I remember the day I came home and told my parents that we needed to put a brick in the toilet. We should also get a new showerhead. And we should recycle too, and start a compost in the backyard. We did all those things, and much more.
It was 1990, and as a Jr High student, I was riding my bike to downtown Palo Alto, CA, to volunteer every week at the Earth Day 1990 headquarters. I made photocopies, I assembled informational packets, I researched a variety of environmental topics, and I wrote an article about dolphins getting caught in tuna nets. I asked a lot of questions, I learned a great deal about the environment, and I developed a passion for being environmentally conscious.
I recall that at the time I wanted to deliver a greater direct impact through my volunteering. I wanted my contributions to carry more weight.
Looking back more than a quarter of a century (!) on that Spring of volunteering at Earth Day 1990, I realize that my biggest and most meaningful contribution was the investment that I made in myself. As an eager and impressionable youth, Earth Day 1990 changed my outlook on the world, and that has been far more valuable than any number of photocopies or articles I might have produced in the hours after school. In truth, that’s what the movement was always about anyway – increasing awareness, generating participation, and inspiring action. I remember that my mentor at the volunteer headquarters, Peter, seemed very aware that my involvement was less about what I was producing, and more about how the experience could forever shape my view of the earth, and of my social and environmental responsibilities. Peter, wherever you are, thank you.
On April 22nd, 1990, my family took the train into San Francisco, and we made our way to the Earth Day festivities at Crissy Field. It was the 20-year anniversary of Earth Day, and the first year that the grassroots movement went international. Some 200 million people gathered that day, across 141 countries. I’m proud to have been one of them.
It’s been so long since that day that I can barely find a trace of the Earth Day 1990 logo on the internet. Since then, the environmental dialog and the consumer options have evolved significantly. Recycling is no longer a novelty, products everywhere are labeled as “Green”, “All-Natural”, “Eco-friendly”, and “Organic”, and we have more options than ever when we shop for light bulbs, paper products, water filters, etc. And while somehow there’s a controversy over global warming, it seems that there’s nonetheless general agreement about certain seemingly insurmountable global changes. As the planet’s population continues to grow, the air quality is getting worse, pollution is on the rise, species are going extinct, and the global competition for resources is increasing.
Where there are problems, there are opportunities. The business world has responded in a variety of ways, and many of these initiatives are encouraging. Consumers have access to so many options these days, from hybrid vehicles, to installing solar panels for their homes, to smart refrigerators, and so on. And yet, the environmentally appropriate, health-conscious, socially-aware options are still generally offered at a premium. As consumers, there’s typically a trade-off. To get the “right” product, you have to spend more.
Businesses seem to face a similar trade-off. Making the “right” decision for the environment, or for society, is rarely at the forefront of the company mission. Rather, corporations tend to focus on making money first, and then in some cases they give back later through philanthropic programs.
How can environmental and social initiatives be converted from expensive problems, to strategic business opportunities? How can multi-national corporations simultaneously profit and serve the largest but poorest socio-economic group in the world? What is the role of corporations with respect to accelerating the growth of global sustainability, and what is foundation for a business framework that champions sustainability as a model for success?
In Capitalism at the Crossroads: Aligning Business, Earth, and Humanity, Stuart L. Hart argues that environmental and social responsibilities need not be expensive corporate activities that disrupt core business lines. His framework is centered on win-win opportunities to serve the Base of the Pyramid (BoP), the four billion poorest people at the “bottom” of the global economy. Hart provides many case studies to illustrate how companies have successfully pursued and established corporate models that are innovative, profitable, and inclusive, as well as socially and environmentally responsible. These examples are intriguing and inspiring, and Hart leverages these accounts to articulate strategies and insights that apply to any and all companies.
As individuals, as employees, and as entrepreneurs, we should all challenge ourselves and each other to put our social and environmental responsibilities first as much as possible, and to create win-win opportunities rather than compromise with trade-offs.