2012’s green business heroes

Bill McKibben does the math
Bill McKibben does the math

Some say, and with reason, that 2012 was the best year ever. Never in the history of the world has there been less hunger, less disease and more prosperity. Of course there’s plenty to worry about–the fiscal cliff, gun violence, chaos in Syria and the Congo–as always there will be. But, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, the long arc of history bends towards a more just and sustainable world.

In the little corner of the world that occupies much of my attention–the places where business and sustainability intersect–it has not been a good year. Global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. We’re burning more coal, oil and gas than ever. Policy is stuck, in the US and internationally. This will be the hottest year on record in the US, and still people don’t accept the science of climate change. Go figure.

That said, in this final blogpost of 2012,  I’d like to salute some people (again, mostly from the world of business and sustainability) who fought the good fight during the year  just past. Some are business people, others are politicians, activists and even journalists, but they are all doing what they can to bend the arc of history. They’re my green business heroes for 2012.

Bill McKibben, the Carbon Tracker Initiative and 350.org: McKibben’s Rolling Stone story — Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math — is a pathbreaking work of journalism. If you haven’t read it, please do. It will change the way you think about the fossil fuel industry, including natural gas, the so-called bridge fuel. McKibben builds on the fine work of a small NGO in the UK called the Carbon Tracker Initiative, which is also well worth your attention. What they’ve found, in essence, is that burning all the fossil fuels now carried on the books of the publicly-traded oil, coal and natural gas companies will drive atmospheric concentrations of CO2 and global temperatures beyond the targets agreed upon by virtually all the world’s governments.

With 350.org, the student organization that he helped start, McKibben this fall organized a national bus tour called Do The Math to spread the word about climate change, and demand that colleges and universities to divest their holdings in fossil fuels. Whether that’s the right goal or not–it seems unwinnable to me–McKibben is doing what the other big environmental NGOs have not: He is trying to build a climate movement. If he can get some traction, he’s going to force investors to think anew about putting their money into fossil fuels.

Unilever-Logo_2011-03-28Paul Polman, CEO, Unilever: No big company that I’m aware of is doing as much as Unilever to promote sustainability. With bold goals, and a sustainability drive that measures environmental impact from the very beginnings of its supply chains to the consumption of its products, Unilever’s efforts are broader, deeper and more radical than those of its rivals. I’ll have more to say about Polman and Unilever early in 2013 — his approach carries with it risks — but this $60 billion behemoth bears watching. Sustainability — solving the world’s biggest environmental and social problems, albeit with personal care products, laundry detergent and mayonnaise — has become Unilever’s core strategy.

Brune and Bloomberg, going Beyond Coal
Brune and Bloomberg, going Beyond Coal

Michael Bloomberg (and a hat tip to Michael Brune): Thanks to Mayor Bloomberg, New York’s a much greener city–check out the bike lanes next time you visit. Thanks in part to the $50 million that he gave to the Sierra Club and its Beyond Coal campaign, led by executive director Michael Brune,  the US is burning a lot less coal than it used to. (Cheap natural gas prices and EPA rules help, too, of course.) It takes guts for a Republican businessman turned independent mayor to give money to an activist group, but Bloomberg appears to be a politician who does what he believes to be right and then deals with the consequences. Bloomberg also raised he climate issue after superstorm Sandy (duh!), and he leads the C40 Cities, a network of the world’s biggest cities that are coming together to take climate action.

Patagonia: An awesome company, Yvon Chouinard’s privately-held firm is helping its customers rethink consumption. This company embraces radical transparency and actually encourages its customers to buy less. Rick Ridgeway, who leads Patagonia’s sustainability efforts, has spent a lot of his time building the impressive Sustainable Apparel Coalition; now he’s at work trying to expand the model to other industries, including some where Patagonia doesn’t play. Here are the five pillars of Patagonia’s Common Threads initiative:

    1. Reduce what you buy.
    2. Repair what you can.
    3. Reuse what you have.
    4. Recycle everything else.
    5. Reimagine a sustainable world.

In a word: Wow.

David Crane
David Crane

David Crane, the chief executive of NRG Energy: His company still burns lots of coal, but Crane has become an evangelist for solar power. He’s installed solar on half a dozen NFL stadiums to promote solar energy to the mainstream, and NRG acquired Green Mountain Energy, a leading retailer of clean electricity. Crane has also lobbied Washington (to no avail) for greenhouse gas regulation and, with the Clinton Foundation, his company has helped develop a model solar village in Haiti.

Reporters and editors at The New York Times: These remain very tough times for the news business, but the journalists at The Times have had a very, very good year reporting on business and sustainability, broadly defined. I’m thinking in particular of the marvelous series of stories (eight of them!) on the iEconomy, the ongoing investigation of the Walmart bribery scandal in Mexico and recent reporting on the Bangladesh garment factory fire. Andrew Revkin’s Dot Earth is invaluable. If The Times weren’t doing these stories, who would?

I’ll conclude with a personal note. This has been an enormously rewarding year for me, personally and professionally, and for that I’m deeply grateful. I’ve enjoyed working with longtime colleagues at FORTUNE and GreenBiz, as well as new ones at YaleEnvironment360 and the Guardian Sustainable Business. I wrote my first ebook. My Washington Nationals won 98 games, and I staggered through my 21st marathon. Best of all, my beloved daughters Sarah and Rebecca were married to the wonderful Amy Krosch and Eric Bacaj. It will be hard to top that next year.

Here’s wishing all of you much joy in 2013.


    • Sibley says


      From my understanding of all of the evidence thus far, your point is accurate, though. And so is Marc’s.

      There have been several analyses that many initial predictions of climate change effect were too fast/too dramatic relative to the very real change that we’re seeing. Unfortunately, it’s the increased variability due to the increased energy level that does the real damage – storms, heat waves, etc. – that understanding has turned out to be accurate. Even at the better-than-feared rate of energy increase, we’re starting to see the dramatic effects. Not good, and it will get worse – no one can know at what rate, but it will keep getting worse.

      We don’t know if there will be a critical point where the change will accelerate or not. But as Marc points out, we’re seeing real consequences but keeping our collective heads in the sand.

  1. Steve Lippman says

    I’m just catching up on reading your posts Marc and they are terrific as always. The last paragraph of this one in particular caused my eyes to water up a bit. Wishing you continued good fortune in 2013. I know I can count on thoughtful, interesting, and nuanced analysis of complex and often-oversimplified issues as long as you are writing.

    Best wishes,
    Steve Lippman

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