As business executives look back on 2011 and make plans for 2012, they should take heed of one ever-strengthening trend: the focus on environmental sustainability within the corporate realm. As consumers become more passionate about reducing their personal environmental footprints, they pay more attention to the type of products they buy. This in turn has caused CEOs to look more closely at the link between the environment and profit.As consumers become increasingly concerned with environmental sustainability, they scrutinize the environmental practices of the companies around them. This awareness often comes at a price, however. The consumer is faced with numerous challenges to responsible environmental behavior. There is a frequent disconnect between reality and perception. This is especially true with companies who are adept at “green-washing,” the marketing practice of making a company seem more environmentally-friendly than it really is. Making the right environmental choice is often more challenging than making the right nutritional choice or figuring out the true dollar value of a product. There is a move to consolidate certifications and ratings to simplify the process. Until that goal has been accomplished, there are websites such as goodguide.com and climatecounts.org which provide simple, reliable ratings for many everyday products.Business executives must remember the vital role they play in solving global environmental challenges. The business community is largely responsible for creating the choice of goods and services available in the economy. They have the power to offer better choices for the environment. While pressure from consumers can encourage a company to reduce its environmental footprint, there must also be motivation from within the company in order to truly effect change. A company that “goes green” only on the outside, without taking environmental stewardship truly to heart, often ends up in a worse position and lower brand integrity. Consumers want authenticity from the brands they love-especially when it comes to reducing environmental impacts.Of course, the impact a business has on the environment does not end with the type of products it sells; its own day-to-day operations also have an effect. Many companies, both large and small, have been moving away from physical products like CDs, books and references, and file cabinets for many years now. Cloud storage is a popular solution to storage difficulties. This reduces production, shipping, and other life-cycle impacts. However, it can increase the amount of energy consumed by a business. Google, one of the leaders in cloud storage, consumes as much power as an industrial user. But if one stops to consider how have supplanted millions of Yellow Pages, replaced millions of maps, and host email accounts that substitute for a tremendous amount of faxes, mail and shipping, the true impact may be positive. It is important for a business to weigh these concerns before making operational changes.Companies in emerging economies are beginning to pay more attention to their environmental impact too. In many cases this is actually a direct result of increasing Western interest in sustainability. Many companies in Southeast Asia, for example, are suppliers to Western corporations, which are setting stricter environmental requirements for their supply chains. As the bar moves higher, Southeast Asian companies must improve their environmental performance or risk losing some major accounts.What does 2012 hold for the environmental sustainability movement? As consumers and major corporations alike continue to focus on their own environmental footprints, they will put pressure on others. This positive peer pressure can create a virtuous cycle of stewardship, which in turn can increase profits for companies that stay the course.
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