With Earth Day coming up on April 22, it's the season for companies and trade groups to deluge the media with stories about their sustainability efforts.
It makes great yearly theater, but in many cases, it's little more than that. On Wednesday, American Public Media's Marketplace ran a piece on corporate citizenship that featured an interview with George Kell, executive director of the United Nations Global Compact, which promotes corporate citizenship, including sustainability.
Kell told Marketplace: "Well, if you were to ask me the global 1,000 corporations, you know, how many of them are sincere and seriously about sustainability and long-term value creation, our own implementation survey and other leading think tanks would probably suggest we are probably at 15%."
Interestingly, that percentage closely resembles what is happening in the U.S. population at large. In a new Harris Poll, only 20% of U.S. adults describe themselves as a "conservationist." Other terms elicit even less identification - 17% describe themselves as "green" and 16% describe themselves as an "environmentalist."
While those numbers are actually up slightly from 2009, many areas surveyed by Harris showed drops in green behaviors. For example, fewer adults say they:
Reuse things they have instead of throwing them away or buying new items (65% 2009 vs. 61% 2012);
Make an effort to use less water (60% 2009 vs. 57% 2010 and 2012);
Buy food in bulk (33% 2009 vs. 30% 2012);
Purchase all-natural products (18% 2009 vs. 16% 2012); and,
Purchase organic products (17% 2009 vs. 15% 2010 and 2012)
I can't help thinking that the political battle over climate change has done a terrible disservice - to all of us. It has tarnished commonplace beliefs about avoiding waste and leaving a better world to our children with an ugly ideological cast that has left many with green fatigue. Rather than being energized to create a better world, we're left with a dangerous environmental fatalism.
It's a much different picture at many of the Best Plants facilities we visit each year. In those plants, the drive for continuous improvement propels efforts to eliminate waste and recycle what can't be eliminated, and that attitude spills over into the home and community activities of employees.
Let's hope that can-do attitude can be channeled back into the general population. Only 34% of adults told Harris Poll they are concerned about the planet we are leaving behind for future generations. That kind of green indifference gives everyone a black eye.