A Look Back at Sustainability in 2015

In 2015, sustainability measures were increasingly integrated into business operations and government policies. Further, these measures tended to be inclusive in nature. All stakeholders-governments, businesses, communities, consumers and investors-were involved from planning to execution.

There are two explanations for this. First, stakeholders continued to recognize that sustainability measures have longer-lasting effects if they are integrated into business operations and government policies, rather than implemented as isolated measures. Second, stakeholder involvement in the planning and execution of sustainability measures ensures that stakeholders' needs are addressed. When stakeholders contribute to the planning and execution of a sustainability policy, it has a greater chance of success.

Following are key themes and issues where great strides were made in 2015.

Climate Change

From November 30 to December 12, 2015, the United Nations held the twenty-first session of the Conference of Parties (more popularly known as the COP21 summit) in Paris, France. COP21 had a very ambitious objective-to come up with a legally binding agreement among all nations to limit global warming to below 2°C by 2100. COP21 was attended by at least 100 heads of state and 40,000 other delegates from government, intergovernmental organizations, UN agencies, NGOs and civil society. The diverse nature of the summit's participants ensured that all stakeholders would be involved in formulating and implementing the provisions of the COP21 agreement.

The COP21 agreement reflected the inclusive nature of the summit. First, all signatory countries are required to reach the peak of their respective greenhouse emissions as soon as possible, and then gradually reduce them as the century progresses. Second, all signatory countries are mandated to help keep any increase in global temperature well below 2°C, as well as to help limit any increase in global temperature to 1.5°C. Third, countries' pledges must be reviewed every 5 years. Fourth, developed countries are to send developing countries USD100 billion in climate finance each year from 2020 onwards (this amount is expected to increase with time).

Water Scarcity

Water is consumed by everyone, and water scarcity is a problem that affects rich and poor nations alike. According to a 2012 report by the US State Department, the demand for fresh water in the US will exceed the country's existing fresh water supplies by 2030. In August 2014, homes in Itu, Brazil, had their water supplies shut off due to severe drought.

2015 saw the emergence of business organizations creating initiatives dedicated to water conservation. Following are some examples:

  • In June 2014, the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group claimed that water supply challenges could cost them USD2.5 billion in future sales. In order to avert this potential loss, the company outlined practical and measureable goals for water conservation, including the reduction of manufacturing water use and wastewater discharge by 10% per gallon of finished product.
  • In August 2015, California-based brewery Shock Top launched Drop-A-Brick 2.0, its water conservation program. Through this initiative, the brewery offered customers free rubber bricks (excluding shipping costs) which they can put inside their toilets to save water. Drop-A-Brick 2.0's official website claimed that its rubber bricks conserve about a half-gallon per flush or 3,000 gallons/year per household. The website added that if every person in California used a rubber brick on their toilets, the state would be able to save 6 billion gallons-a year's supply of clean drinking water for 32 million people-in just 90 days.
  • On October 2015, Coca-Cola announced that it donated USD50,000 to the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC). The NCC said that it will spend this money on four Bow River water conservation projects. The Bow River Watershed is an important source of water for Calgary's residents―more than 1 million people in Calgary rely on it for drinking water. Through these projects, the NCC aims to restore at least 80 million liters of water in the Bow River Watershed.

Water is for drinking, but also an integral part of the products consumers buy and throw away. Everyday items like paper, plastic, metal and fabric cannot be produced and maintained without water and, as a result, it makes sense for organizations to establish water conservation programs. Less water consumption can add up to more products and profits in the future.

Resource Conservation

Resource depletion reduces the amount of raw materials that can be turned into goods and services. Conservation is therefore vital for businesses' long-term viability. Diminishing raw materials can undermine even the most productive companies. According to a June 2015 report by the White House and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), climate change-related drought and water shortages may cause the US up to USD180 billion in economic losses by the end of the century.

The detrimental effects of climate change and resource depletion have forced companies to develop resource conservation measures in 2015. In July, Kellogg Company outlined an updated list of its 2020 Sustainability Commitments:

Energy (to be achieved by 2020):

  • Expand use of low-carbon energy in our plants by 50%.
  • Reduce energy and GHG emissions in our plants by an additional 15% (per metric ton of food produced) from 2015 performance.

Water (to be achieved by 2020):

  • Support watershed quality.
  • Implement water reuse projects in 25% of our plants.
  • Reduce water use in our plants by an additional 15% (per metric ton of food produced) from 2015 performance.

Packaging:

  • Maintain commitment to 100% timber-based packaging from either recycled content or from certified sustainable sources.
  • Further implement resource-efficient packaging, as measured by improved performance for recycled content, recyclability and food-to-package ratios.

Levi's promoted resource conservation in 2015 through consumer engagement. First, it encouraged consumers to take an online quiz measuring their water and energy use, and asked them to pledge to make reductions. Second, Levi's launched a clothing recycling program in July 2015, where people can drop off used clothing and shoes of any brand to any Levi's store in exchange for a '20% off' voucher. Levi's clothing collection partner, I:CO, will then repurpose or recycle the used items. By showing consumers how they could help lower resource consumption, Levi's was able to actively enlist their support. More people supporting Levi's resource conservation efforts, in turn, increase the efforts' success.

In June 2015, Danish toy giant LEGO announced that it would spend DKK1 billion (USD150 million) on research, development and implementation of more sustainable LEGO blocks and packaging. LEGO blocks are traditionally made from petroleum, rendering them resource-intensive. LEGO will establish its Sustainable Materials Centre in 2015 and 2016, along with satellite functions in various parts of the globe. In addition, the company plans to hire at least 100 materials experts to work on more sustainable LEGO blocks and packaging.

Renewable Energy

Renewable energy has many environmental benefits, and remained a hot topic in 2015. Renewable energy produces little or no emissions, so it helps combat climate change. Renewable energy is also less resource-intensive compared with conventional energy sources. The average coal plant consumes 100 to 1,100 gallons of water per megawatt-hour (enough to fill 2 Olympic-sized swimming pools). In sharp contrast, a natural gas plant consumes only 600-800 gallons per megawatt-hour (enough to fill half an Olympic-sized swimming pool), and a solar panel consumes no water at all.

Not surprisingly, countries invested heavily in renewable energy in 2015. With its renewable energy facilities, Costa Rica was able to have electricity in the first 75 days of 2015 without using fossil fuels like oil or coal. The country expected more than 95% of its total electricity consumption in 2015 to be sourced from renewables, and surpassed this goal, achieving 99% renewable electricity generation by the end of the year.

In the US, renewables accounted for almost 70% of its new electrical capacity in the first half of 2015. According to the June 2015 edition of the "Energy Infrastructure Update" from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's (FERC) Office of Energy Projects, 18 new wind "units" produced more than half (1,969 MW) of the US' new electrical capacity from January to June 2015. During the said period, natural gas produced 1,173 MW (21 units), solar produced 549 MW (71 units), biomass produced 128 MW (7 units), geothermal steam produced 45 MW (1 unit) and hydropower produced 21 MW (1 unit). In June 2015, renewables constituted 17.27% of the total installed operating capacity in the US―higher than those of nuclear (9.20%) and oil (3.87%).

Comparatively speaking, renewable energy supplied 78% of Germany's electricity in July 2015. In the first nine months of 2015, the country derived 114,723 gigawatt hours of electricity from renewable sources―nearly double the amount generated by nuclear sources in the same period. Germany's wind power output in the first nine months of 2015 was 52% higher than in 2014. At the end of September 2015, Germany's PV systems produced 33,193 gigawatt hours of solar electricity.

Sustainable Workplaces

Many people spend more time at work than they do in their own homes, and it's important that those workplaces are sustainable. A sustainable workplace results in happier employees, increased employee productivity and fewer work-related illnesses, injuries and accidents, which, in turn, leads to increased viability and greater profits for companies.

Companies are regularly expected to implement workplace safety procedures and respect workers' rights, but 2015 saw companies actively adopting global standards that promote human rights linked to business activity. In June 2015, Unilever released its inaugural human rights report, the first human rights report based upon the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Unilever identified its salient human rights issues and explained how it has addressed them. To help end workplace discrimination, for example, Unilever signed the UN Women's Empowerment Principles and the Girl Declaration. These initiatives align with Unilever's goal to empower 5 million women by 2020 with greater opportunities, better access to skills training and improved safety in communities where the company operates. By adhering to global standards for business conduct and human rights, Unilever became a key partner in bringing about a sustainable workplace by ensuring the human rights of all of its stakeholders.

2015 saw both the private and public sectors adopting a more proactive approach towards sustainability. Both developed ways to reduce their environmental impact, used resources more efficiently, and took advantage of the benefits of a sustainable economy or enterprise. Organizations have the potential to greatly benefit from ensuring energy and resource efficiency within their operations, bringing profits and business continuity by saving money and reducing waste.

In 2015, both the public and the private sectors also realized that sustainability is a community effort, on a global scale. By working together in crafting and implementing sustainability measures, they devised and implemented initiatives that address the core of sustainability issues, the effects of which will be felt by all sectors for years to come.

FirstCarbon Solutions (FCS) helps organizations recognize business drivers for sustainability practices and offers cost-effective sustainability management solutions.