The previous blogs on my new book, In the Light of Humane Nature, have explained why I wrote the book (“Why a Book”), what the book is about (same title), the justification for its main thesis (“The Moral and Spiritual Gap”), and the likelihood of change (“The Imperative in Reality”). In this summary blog, I would like to come full circle and relate the book back to Green Seal, its work and mission.
I began in the first blog by saying that I wrote the book because the environmental movement has not yet succeeded. I point out that the work of Green Seal and similar organizations has been critical in keeping environmental deterioration from getting worse and in initiating progress toward a more sustainable society. But we keep on hitting a wall in terms of people’s attitude and concern. That is where the book attempts to take over.
Green Seal ran into this wall a half-dozen years after our founding in the form of a coalition of industry trade associations that formed to fight third-party environmental certification programs world-wide. Chapter 2 of the book sketches these battles and the motivation behind the unnamed company that led them. Essentially, that company, a global consumer products manufacturer, saw ecolabeling as a threat to its connection with the consumer through branding. In other words, the brand was considered more important than a mission to make the economy more sustainable.
From the company’s perspective this made complete sense. In the modern economy branding is key to market share and sales, which in turn are critical for profit, the primary driver of the modern corporation. While a number of companies have learned that a pro-active approach to sustainability actually enhances their profitability, the vast majority still either pays lip service to it or does the minimum required by the marketplace. Our colleagues at B Lab are working on this disconnect between current corporate policy and sustainability by changing corporate bylaws to include sustainability as an equal value to profitability and by getting laws passed in a number of states that recognize such “benefit” corporations.
Until corporate law recognizes the merits and need for sustainability, the marketplace must leverage it wherever possible.
That’s essentially Green Seal’s mode of operating: to use the marketplace as the lever for encouraging companies to provide more sustainable products and services. And this approach has worked, often splendidly, in many institutional markets, including building maintenance, building construction, paper, office supplies, etc.
But in order for this leverage to work in the consumer market – 70% or so of our economy – the consumer must ultimately demand that companies provide greener products and services. Manufacturers and service providers (such as hotels) always come back to the question of consumer demand; if it isn’t there, they are most likely not going to do something purely for the goodness of it. Retailers, too, are ambivalent about promoting sustainability, despite the efforts of several in such forums as The Sustainability Consortium. Only when consumers demand green will we see a conversion in our consumer economy.
But this won’t happen with the current outlook of consumers (as delineated in Chapter 4). My hope is that the book will help foster a change in consumer attitude that tells manufacturers and retailers that the health and well-being of the world really matters – as much as, or more than, price and convenience. Then we could expect that many more manufacturers and services will subscribe to leadership sustainability standards, and that the market transformation Green Seal works for might be achieved. In that case, too, we may see the consumer achieve a “sustainable lifestyle,” which Green Seal Advisory Council member Jacquie Ottman considers the next frontier even beyond green products and services.
I’ll leave the last words to the book:
The values gap that keeps the economy and all of us as consumers from functioning more sustainably stems fundamentally from our view of the world around us. As long as we do not see that world as central to our lives and to everything we do, the gap will persist. As long as the environment, environmental health, and nature are seen as just another “issue” in the political and cultural spectrum, we will fail to subsume ordinary consumer concerns within a more meaningful and durable framework. The greening of the economy will proceed at its current inadequate pace; we will continue to degrade the environment and our life support; and the future of life on earth will become uncertain. We need to find a connection at a deeper level that will catalyze all of society to act more responsibly and sustainably, so we may consummate the culture change that has begun—while there is still time.