The Hottest Questions in Sustainability

A colleague at a Fortune 100 company asked me about the most pressing questions in sustainability today. Which topics, he wanted to know, were generating the most provocative discussions. Here are my top three (and the next three will be posted tomorrow). What do you think? Which of these would get you into a second bottle of organic wine as you argue late into the night?

1)      What happens when science and public perception are at odds? Eco-pragmatists like Stewart Brand have recently made headlines by embracing nuclear power as a sustainable energy source and asserting that only with genetically modified crops can a world of 9 billion be fed. Both nuclear power and GMOs have been on the blacklists of the green movement and the general public. Can science triumph over sentiment? Should it? Does the environmental movement need to loosen up a bit?

2)      Has the green movement peaked – or has it reached a tipping point? The COP 15 talks in Copenhagen were judged a disappointment, the “climate gate” scandal over suppressed scientific data knocked advocates of climate change as a serious threat back on their heels. Public opinion polls in the U.S. have shown declining belief in the threat of climate change. Cap-and-trade legislation is stalled in the U.S. However, the U.S. government – the world’s largest procurer of almost everything – has put sustainability requirements into its purchasing specifications. Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, is moving forward with a sustainability index that will have ramifications throughout its vast global supply chain and bring new transparency to each product’s environmental footprint. Companies like Coca-Cola have publicly committed to bold goals such as water neutrality. Some battles are being won by each side, but who is winning the war?

3)      Should companies lead or follow their customers on sustainability issues? Some argue that a company’s only goal should be to generate return for their shareholders and they should do so by listening to their customers and profitably serving their needs. Others feel that corporations should be ahead of the curve – both to anticipate customer demands and to prepare for a world of resource scarcity. Far reaching commitments to retrofit or replace transportation fleets, reengineer supply chains, redesign processes and products, and reduce resource use require investment that may impede short-term profits in search of long-term gains that may never appear. Are these efforts smart bets or unneeded distractions? What are the costs and benefits of being on the bleeding edge of green?

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