Future Green

Setting an agenda for environmental issues in the 21st-century.

The first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970 at a time when environmental consciousness on a mass scale was just awakening. Today, awareness of ecological issues is widespread and debates about the environment—from climate change to clean energy and organic agriculture—permeate politics, business, social media, and the international agenda. Green parties and organizations continue to push for stricter regulations to protect the planet, while many businesses are getting behind the green agenda as well, despite pushback from critics. Moving into the 21st-century, where does the green movement go from here? What should its goals be? We asked TEDGlobal 2013 speakers Steve Howard, chief sustainability officer for global home furnishings giant Ikea, and Johan Rockström, director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, an organization that advances research on the governance of social ecological systems, to discuss the future of green.

design mind: We’ve made considerable progress from the time when corporations, environmentalists, and organizations were considered adversaries. What’s your assessment of the situation today?

Steve Howard: All you have to do is look at the rise of chief sustainability officers. Five years ago, there weren’t too many of us around. Or those who were CSOs were not represented on boards or at the management level, which often limited their ability to get closer to financial or other decision making processes. It wasn’t hypocrisy on the part of corporations, but rather the starting point of good intentions. At IKEA, sustainability was part of our heritage but still a bit separate at times. Now I, someone with sustainability in his DNA, am on the executive team. There are many things still to be done, but it’s clear we have fully embraced the idea that sustainability is important for, and a cornerstone of, the business. Either you embrace this challenge and unlock value, or you ignore it and slowly lose out. We are already seeing real benefits. 

Johan Rockström: There is a change in perception that is quite deep. Sustainability had been a layer or a varnish put on a brand or applied while building a brand. Over the past 10 years, this has become the core of the business—not in all sectors, but in some. It’s not because of moral enlightenment about the environment, but rather because of simple pragmatism. Business realizes that resources are scarce and finite. The new view is not so much about protecting nature but using nature to protect business. That is genuinely different than before. In fact, businesses have been able to move fast and deliver on their promises while government policymaking has remained stuck in the status quo. 

design mind: A number of large corporations like Walmart have moved into the green or organic sector, helping to make some green products mainstream. Is there a downside to this selective approach?

Johan: The organic agenda has been important but it’s just a teaser of what has to happen. We have to move away from organic entirely. It costs more and only meets the aspirations of maybe 15 percent of consumers who are enlightened and engaged and have the money to buy it. To solve our challenges, we have to move from organic for the few to the point where everything is sustainable, and what is not sustainable is more expensive. Let’s flip it so that normal consumer goods are sustainable and what is not sustainable is considered marginal. If Walmart just sells organic milk in one corner of the store, that’s not the way to move the world to sustainability. They should become sustainable everywhere, not just in the milk aisle.

Steve: When you have a green “premium” range, it’s only targeted to a small percentage of consumers. That premium makes it a luxury for the few rather than affordable for the many. Our goal is to have an organic and certified range of products that are priced the same as everything else. Take our cotton, for example. By 2015, we’ll move to only using certified Better Cotton, which is produced with less water and fewer chemicals and pesticides, and increases the incomes of farmers. All of the cotton we use will be made this way and we will not charge our customers any more for it. We will also go to 100 percent LED lights by 2016, the price of which will be as affordable as we can make it while at the same time helping millions of people save on their energy bills.

design mind: Are average consumers confused by the profusion of sustainable labels and certifications found on products today?

Steve: You need to do simple things. In the U.S., Energy Star labels [for energy efficiency] are good, because they are a proxy for quality in the consumers’ mind. Still, many things like carbon offsets can be confusing because, well, carbon offsets are confusing. Science, governments, and business need to work together to keep things simple for consumers.

Johan: What you want to see is consumers trusting companies in their entirety. IKEA has worked persistently to be accountable as a green steward for the planet, so the customer will say, “I want to buy there.” In the future, consumers will be able to clearly see that Company A is a sustainable venture while Company B is not, and then they will make a decision.

design mind: International agreements on the environment are often signed with much optimism and fanfare. Can global agreements have any real impact?

Johan: We are at a juncture today where 200 countries and multinational corporations need to move in the same direction simultaneously. It won’t work through myriad bottom up initiatives that cause confusion. We need to have clear rules of the game to survive long term, and a large planetary scale agreement from the top down to provide incentives for making sustainability core for businesses. We’re not there yet. Big corporations have to step up and say enough is enough. You need political leadership with innovation, but political leaders aren’t sure they have the support of their constituents.

Steve: I’m skeptical that a new global deal on climate change will be reached because there is a global leadership crisis on this issue. Many leaders don’t yet understand the extent of resource scarcity and enormity of climate change challenges we are currently facing. Some understand but fail to act. It’s not purely about innovation; we don’t need to innovate to solve this problem. We can, in fact, change the world by applying what’s already out there. Innovation is a bonus. That said, we should still do everything we can to reach a new global agreement because it would make everything else that much easier.

design mind: We can agree that progress has been made on advancing the green agenda, but the fact is that many countries with powerful economies, like China and the U.S., are just not inclined to take action. With that in mind, where will be in five or ten years from now?

Steve: Corporate leadership on this issue will swell dramatically. Consumers will come to see sustainability as cool. And unsustainable will be seen as uncool—not in all markets, but in many. We will see growth of the shared economy and the circular economy. We will understand that renewable power is better than other sources, and that fossil fuels are part of the sunset economy.

Johan: What Steve is describing is a watershed. It is an exciting time because we are getting to the point of saying that prosperity is the goal and sustainability is the method, not that economic growth is the goal and caring about the environment is a burden. There is a new generation of young people who simply won’t accept a product that pollutes rivers or ends up in a landfill. Young people—at least in Nordic countries—are driving less. They are less interested in owning stuff and more interested in services that fulfill their aspirations. We are so close to the tipping point where consumers want to buy into a real relationship with a company as long as they don’t have to throw anything away.

Think Again

Issue 18

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