When reading news articles or perusing social media, often there are topics that are directly or indirectly related to sustainability. The EPA’s definition of sustainability includes everything humans need for survival, either directly or indirectly, and that it all stems from our natural environment (EPA 2021). Some of the largest topics that bubble up from all these diverse aspects of human life include greenhouse gas emissions, sustainable financing, and plastic pollution. There are other emerging items like sustainable food sources, precious metal requirements for clean energy technology, and water quality and security issues as well, however, these are still smaller in coverage when compared to the largest topics that now exist in the public consciousness.
Information regarding greenhouse gasses, and the need to reduce human-based carbon emissions, can now be found in a variety of news items due to the large variety of weather disasters and other climate change-induced issues. From the fires in California and the droughts in the western U.S. to the hurricanes and floods on the East Coast, climate change actions and issues stemming primarily from our energy and transportation system emissions are a regular news item (EPA 2020). A plethora of articles are churned out daily regarding how individuals can reduce their carbon footprint from minimizing energy use, reducing travel, and purchasing tips for lower carbon products.
These purchasing tips also tie into the large topic of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing in nearly all financial news outlets. Investors are now shifting to becoming “impact investors” that are focused on supporting small and high-impact businesses and entrepreneurs that are working to solve complex supply chain issues that provide solutions to social and environmental problems (Hart 2010, 39-53). The public is learning to vote with their dollars and businesses and investors are dialed into learning how to capitalize on this social sentiment shift. This shift is critical to changing a system that historically has viewed the public as unable to create large enough changes to matter to one that is driving industries.
In addition to the pollution to our atmosphere, plastic pollution of our land and water has become a large topic that also ties to business activities. Many companies are moving away from plastics wherever possible or choosing to use recycled post-consumer plastics or metals (Wilson 2021). Consumers are shifting product purchases to those more sustainable products, which continues to drive ESG financing and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions efforts as well (Whelan and Kronthal-Sacco 2019). These three topics may not be all the sustainability issues of importance currently, but they do represent the majority of articles and discussions in the public sphere and represent the critical topics that have shifted public perception.
For businesses and consumers to make informed decisions that lead to greater sustainability, the need for truthful and transparent information is critical. The digital revolution and internet of things (IoT) has helped connect and provide this kind of information to enable improvements in behavior and actions. However, this globally available information also enables greenwashing, terrorists, and others that want to hold back sustainable progress (Hart 2010, 62). Many corporations want to cash-in on the shifting consumer sentiment but do not want to change their business practices, so they resort to misstating social and environmental impacts (Quinson 2021). With the rise of businesses providing increasingly transparent information, terrorists are able to gain more information that allows for more complex hacking of energy systems and other critical infrastructure (Ferris and Van Renssen 2021). Additionally, many polluting industry lobbyists pay politicians and talking heads hundreds of million dollars each year to continue the status quo usage of fossil fuels (OpenSecrets 2021). While increasing data transparency and availability helps solve sustainability issues, it also brings these new issues that will need to be managed as well with greater oversight and regulations.
Sustainability Perceptions and Relevance
The social inertia of pollution is massive and not an easy tide to turn. While the issues in sustainability seem to be growing, it is encouraging to see that these topics are beginning to penetrate the public consciousness and not just those interested in sustainability. Having consulted for many large businesses over the past decade regarding energy and sustainability, it does not surprise me at all that corporate focus is shifting on how to leverage the public’s interest in sustainable products and services. It also directly confirms that the general public’s perception of these topics is indeed shifting and has direct financial value. An issue historically has been the lack of action that comes down to a blame game. With the public moving into an eco-conscious consumer mindset, this blame game system trap is overcome, and businesses are incentivized to move towards greater sustainability efforts and politicians are focused on capturing that support.
As we have seen, consumers are becoming more aware that the choices they are making create sustainable impacts. By voting with their dollars in addition to their votes, consumers can drive corporate and political action towards these goals. It is important to thoughtfully reflect on personal daily actions and realize they do matter and that they can help move society as a whole to more sustainable behaviors and systems.
Figure 1. The Climate Change Blame Game
Source: (Garbage_Warrior 2021).
Author: Logan Callen
EPA. 2021. “Learn About Sustainability.” Environmental Protection Agency. February 2. Accessed September 23, 2021. https://wwwa.epa.gov/sustainability/learn-about-sustainability#what.
—. 2020. “Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions.” EPA. Accessed September 23, 2021. https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions.
Ferris, Nick, and Sonja Van Renssen. 2021. “Cybersecurity Threats Escalate in the Energy Sector.” Energy Monitor. Feb 17. Accessed May 9, 2021. https://energymonitor.ai/technology/digitalisation/cybersecurity-threats-escalate-in-the-energy-sector.
Garbage_Warrior. 2021. “What Can We Do To End This Toxic Blame (Re)Cycling?” Reddit. August. Accessed September 23, 2021. https://www.reddit.com/r/sustainability/comments/p6qn1h/what_can_we_do_to_end_this_toxic_blame_recycling/.
Hart, Stuart L. 2010. Capitalism at the Crossroads: Next Generation Business Strategies for a Post-crisis World. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
OpenSecrets. 2021. “Industries.” OpenSecrets.org. Accessed September 23, 2021. https://www.opensecrets.org/federal-lobbying/industries.
Quinson, Tim. 2021. “Regulators Intensify ESG Scrutiny as Greenwashing Explodes.” Bloomberg. September 1. Accessed September 23, 2021. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-09-01/regulatory-scrutiny-of-esg-greenwashing-is-intensifying.
Whelan, Tensie, and Randi Kronthal-Sacco. 2019. “Research: Actually, Consumers Do Buy Sustainable Products.” Harvard Business Review. June. Accessed September 23, 2021. https://hbr.org/2019/06/research-actually-consumers-do-buy-sustainable-products.
Wilson, Mark. 2021. “How Google Lowered the Carbon Cost of the Pixel 5 Housing by 35%.” Fast Company. August 10. Accessed September 23, 2021. https://www.fastcompany.com/90651723/most-creative-people-2021-julie-rapoport.