There’s a famous scene in Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth in which he’s looking at an image of a scientist who has a set of scales. On one side is the globe, and on the other is a stack of gold bars. Back in 2006, when the film came out, it was a startling comparison—do we choose the gold over the entire planet? At the time it seemed that most corporations were choosing the gold. But nearly a decade later the idea that a company can turn a tidy profit by creating products that are good for people and the planet has become synonymous with good business.
Nowadays if a company is interested in long-term viability, embracing social good and sustainability—and being transparent with consumers about the choices it’s making—are essential. Much of this push for sustainability is being led by millennials.
The 2013 Cone Communications Social Impact Study confirmed that millennials— who have more than $1 trillion in buying power—are more likely to buy goods and services from a company that can actively demonstrate positive social impact. According to the study, 91 percent of respondents had increased trust in companies that embraced sustainability. In addition, 89 percent had increased loyalty to those companies and said they were more likely to buy their products.
While there are plenty of businesses big and small demonstrating leadership in sustainability, here are five audacious examples of companies putting the planet and the peace and prosperity of humanity first.
Perdue Says Good-Bye to Antibiotics In early September, Perdue, the nation’s leading poultry producer, proved that it’s listening to its customers and making decisions with public health in mind. The company made the welcome announcement that it was no longer mass-dosing its chickens with antibiotics.
Eighty percent of the antibiotics sold in the United States are used on livestock—producers use them to ensure that animals grow larger, faster. But that’s led to the rise of superbugs, bacteria that are resistant to medicines used to treat people. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has repeatedly warned that we’re on the edge of an antibiotic-resistance catastrophe. Unless we want a society in which infections that are easily cleared up by antibiotics begin leading to people’s deaths, more food producers need to follow Perdue’s lead.
Nike Is Eliminating Its Water Usage Athletic apparel giant Nike is adopting a new water-saving production method. The manufacturer has teamed up with DyeCoo Textile Systems, a Netherlands-based company that has created the first commercially available process to eliminate water and polluting substances from fabric dyeing.
Nike first announced plans to partner with DyeCoo in 2012. Since then Nike has outfitted Kenyan runners in gear made with the waterless technology. In December 2013 it celebrated the opening of its first DyeCoo-using mass-production plant.
The move by the sports clothing company is a significant shift for the textile industry, which is known for its H2O-sucking and polluting ways. Most athletic gear is made of polyester, which uses 100 to 150 liters of water to create one kilogram of usable cloth.
Nike estimates that in one year clothing manufacturers use enough water to fill nearly 3.7 billion competition-size swimming pools—all while almost a billion people around the world lack access to clean drinking water, according to Water.org. The industry also dumps millions of gallons of toxic dye chemicals, such as formaldehyde and lead, into the planet’s rivers and oceans. The World Bank estimates that the textile industry creates nearly 20 percent of the industrial water pollution around the globe.
The new dyeing technology uses highly pressurized carbon dioxide instead of H2O and polluting chemicals. Along with saving water, the DyeCoo machines are enabling both companies to use 50 percent less energy—which cuts down on fossil fuel use—and 50 percent fewer chemicals than do traditional textile production methods. Nike’s adopting DyeCoo technology is also sure to appeal to millennial shoppers. A poll released in March from the Clinton Global Initiative and Microsoft found that 76 percent of millennials say they’re more focused on environment than are their parents.
General Mills Embraces Organic Food The announcement on Sept. 8 that General Mills had spent $820 million buying Annie’s Homegrown, the crunchy, Berkeley, Calif.–based organic brand known for its bunny ears and mac and cheese, rocked the business and food worlds. The purchase could be a significant sign that a company that’s commonly siloed into the big food category is putting itself on the organic path.
The move is also good business. Food grown without pesticides and without GMOs is a hot commodity, particularly with millennials. A 2012 report from global investment firm Jefferies, Trouble in Aisle 5, revealed that millennials are willing to pay a little extra for food that’s fresher and healthier and are more likely to want items that are organic and locally grown or sourced. The purchase has its skeptics, but General Mills has said that it has no plans to change the brand.
Elon Musk Is Powering Up Green Energy Whether producing electric cars with Tesla or building rockets with Space X, Elon Musk has long been a pioneer in marrying business savvy with sustainability. His plan to build the world’s largest lithium-ion battery factory in Nevada is anticipated to create at least 6,500 jobs. Through SolarCity, Musk, who is the company’s chairman, hopes to bring sustainable energy to the masses. In June he announced plans to build the world’s largest solar panel factory in Buffalo, N.Y. Both ventures could prove instrumental in enabling Americans to give fossil fuels the boot.
CVS Stops Selling Cigarettes In February, CVS made waves when it declared that come October it would stop selling cigarettes and other tobacco products in its stores. The retailer surprised us all in September when it announced a month earlier than expected that the cancer-causing products would no longer be available. The retailer will lose more than $2 billion in annual tobacco sales from the decision, but it is eager to move into only selling goods and services that promote health and wellness.
“As we’ve been working on doing a better job integrating health plans and doctors’ offices and hospital systems, we would go in and give these great presentations,” CVS Executive Vice President Helena Foulkes told Forbes. “And almost at the end of every presentation, someone would raise his hand and say, ‘So why do you still sell cigarettes?’ ”
Over the long haul CVS will surely recoup its profits. In May Goldman Sachs released a report on millennials’ attitudes to health. “Healthy living sets the new standard of cool,” wrote the analysts, adding, “Wellness is now a key driver of consumer spending.” Here are some of the many other examples, from startups to Fortune 500 companies, of capitalistic enterprise driving sustainable investments and innovations:
- Toyota launches electric car ride-share service
- Sierra Energy turns garbage into fuel
- Bankrupt Detroit builds 1,400 urban gardens
- TerraCycle turns garbage into big bucks with clients such as Colgate and Target
- +Pool is turning the polluted Hudson River into a swimmable oasis
- Muvbox converts discarded shipping containers into pop-up restaurants and bars
- London-based clean-tech company Pavegen Systems leverages pedestrian energy to generate electricity
- Billboard companies are making products that eat smog and shelter the homeless
- The University of Utah saves $23.6 million via light-rail in Salt Lake City, at the same time reducing traffic congestion and lowering emissions.
Now more than ever, investing in sustainable business is just good business for shareholders and future generations. Not only are consumers considering the environmental and human impact of the products they purchase, but according to recent Nielsen research, more than half of consumers worldwide are willing to pay more for products and services from companies with pro-social and pro-environmental commitments. In a recent study done in collaboration between the global non-profit Business for Social Responsibility and Participant Media, 73 percent of respondents said the “creation and promotion of pro-social and pro-environmental lifestyles in ads and in the companies that run them” was important.
In a nutshell: Consumers want companies to do good, they’re willing to pay more for products from those that do, and they want them to promote their “do-goodness.” So, like our friends at Nike with their water-saving manufacturing plan, its time for others to hop on board and “just do it” too.
Written By Liz Dwyer & Karina Kogan at TakePart.com
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Contact Karina Kogan at KKogan@TakePart.com