With renewable energy booming and the B Corp movement burgeoning, America’s sustainability movement is determined to survive Trump
When US sustainability pundit Joel Makower looks at how sustainability is faring in the US, he sees plenty to cheer about: big companies such as 3M, AT&T, Avery Denison, Dow, PepsiCo, Pratt & Whitney and Walmart are all setting 2025 sustainability commitments and goals. “It’s been a banner year for sustainable business due to an acceleration of activity in companies … and an expanded landscape of opportunity,” Makower noted in his end-of-2016 commentary.
This month multinational consumer goods firm P&G announced plans to effectively eliminate all manufacturing waste from its global network of more than 100 production sites by 2020, eliminating or beneficially re-using about 650,000 metric tonnes of waste that would typically go to landfill.
In fact, it may be shaping up to be a golden period for US business in general. Investors have pushed the stock market upward with their belief that Donald Trump will boost economic growth via tax cuts and deregulation.
Ford Motor Co may have been thinking about these benefits when it switched from a plan to invest $1.6bn in an electric car factory in Mexico, and instead will now expand e-car production, adding 700 jobs to its Detroit, Michigan hometown.
Ford said the change wasn’t due to pressure from the President-elect Donald Trump, who on the campaign trail said Ford’s plans to build a plant in Mexico were an “absolute disgrace”, but it was definitely a response to populist reaction against globalisation. Just days after Ford’s announcement, Fiat Chrysler announced that it would modernise two plants in the states of Ohio and Michigan to create up to 2,000 jobs.
Staying the course
Beyond the motor companies, however, the corporate response in the face of the problems that buoyed Trump to victory seems to be “stay the course”.
Many companies still expect that technology will pull America out of its major problems, though the impact could well be the reverse, with coming waves of automation threatening to displace massive amounts of workers rather than provide living wage employment. The driverless car and truck revolution, for example, is predicted to weaken demand for one of the best current jobs for less-educated while males: truck driving. There is evidence that automation will soften demand for knowledge-based jobs, too.
Racing ahead with renewables
On the other hand, there is evidence that America’s growing green economy is plugging some of the gaps, particularly when it comes to creating new jobs. Pundits such as Andrew Winston, author of The Big Pivot, say not even Trump's promises to make the coal industry great again can stop the forward momentum of the US renewable energy revolution. The cost of both solar and wind has dropped so steadily over the last few years that they can now be competitive with fossil fuel generation.
The Advanced Energy Economy group (AEE) says 70 of 100 top US companies have renewable energy targets or goals, up from 60 two years ago, and 43% of the Fortune 500 have renewable energy goals. The trickle-down of this trend means solar photovoltaic installers and wind technicians are now two of the fastest-growing job categories in the country.
America’s green economy is also thriving on another front. Community-supported agriculture in its various forms (including farmers' markets and small start-up food businesses) is on the rise.
In Berea, Kentucky, a tiny town in the heart of coal country with a population of 14,000, food organisations such as the Community Farm Alliance and Grow Appalachia are committed to supporting the local entrepreneurism that can make up a diversified, local, business-friendly economy. Though 30% of Berea’s children live below the poverty line, Drew Elliott, president of the Berea Farmer’s Market, says 40% of the market shoppers use state welfare benefits to buy fresh and local.
John Bloom of San Francisco-based RSF Social Finance group says he believes financial support and investment, including partnership work and non-financial support in this type of local/regional “food hub” is an important part of rebuilding economies like Berea's. Bloom sees RSF's work – which crosses over from strict investment and also enters the philanthropic realm (he dubs it an “integrated capital approach”) as the way that enterprises solve complex social and environmental woes.
Rise of the B Corps
The other bright spot for the localism agenda is the galloping growth in the 10-year old B Corp movement. B Corps are for-profit companies that have to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency to get certification. There are 200 different metrics, and certified B Corps must reach at least 80. In December a milestone was reached when the thousandth US B Corp received certification. Another 50,000 companies, while not yet certified B Corps, are using the free B Corp impact assessment tool to measure their sustainability actions.
Ben Anderson, whose title at B Corp is chief B keeper at parent organisation B Lab, says the rate of acceleration of companies taking on the B Corp value system is dramatic. “I call myself a practical optimist,” Anderson says. “There are approximately 37 million businesses in the US, so yes we’ve got a little way to go before every business is a B Corp. But we want to spark the widespread shift, and we are beginning to see positive signs that we are.”
These signs include the fact that large public companies such as Unilever (whose Ben & Jerry’s subsidiary is already a B Corp) are making plans to become certified, while institutional investors such as CalPERS support the model's emphasis on a multi-stakeholder approach to business. Anderson adds that the idea of the benefit corporation has broad political appeal, even in the current polarised political climate. “With the B Corp movement, when we’ve passed benefit legislation in states, it’s bipartisan and appeals across the major parties. Everyone can get behind it.”
Woolly thinking in Maine
Tom Chapelle, CEO of the Ramblers Way wool apparel company, is optimistic that the American entrepreneurial spirit will produce more companies like his dedicated to meeting societal needs, including the creation of local jobs. He founded the successful Tom’s of Maine brand of natural personal care products with his wife Kate in 1970 and sold the business (with the stipulation that the sustainability-oriented company culture be retained) in 2006 for $100m to Colgate-Palmolive. Chapelle could have very comfortably retired, but he still had the desire to make change in the world. “What I really wanted to do,” he says, “was work with my family and start a business that would have social impact.” Chapelle formed Ramblers Way to manufacture 100% American-made ethical fashion.
He says it took being in business almost eight years to build a sustainable supply chain for raw wool within the US, with ethical ranchers in the states of Wyoming, Nevada, Montana, and Texas. And the company is still innovating in the manufacturing process: wool cloth is currently spun in South Carolina and knitted in North Carolina. Some of Ramblers Way textiles are certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard. Chapelle says the ripple effect of this approach has reached suppliers and customers and others in the apparel industry.
Chapelle said he was surprised recently at a convention of the American Apparel and Footwear Association to hear leaders in the apparel industry saying they considered it difficult and mysterious to pull off a “made in America” ethical supply chain.
He feels Ramblers Way's approach has infinite promise for solving US problems. "We have been able to pull this off and put together a supply chain for fine wool as good as something that comes out of Italy or China,” he says. “As it grows, that's where I see us making a difference every day."
B corp renewables Trump automation CSR