Two Tipping Points to Sustainability (and other Takeaways from the 2012 NAEM Forum)

Adapted from a post that originally appeared on the Fleishman-Hillard CSR & Sustainability practice group blog.

Some phrases take on a momentum all their own. Such was the case at NAEM’s recent 20th annual Forum, as Deputy Director Virginia Hoekenga introduced Paul Hawken, eco-visionary and best-selling author of “Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution.”

“His book changed my life,” she said.

It’s a sentiment I can well appreciate, having emerged from the Forum with a new perspective – at least with regard to two conditions that are necessary for reaching the “sustainability tipping point” that MIT-Sloan Management Review claims we are now approaching.

The first is a sense of complicity. While the conference offered keen insights on what corporations, governments and non-governmental organizations can do, and are doing, to promote a more sustainable future, the fate of our planet is – to paraphrase The Rolling Stones – after all, up to you and me.

Until we as individuals resolve to waste less, recycle more and make and demand greener choices, a tipping point in the right direction is likely to remain elusive. According to a study cited during a session on green marketing, 95 percent of consumers entering grocery stores said they would consider buying “green” products. Only 22 percent actually did.

In a session on life cycle analysis, we were told that nearly one-third of mankind’s global carbon footprint results from food production. Yet about that same percentage of household food purchases end up in the garbage. Add to that the fact that residential recycling rates remain stubbornly modest, and hybrid vehicle sales make up only three percent of the automotive marketplace, and it’s easy to see a lot of low-hanging fruit still on our own vines.

Sure, inadequate infrastructure, artificially high pricing, partisan politics and market confusion create barriers. But it will take individual accountability, not just corporate responsibility, to get us over the hump.

A second condition that would accelerate our journey toward sustainability is greater savings for greener choices. According to the 2012 GfK Roper Green Gauge Report, consumers’ overall willingness to pay more for greener goods has declined in recent years. But depending on the product category, 40 to 60 percent are still willing to do so. This is what researchers and marketers call the “green premium”. It’s related to the common refrain among green marketers that “all things being equal” (i.e., price and performance), more people are apt to buy greener products.

What? A green premium? All things being equal? How about a green discount? What about lower prices for environmentally preferable products and services? If driving carbon, risk, materials and waste from the value chain is truly worth something, why not let that be reflected in the asking price?

Of course, not all greener choices command a premium, but many do. And yes, some green products or services cost more to bring to market, but others cost less. Or would, if the economies of scale were there.

I’m not suggesting that companies subsidize greener products. But charging more for these choices simply because under certain conditions they can, may be short-sighted. Wouldn’t it be better to build brands, increase sales and ultimately create healthier, more sustainable bottom lines by sharing the value of greener products with the people who purchase them?

In reflecting upon my experience at the 2012 EHS Management Forum, I’m a more discerning and informed person for having attended. I have a better understanding of how nongovernmental organizations help companies with limited resources engage with stakeholders around the world; how EHS skills transfer to the broader discipline of sustainability/CSR; and how a coating used in toilets can be applied on buildings to proactively remove nitrogen oxide from the air.

If we are what we think, then the conference did indeed change my life.

About Robert Axelrod

Robert Axelrod is a Vice President at Fleishman-Hillard, specializing in external sustainability reporting and corporate social responsibility communications.

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