

Today designers everywhere are charged with "going green." But lacking basic support as part of a company's core ethic, designers don't always know what that is supposed to mean. Really green? Green "enough"? Greenwashed? As things slowly begin to shake out on the client side, vendors who take part in environmental reporting efforts (a requirement of Ceres membership), as well as those who actively seek third party certifications as they become available (FSC or Green Seal, for example), are providing customers the "easy button" they crave. Taking it a step further, creative service firms with core eco-ethics are helping to build better clients by being willing to take conversations out of the box and on down the supply chain—helping move the whole of the effort in a more positive direction.

The Sustainability Update is coordinated by Wendy Jedlicka, CPP – Jedlicka Design Ltd. (, o2 Global Sustainable Design Network ( and, Minneapolis College of Art and Design's groundbreaking Sustainable Design Certificate Program (