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Is sustainability sustainable in the Age of Trump?

  • We believe there is still plenty of opportunity to protect our environment and society, in part because Trump’s actions have virtually no popular support and limited business support.
  • Even Trump voters support environmental regulation and renewable energy.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors.

For Americans who care about sustainability, it’s been three long, tough months. It started in January with two executive orders lifting financial and environmental restrictions on oil and coal companies. Then came the appointment of EPA antagonist Scott Pruitt as head of the agency, followed by President Trump’s proposed 31 percent cut to the EPA budget. Finally, there was the president’s March 28 executive order to withdraw from the Clean Power Plan and cancel Barack Obama’s 2016 auto emissions standards.

What’s next? Trump has said many times he wants to withdraw from the 2015 Paris COP21 climate accord. But whether the U.S. stays in the accord or not, it’s clear the new administration has no intention of meeting our commitments to it.

They killed us, but they ain’t whupped us yet

What now? Let’s start by taking a deep breath and remember what Tim Kaine said in his election night concession speech:

“They killed us, but they ain’t whupped us yet.”

We believe there is still plenty of opportunity to protect our environment and society, in part because Trump’s actions have virtually no popular support and limited business support.

Pew Research says 89 percent of Americans support expanding the use of solar power, and 59 percent support stricter environmental laws and regulations.

Even Trump voters support environmental regulation and renewable energy. Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies found that 75 percent of Trump voters support action to accelerate the deployment and use of clean energy.

Bucking the business community

The Trump team is also on the “wrong” side of Big Business. GreenBiz’s 2017 Green Economy survey looked specifically at how corporate sustainability strategies will be affected by power shifts in the presidency and Congress. The survey finds that these changes will have no impact on 60 percent of the respondents’ sustainability strategies, and just over a third say it will “slow us down but not stop us.”

Pledging allegiance

Why do companies plan to stay the course? For one thing, many organizations have already publicly pledged allegiance to sustainable business practices while tying their brands to a socially responsible mission.

A Corporate Citizenship survey reports that 40 percent of companies are working to achieve at least one of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—up from 19 percent last year.

Of course, companies know that sustainability isn’t just good for their brand — it’s good for their business. A study by Harvard Business School demonstrates that sustainability-focused companies outperform their peers. An Arabesque/Oxford study shows Good Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) standards lower the cost of capital and help deliver better operational performance.

Better engagement and retention metrics

Sustainability is proving to be a big factor in employee engagement and retention. A study by SHRM, BSR & Aurosoorya found that morale was 55 percent higher in companies with strong sustainability programs. Cone Research found that 64 percent of millennial job candidates won’t work for a company that doesn’t have strong corporate social responsibility commitments.

The investor climate is changing

As business proves the sustainable business case, sustainable finance is on the rise.

According to the Sustainability Stock Exchanges (SSE) initiative, 58 stock exchanges — representing over 70 percent of listed equity markets — have made a public commitment to advancing sustainability in their market.

In the U.S., total assets invested that consider environmental issues have grown 77-fold since 2010 and now exceed $7.79 trillion, according to the Green Business 2017 report.

Joining forces, speaking out

All of this is emboldening business leaders to speak out publicly about sustainability and, increasingly, to join forces with other leaders to amplify the message.

In 2013, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg formed Risky Business with former Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulsen and philanthropist Tom Steyer. Their mission is to speak out on the economic risks of climate change and make the case for why the U.S. should invest in a clean energy economy.

An open letter to world leaders was issued in the lead up to COP21 in Paris. Here, a coalition of CEOs from 79 companies and 20 economic sectors — representing $2.1 trillion of combined revenue —affirmed their commitment to ambitious business action on climate change, and urged the world’s leaders to reach an ambitious climate deal at COP21.

By COP21, the coalition had 543 companies and investors commit to at least one of its initiatives, which included adopting a science-based target, putting a price on carbon, and procuring 100 percent of electricity from renewable sources. By the beginning of 2017, 688 companies and investors have committed to at least one of these initiatives.

Is sustainability sustainable?

Is sustainability in the U.S. really sustainable now that Donald Trump sits in the Oval Office? The GreenBiz report is cautiously optimistic:

“In an increasingly complex business environment of growing resource use and climate concern, along with the uncertainties brought about by the 2016 U.S. elections, sustainable business faces a challenging future. However, we’re seeing that the world’s largest companies remain steadfast in their sustainability commitments and achievements.”

The fact is, sustainable business is an enormous opportunity. A recent study by the Business & Sustainable Development Commission says that achieving the Sustainable Development Goals in just four economic systems could open 60 market ‘hot spots’ worth an estimated $12 trillion by 2030.”

The sustainable business opportunity is probably bigger than that. We would argue that it is stronger than any one person’s political agenda, even the president of the United States.

A longer version of this article is available on Corporate Eco Forum’s EcoInnovator Blog.