The State of Green Business 2011

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Today, we publish our fourth State of Green Business report,‘s annual effort to take the pulse of what and how the world of sustainable business is doing.

It’s an interesting time to take this accounting, to say the least. In society, environmental issues seem to have faded from view, at least in the U.S., thanks in large part to the recession. “Saving the earth” has taken a back seat to simply saving the day. The politics of the moment seem to have made clean air, clean water, biodiversity, and planetary survival a controversial thing — something we can afford only in “good times.” Consumers continue to sit largely on the sidelines, taking small (but, for them, meaningful) actions, like recycling, employing reusable shopping bags, and buying energy-efficient products.

And climate change, that inconvenient truth, has conveniently faded from view as an issue of national import.

It’s a different story in the business world. In fact, it’s hard to find a big company these days that isn’t engaged in environmental issues in a meaningful way. Indeed, a dramatic shift is occurring in business: Companies are thinking bigger and longer term about sustainability — a sea change from their otherwise notoriously incremental, short-term mindset. And even during these challenging economic times, many have doubled down on their sustainability activities and commitments.

Exactly how and why is the story we tell in the State of Green Business 2011, a free downloadable report. As in the past, we identify ten key trends and measure the greening of the U.S. economy through 20 indicators, from carbon intensity to cleantech investing to corporate reporting.

The verdict? As always, it’s mixed. Of the 20 indicators, 7 were found to be “swimming” — that is, making progress; 2 are deemed “sinking” — losing ground; and the other 11 are “treading” — just hanging on.

The bigger picture, though, is more positive. From the introduction:

During 2010, we saw a steady march of progress, with some of the world’s biggest companies and brands putting a stake in the ground in the name of environmental (and sometimes social) sustainability. Some are companies that hadn’t previously been visible in these ways. Others, it turned out, had been quietly taking action, walking more than talking, only recently discovering that modesty is no longer an asset in a world that increasingly demands transparency. Still others have only recently elevated sustainability to a level of importance, hiring their first senior executives to oversee and coordinate sustainability commitments and goals.

Some of the areas we found encouraging were energy efficiency (it now takes less than half the energy to produce a dollar of GDP than in 1970); green office space (the square footage of commercial green buildings continues to grow, a bright spot in an otherwise dismal real estate market); packaging intensity (the amount of packaging needed to produce a dollar of GDP has declined steadily since we began measuring it five years ago); and paper (every year, we use less paper per dollar of GDP and recycle more of it, nearing the point where all the paper that can reasonably be recycled is being collected).

But it’s not all good news. Electronic waste recycling continues to grow, but so does the amount of e-waste coming into the waste stream); carbon intensity (the amount of energy-related greenhouse gases produced per dollar of GDP went up last year after dropping steadily); organic agriculture (it’s growing, but still represents less than 1 percent of all U.S. cropland). On many of our indicators there was only a hint of progress, far too little to make a difference.

As always, a mixed bag. That’s the way of the green business world.

What’s encouraging about this year’s report is the momentum we see, embodied in the stories my colleagues at bring every business day. While not every story is earth-shattering, the corporate commitments and achievements continue to grow every year in both size and scope. During 2010, for example, we saw major corporate commitments from Procter & Gamble and Unilever; major commitments to buy electric vehicles by GE and other companies; a new wave of water footprint assessments by several large companies; zero-waste accomplishments by GM, Kraft, and others; a new generation of green chemistry coming from Dow, BASF, and others; plant-based plastics being used by several major consumer packaged goods companies.

I could go on (and on). These aren’t stories you would have seen two or three years ago, and that’s the point. The state of green business is moving forward — sometimes way too slowly, but there’s progress at every turn.

That’s our story. Please read the report and let me know if you agree.

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