03/25/2013 08:49 am ET | Updated May 25, 2013

The Push Behind Corporate Sustainability Management

Green-washing, or environmental public relations has been with us for some time, and while a little skepticism is not a bad idea, there is no question that huge corporations from Apple to Walmart are paying more and more attention to their environmental impacts. In Apple's case, much of their sustainability record is reported on a clear and well organized web site. What is most impressive about Apple is how much progress they have made in a very short period of time. Of course, one can argue that the first reductions are the easiest. You just grab the low hanging fruit. But reduced environmental impact is still better than growing impacts. I think Apple should be given credit for a serious effort to bring sustainability management into their corporate culture. According to Apple's web site:

"We know that the most important thing we can do to reduce our impact on the environment is to improve our products' environmental performance. That's why we design them to use less material, ship with smaller packaging, be free of many toxic substances, and be as energy efficient and recyclable as possible. So as we continue to grow faster than the rest of the industry, we're doing it with products that are friendlier to the environment than ever, and we remain committed to creating products that have the least amount of impact on the environment. Though our revenue has grown, our greenhouse gas emissions per dollar of revenue have decreased by 21.5 percent since 2008."

There are several forces within our marketplace, culture and corporations, which are driving the sustainability agenda. First, there is the public relations value of being seen as a green company. No one wants to be known as an indifferent destroyer of nature and human health. Second, is the growing cost of energy, materials and waste management and the fact that a more carefully designed product using less energy to manufacture reduces costs and can lead to a higher profit margin and/or market share. A third factor is the growing body of environmental liability law and the costs of the liability defense and court imposed penalties borne by corporations. However, while dollars and image are important drivers of sustainability, I think the most interesting and perhaps most important force behind sustainability management is a change underway in our culture and dominant social paradigm- our shared view about how the world works.

A growing number of people are concerned about our ability to maintain and improve our quality of life on an increasingly crowded and resourced stressed planet. Young people have heard their parents speak about these issues in their daily conversations. They have grown up hearing about: The price and occasional scarcity of gasoline; Higher home energy and water bills; The increased level of auto traffic; and, Changed patterns of land use- the place their parents once hiked and camped when they were young that is now a strip mall. The U.S. population is now 315 million. In 1960 it was about 179 million. Over the same half century, the planet's population grew from about three to seven billion. People understand what population growth means and the idea that we should use less energy, water and raw materials in our daily life is increasingly conventional wisdom. This does not mean we don't want the latest iPad or smart phone. Nor does it mean we are going to live off the grid. But it does mean that we like it when the companies making this stuff are working to reduce their environmental impacts. Moreover, we are more likely to buy the product that reflects green principles and we are starting to consider green design to be an element of higher quality. A product designed to ignore sustainability factors is seen by some as shoddy and second rate.

What is particularly interesting is how this is being translated into the design parameters for new products. As the quote from Apple's web site (above) indicated, engineers are trying to design products that use as little energy as possible, can be recycled, and include as few toxic substances as possible. We see this in computers, air conditioners, autos and new buildings. It has become such a common part of our language and mindset, we tend to forget that a decade ago this type of thinking was relatively rare.

An example of the impact of this approach can be seen in the evolution of Apple's products over time. Apple reports a 67% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions when they compare a 1998 iMac to one made in 2012. When they compare a 2007 Mac mini to one made in 2012 they find a 49% reduction. According to their web site:

"Apple's attention to product design has led to significant reductions in carbon emissions compared with earlier-generation products -- even though new products are more powerful than ever."

It is true that this is a corporation's own internal analysis and everyone knows the problems that Apple has had with its suppliers makes some data difficult to verify; but it is easy to see the growing importance of sustainability management in the company's corporate culture. Given the level of scrutiny this company faces daily, I have to believe that these data are reasonably accurate.

The sustainability ethos that has entered our culture should not be confused with environmentalism. It is not built on a love of nature, but on the necessity of the resources that nature provides. The importance of this cultural shift should not be underestimated. Mass culture both drives and sets the boundary conditions for political agendas and political legitimacy. Consumer purchasing behavior drives Apple to take sustainability seriously. Apple wouldn't be doing this without the support of the marketplace. A politician ignoring these trends is asking for electoral trouble. Gay rights, the changing role of women in the workplace and every place, healthier diet and exercise regimes, and increased concern for sustainability are reflections of how we live in 2013. In a planet drawn closer together by mass air travel and global communications, the foreign has become familiar. What was distant is now local. First you see it on your screen and then you see it down the street. Politics and public policy cannot control these rapid cultural changes, but can only hope to understand and accommodate them. Public concern for environmental sustainability is now hardwired into our culture. Companies and elected officials are beginning to understand this. Barack Obama, Apple and Walmart understand this cultural shift and know that their continued success is built on this understanding.