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The Next Economy
The 2014 Corporate Sustainability Awards:
5 Companies That Bravely and Brilliantly Led the Pack

2014 was a year of stunning statistics and some moments of brilliance from a few brands. Unfortunately, most of the numbers were of the gloom and doom variety: warmest year, worst drought, worsening economic inequality — not to mention Ebola, war, and a looming sixth Great Extinction. Was the business community’s response proportionate to the scale of the problems that were revealed? What actions stand out? I have five, admittedly subjective, awards to give out.

If you’re an avid reader (or browser) of corporate sustainability reports, you’ll know that most companies introduce their initiatives by citing various global challenges such as increasing population, water scarcity and climate change, as motivating their work. So, it’s a fair question: Were corporate sustainability program successes equal to these demands?

Unfortunately, taken as a whole, the corporate response wasn’t aggressive enough, brilliant enough or visionary enough. The gulf between the scale of the challenges and the level of response is too vast, with too many companies still citing modest, multi-year reductions in emissions or water use as the sum total of their sustainability goals.

But there were some shining exceptions:

1. My Purpose-Above-Profit Award goes to CVS Caremark. The revolution is brought to you by your local drugstore! CVS made the decision to stop selling cigarettes and other tobacco products at its stores, despite anticipating a loss of approximately $2 billion in annual revenue from the move. Complementing this announcement, the company is now investing more than $1 million to help people stop smoking. Cigarettes are terrible for consumers’ health and pocketbooks. CVS provides health products and services. Ergo, the decision not to sell tobacco products makes sense in an absolutely fundamental way. Consumers aren’t going to spearhead a change to conscious consumption all by themselves. We need more CVS-like moves from other retailers.

2. The Innovation Award goes to Timberland, standing in for innovators everywhere. Kudos to every company that is increasing its investment in innovation and to every designer or engineer who contributes to creative solutions. Whether it’s an incremental improvement or a fantastic leap forward, we’re winning the future through your work. I’m acknowledging by name just one of thousands of innovations this past year — Timberland’s decision to collaborate with tire company Omni United to develop a line of tires designed to be recycled into footwear soles at the end of the tires’ useful life, planning for the circular economy at the product design stage.

3. The Sharing Award goes to Tesla. Innovations are their most powerful when they lift an entire category of products. Tesla founder Elon Musk acknowledged this by agreeing to share his intellectual property — the blueprints for building his industry-leading electric cars - with the global automotive industry. Knowing that electric cars must be produced at scale to compete against the 100 million fossil-fuel vehicles manufactured annually across the globe, open-sourcing Tesla’s knowledge makes good business sense, too.

4. The “Who Says Sustainability Can’t Be Fun” Award is for Levi’s. It certainly got everyone’s attention when Levi’s CEO Chip Bergh stood up at a sustainability conference and announced that he hadn’t yet washed his year-old jeans. Furthermore, he was encouraging others to join the no-wash or low-wash movement. With a significant portion of the greenhouse gas emissions for much apparel coming from consumers’ washing and drying their clothing, companies can’t make more than a small dent in reducing the overall environmental impact of certain products without engaging their consumers. But first, they have to get their attention. It will take a lot more than an unwashed pair of jeans to change ingrained habits, but Bergh started the conversation.

5. The “Vote with Your Dollars” Award goes to Apple. Apple CEO Tim Cook told investors who questioned the company’s climate change commitments to take their money elsewhere. I’m saluting Cook for telling shareholders that a return on investment is not the only reason to fund environmental improvements.

There are many, many more brilliantly inventive and brave examples. And I would love to hear about the ones I’ve missed.

Here’s to even more exciting examples in 2015!


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