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A look back at 2013’s biggest sustainability themes in the US

US President Barack Obama

This fall, President Obama declared that inequality is the “defining challenge of our age.” Photograph: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images


Powered by article titled “A look back at 2013’s biggest sustainability themes in the US” was written by Marc Gunther, for on Monday 23rd December 2013 17.00 UTC

It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future, the baseball player Yogi Berra reportedly said. (Or was it the physicist Neils Bohr? Or Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn?)

Whoever said it, I agree – so instead of trying to forecast 2014, let’s look back at the the big stories in sustainable business from 2013, knowing that they will shape whatever lies ahead. As the US editor-at-large of Guardian Sustainable Business, I’ll offer what is unavoidably a US-centric perspective.

Greenhouse gas emissions, in decline

The carbon dioxide emissions that cause climate change have declined in five of the last seven years in the US, largely because utilities are burning less coal and more natural gas and renewable energy.

Last fall, the government reported that energy-related CO2 emissions had fallen by 3.8% in 2012, bringing them to their lowest level since 1994 and more than 12% below the peak year, 2007. A confluence of factors explains the drop. The fracking boom is generating cheap natural gas. Activist campaigns and pollution rule have made coal-burning less economical. Factories are more efficient, as are cars. As we know, the energy sector is capital intensive and famously slow to change. But these numbers show that it can change, and change dramatically.

Solar power, mainstream at last

Every four minutes, on average, a new solar power system is installed in the US. Most are small rooftop panels, to be sure, but they add up: the solar industry is on pace to install about 4,300 megawatts of electric capacity in 2013 (about as much as all the solar capacity between 2000 and 2011) and the industry is growing by 40% a year. So excited are investors about solar’s growth that they sent the stock of industry darling Solar City up by more than 500% since its initial public offering about a year ago. That said, solar power still delivers less than 0.5% of all US power generation.

The aftermath of Rana Plaza

Sadly, it can take a tragedy to awaken business to its responsibilities. The death of more than 1,100 people in the collapse of a factory at Rana Plaza outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, in April led to soul-searching in the garment industry and, so far, a couple of industry alliances focused on fire safety in Bangladash, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety signed by more than 100 apparel firms, most based in the EU, as well as global and Bangladeshi trade unions, and the and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, composed mostly of big US retailers including Walmart, Gap and Target.

The two groups have arrived at common standards, which will prevent some loss of life in the future in Bangladesh–no small thing. More important, companies in industries like apparel and electronics that profit handsomely from doing business in places with cheap labour and little regard for human rights are learning, at last, that they need to play a greater role in the costly, difficult and for the most part unrewarding work of helping those places protect their own people.

Industrial-strength sustainability

The Bangaldesh coalitions are but one example of a heartening trend in corporate America – the willingness of companies to work with their competitors, as well as up and down their supply chains, to attack problems that are too big for any one firm to solve on its down.

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition, a collection of retailers, brands, manufacturers and NGOs, has developed the Higg Index, an open-source tool to better measure the environmental and social impact of apparel and footwear. BSR’s Human Rights Working Group brings tech companies, mining and oil companies and consumer products firms together to promote human rights. This isn’t new–coalitions like the Marine Stewardship Council have been around since the late 1990s–but broader approaches to big problems are becoming the rule, not the exception.

Inequality, on the political agenda

This fall, President Obama declared that inequality is the “defining challenge of our age,” populist Bill de Blasio was elected mayor of New York and signs that leftish Senator Elizabeth Warren had captured the soul of the Democratic Party was described as “Hilary’s Nightmare”, before Warren took her name out of the 2016 presidential race.

The numbers, as laid out by Obama, are stark: the top 10% of Americans take half of the national income and big-company CEOs now make 273 times that income of the average worker. Even more worrisome is the decline in social mobility; a child born into the bottom 20% has a less than 1-in-20 shot at making it to the top.


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