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  • Writer's pictureJohn Pabon

Know Your Environmental History (Part 2)

Last time, we took a look at the early history of the environmental movement from its beginnings in the 1940s through to the UN Millennium Goals. Now, let's explore a little more of the movement's modern history.

The Pressure Mounts: Sustainability Today

We’ve done a good job over the past few years at course correcting from some of our historical mistakes. Since 2010, there’s been a palpable shift in the way we are approaching the topic of sustainability. Not only is it more mainstream than in previous years, but also more collaborative between individuals, companies, and governments. Perhaps it’s because, like our 1960s predecessors, we’re beginning to experience the impact of climate change first hand. Maybe the monumental Paris Agreement set the foundation for a galvanized fight. Or, as I’d like to think, it’s just that people want to live in a cleaner world and leave an even better one for their children. Really, though, it doesn’t matter which straw broke the camel’s back. All that matters is that we’re finally taking some kind of action.

We first started to see this shift coming from the private sector. Yes, those same organizations which caused many of our current woes were the ones who also started the post-modern environmental movement. Instead of hiding behind corporate jargon and processes, you started to see large multinational companies coming forward in efforts to be more transparent. They basically gave a big mea culpa to the public, resetting their starting point for a new way forward.

This move towards transparency initially came in the form of corporate reporting. Between 2011 and 2014, there was a four-fold increase in the number of corporate sustainability reports. During the same period the S&P 500, widely considered to be the best indicator of US stock performance, saw corporate reporting increase from 20 percent of members to 81 percent. Today, corporate sustainability reporting and high levels of transparency are table stakes. Don’t expect anyone to throw you a parade for putting out your first corporate social responsibility report in 2020.

There’s also been mounting pressure from the public to hold companies, governments, and NGOs accountable for their actions. One cannot deny the impact of sustainability ambassadors like Greta Thunberg and the Extinction Rebellion at putting the issue of climate change front and center in the public eye. I mean, they shut down entire cities when they march. They’ve even encouraged people to skip work and school to force action. You’ll see pretty quickly (if you haven’t already) that I take issue with their approach. But we certainly can’t say that today people aren’t aware.

While the Greta’s of the world are resorting to tried-and-true measures to get their message out, others are taking a different approach. Interestingly, and to probably even greater effect, many have started to use the power of the ballot box and their wallets to do the talking.

One telling example of this was the 2019 European Parliamentary elections. Held at a time when the impact of Brexit was still looming, and nationalist movements from South America, to Japan, to Europe on the rise, people earnestly watched (and likely worried) about what the results would be. While results didn’t go exactly to plan—there is now more division than ever across the political spectrum, with higher numbers of far-left and far-right members of parliament—the big winner was the environment. That’s because Green parties across member countries had significant gains. The UK Green party doubled its voting share (remember, they were still technically in the EU at the time of the elections). Germany’s Greens came in second with nearly a quarter of the country’s total votes. The Greens are even recognized now by the more dominant parties of the EU Parliament. The European People’s Party, which holds the most seats in Parliament, expressed an interest to partner with the Greens in developing its next 5-year agenda. Citizens were voting to save the world.

We’re seeing people do the same thing at the shops. When it comes to sustainable purchase behaviors, consumers are taking a fringe consideration and making it part of their buyer journey. Media conglomerate and market research giant A.C. Nielsen has followed trends in sustainable consumer behavior for several years. In their most recent report, they show a full 81 percent of consumers say it’s extremely or very important for companies to implement programs to improve the environment. Consumers in the developing world, those most at risk from climate change, are also the most favorable to sustainable products. India tops the charts with 97 percent of consumers citing the importance of corporate environmental protection.

In response, companies are ramping up their research and development processes to meet consumer demand for better, safer friendlier products. Rather, they’re trying to ramp up their processes. Consumer perception of sustainability is changing faster than these mega-companies can keep up with. The CDP, formerly The Carbon Disclosure Project, ranked some of the world’s biggest food, beverage, and cosmetic brands in terms of how ready they are to respond to consumer needs for sustainability. Coming out on top were Nestle, Unilever, and L’Oréal. Further down the list were Kraft Heinz and Estee Lauder. Instead of changing their behaviors accordingly, many are resorting to buying up smaller ethical brands. Unfortunately, this is only window dressing to what consumers are actually asking for. CDP’s research notes more than half of the brands in their top-10 ranking “…have failed to deliver low-carbon innovations in the last 10 years.” Pressure by consumers isn’t going anywhere. As such, corporations are going to have to “…up their game or risk falling foul of changing consumer demands.”

How far have we come in such a short amount of time? Last time, I gave the example of the MDGs and how pressure from the donor community basically derailed what was meant to be a globally impactful project. Well, when they expired in 2015 the United Nations devised something else to replace them: the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). While the names are nearly identical, the approach and the potential impact couldn’t be more different.

Rather than allow their development to occur in secret by a select group of people with little knowledge of the issues, the SDGs came about through a highly collaborative process. In fact, the UN recognized the problematic “donor-recipient” relationship which prevented the full implementation of the MDGs. To overcome this, the development process for the SDGs favored input from all countries. The three-year Post-2015 Development Agenda, which led to the creation of the SDGs, included opinions from 193 member countries. International, regional, and national meetings incorporated input from close to one million civil society, private, and public sector actors. All of this resulted in the 17 goals of the SDGs.

The consultative practice isn’t the only thing separating the SDGs from the MDGs. The 2015 Goals are much more comprehensive, branching out from issues related primarily to poverty and towards more holistic global issues. These are also supposed to be applicable in the context of every country, versus repeating the Rwanda debacle. In the same vein, the SDGs focus on quality over quantity. Instead of just putting kids through school, for example, the new Goals focus on learning achievements. Collaboration, rather than patronage, is a principle message. Holistically addressing the issues facing all of us, instead of a select number of countries, aims to make even bigger progress than the MDGs. In this way, the Goals are more sustainable over time. If done correctly, continuous improvement will last far beyond their 2030 end date and result in a virtuous cycle for our shared future.

While the SDGs are definitely a big step in the right direction, don’t get complacent. Even with all these positive changes, we’re still having to fight against the Sustainability Industrial Complex. Like any good bureaucracy, pharmaceutical company, or military force, their purpose is to keep themselves in business. It’s going to take more than a few good moves to win this chess match. That’s why it is more important than ever to become informed, aware, and armed for the fight. Just by knowing a bit of your history, you’re taking a critical step in making that a reality.


To go even deeper into the history of the modern environmental movement, buy "Sustainability for the Rest of Us: Your No-Bullshit, Five-Point Plan for Saving the Planet," available at these retailers.

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