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Here’s my latest for Sustainable Brands.

Previous articles in this series talked about leading businesses taking bold steps on their own for the common good — because it’s the right thing to do — even if it costs the company financially in the short term.

This time I want to point to the latest wave of businesses working collaboratively on the urgent, common ground issues of renewable energy and climate policy. In America’s history of westward expansion and exploration, pioneer families came together in wagon trains for mutual support. In the same way, the examples below show that businesses are taking action, together, to ensure a more certain future that’s good for all of us and for business.

To start off, a June 2014 clean energy report by Ceres, WWF and Calvert Investments supports the idea that this trend is gaining momentum. The report makes the case that big US companies are already investing in renewable energy as a basic “business as usual” material issue, including UPS, Cisco Systems, PepsiCo, United Continental and General Motors. These and the other companies in the report have already saved a billion dollars in energy costs and upped their business planning certainty. Far from a fringe or boutique concern, renewable energy investment is about knowing where your energy is going to come from tomorrow, and having some sense of how much it will cost.

It’s worth noting that several cross-sector partnerships and multi-stakeholder groups for climate issues have been working on these issues for years. The UK- and EU-focused Prince of Wales’ Corporate Leaders Group first convened in 2007. And the US-focused group BICEP has been advocating for energy and climate legislation since 2008, with its Climate Declaration attracting over 700 corporate signatories to date. (For more examples of creative, effective partnerships on climate-impacting issues, take a look at Sustainable Brands’ collaboration and co-creation channel.)

But just in the past three months, there have been several high-profile announcements, as well as one intriguing low-key entry. These are four groups to watch:

1. March 2014 — Business Alliance for the Future Meets for First Time
The Business Alliance for the Future is a new alliance of alliances that’s being organized and supported by about 40 business affiliations including BSR, B Team, Ceres, World Business Academy, SVN, National Association of Women Business Owners, Young Presidents’ Organization and others to “to connect, magnify and exponentially accelerate, business’ role in building a world where business excels, people thrive and nature flourishes.”

The group first met in March in Santa Barbara, CA and it is scheduled to meet again in October at the Fowler Center for Sustainable Value at Case Western University. The Alliance is formulating its strategy around the intention to dramatically impact existing game-changing projects (to the tune of 5x in 5 years) by fostering action-oriented collaboration.

According to Alliance member Jeana Wirtenberg, co-founder of the Institute for Sustainable Enterprise, who is heading up one of the working groups, “There are several collaborative action team initiatives already well under way, including: amplifying and spreading a new business narrative; creating 100 percent renewable energy economy; participating, aligning around, and designing a grand economic strategy; and developing and implementing a new corporate scorecard and metrics.”

2. May 2014 — We Mean Business Coalition Launches
While we don’t have specifics yet about what this group will tackle, We Mean Business stated goal on their website is to call for “ambitious climate policy and bold climate action.” The group is like a super-pod of business action leadership, with partners from BSR, CERES, CDP, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the Climate Group, and the Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders Group, in conjunction with Nike and IKEA.

3. June 2014 — Small Business Poll Shows Support for Market-Stabilizing Rules
In late June, the American Sustainable Business Council released poll results showing that US small business owners support climate rules for market stability and predictability.

The survey found that “clear majorities of small business owners are concerned about how climate change will affect their companies, including its impact on energy costs, health care costs and the infrastructure they depend on. Survey respondents voiced strong support for government action to address climate change, specifically, efforts to limit carbon pollution from power plants which produce a third of all U.S. carbon emissions.”

I find this poll interesting because it shows that leaders from small US businesses are on the same page when it comes to wanting business certainty in the face of climate instability as many of their colleagues at global behemoths.

4. July 2014 — Launch of Renewable Energy Buyers’ Principles
And on July 11, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the World Resources Institute (WRI) announced that 12 major companies — spanning communications, manufacturing, consumer goods and tech — are jointly asking utilities and energy suppliers to offer more renewable energy products.

The Buyers’ Principles provide a coordinated starting point for what these companies need in terms of options, financing, contracts and emissions levels. The inaugural signers are Bloomberg, Facebook, General Motors, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Johnson & Johnson, Mars, Novelis, Procter and Gamble, REI, Sprint, and Walmart. I’m hoping that this will be an unmistakable unmet need signal to the energy market that yes, business wants more renewables and is willing to pay for them.

In my mind, these groups are coming together now for one profound reason. With government paralysis on one side and entrenched lobbying for the fossil fuel status quo on the other, the Cavalry isn’t coming. If renewable energy and climate action are going to be truly become Business as Usual for successful companies — as Ceres’ clean energy report posits — then business has to make it happen.

Together, I see all these efforts leading up to this September’s UN Climate Summit in New York City, where business will be asked to take on larger and more meaningful commitments. Just last week, the UN event’s organizers and partners called for business leaders willing to stand up for carbon pricing “as a necessary and effective measure to tackle climate change.”

And then, it will be time to take all this positive forward momentum to the COP21 meeting in Paris in December 2015. That’s where, once again, the entire world will attempt to agree on climate action and who is going to pay for it. I’m hopeful that, by the time we get there, collaborative efforts like these will have blazed the trail for business to be a major part of the solution.

What a great, memorable, accessible concept.

Think Bright. Not Brown.

“Brownfields into Brightfields” means means transforming unproductive industrial spaces into energy-producing solar power installations.

As a NJ native, I grew up on the concept of brownfields. These are spaces that have already been used for commercial or industrial use. They are “brown” in that they are usually cemented over.  They aren’t green, haven’t been for a long time and they won’t ever be again.

No trees. No shade. Cracked cement. High chainlink fences.

Often contaminated, making them unsuitable for many purposes.

Usually close to densely populated areas, but not in the middle of things.

Which makes them perfect sites for energy-producing, job-creating, renewable energy projects.

The EPA has been on this idea for years.

Via epa.gov:

Brightfields Initiatives

Brightfields is a revolutionary concept that addresses three of the nation’s biggest challenges — urban revitalization, toxic waste cleanup, and climate change — by bringing pollution-free solar energy and high-tech solar manufacturing jobs to brownfields.

The Brightfields approach offers a range of opportunities to link solar energy to brownfields redevelopment and thereby transform community hazards and eyesores into productive, green ventures.

This unprecedented campaign will help our nation put its hundreds of thousands of brownfields back into productive use and at the same time create high-tech jobs in blighted urban neighborhoods, improve air quality, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

With thanks to National Geographic writer Christina Nunez, I learned about about a Brightfield project in Hackensack, NJ.

Via theenergycollective.com:

Turning Brownfields Into Brightfields With Solar Energy

Thousands of contaminated tracts of land labeled brownfields by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency may eventually provide the valuable real estate needed for renewable energy projects, and New Jersey is at the forefront of using such sites to bolster its status as a leader in solar energy.

The utility PSE&G is installing 4,000 solar panels on a six-acre site in Hackensack, N.J., that was once the home of a gas plant and then gas storage facilities. For this site and many others, cleaning up the land for traditional development is prohibitively expensive and time-consuming.

This is another one of these private-public-industry partnerships that have the power to actually work.

I wrote about a similar project back in May 2012.

Green Government: NJ Dump Gets New Life as Solar Farm

New Jersey’s newest solar farm is located on a 13-acre closed landfill in Kearny. From fallow to flourishing, the site is expected to power 500 homes.

A key success here in my mind–and hopefully a model for future development–is that this project required a lot of people with their own agendas and motivations to work together. It could not have been easy to coordinate this first-in-class project between a state-regulated public utility (PSE&G), a joint government/business  commission, private industry, and state government officials.

Brownfields seemed like places beyond repair. Turns out they are part of a brighter future.

Can a discount change consumer choices for the better?

Walmart and healthcare insurance provider Humana are betting yes.

In a program touted as a first-of-its-kind partnership, Humana customers will get a 5% discount on healthy food choices at Walmart.

Via PRNewswire.com:

Walmart and HumanaVitality Partner for First-of-its-Kind Healthier Food Program Designed to Incentivize Wellness in America

Beginning on Oct. 15, more than one million HumanaVitality members who shop at Walmart will be eligible for a new program which offers a five percent savings on products that qualify for Walmart’s Great For You icon, including fresh fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy.

This program is asking, will consumers buy more healthy food if we reduce the price barriers?

Which brings up what I think it a far more interesting question.

Why is it that apples are costlier than chips in the first place?

It’s not that the apples are expensive, really. It’s that the chips are cheaper, because of subsidies.

The question I’d like to see answered is:  What do consumer buying choices look like when incentives for making healthy food affordable are evenly matched with subsidies that allow  junk food to be so cheap?

While this is a little afield from my normal Sustainability posts, bear with me.

What if the question were instead, “Can a discount change consumer choices for the greener?

It takes us to the same place.

Like, say, with renewable energy sources.

We could just as easily ask : Why is clean, renewable power costlier than fossil-based fuels in the first place?

The answer is, it’s not. Fossil-fuels are cheaper because they are subsidized.

Worldwide, fossil-fuel is subsidized at six times the rate for renewables, according to the 2011 World Energy Outlook.

But grid parity–the point when renewable energy costs less than fossil-based fuels is coming, due to rapid advances in renewable energy technologies. It’s already a reality today in India, Spain and Italy.

(Update! Solar is cheaper than fossil in Massachusetts too.)

The playing field will look different once apples–I mean renewables–are on an even playing field with less-healthy, less-sustainable choices.

So, back to Walmart and Humana. What’s in it for them to discount apples?

If the bet pans out (and the research says it will): healthier, happier, loyal customers all around.

I support most anything that encourages consumers to buy healthier food. (If today’s Mark Bittman column linking Alzheimer’s disease to junk food doesn’t turn you off corn chips, I don’t know what will.)

I’m hopeful that the research that comes out of this partnership will help move Americans to buy more apples.

And by extension, support a shift towards supporting economically prudent, sustainable choices in other arenas, like energy.

Thanks to Jonathan Low for his post that alerted me to this story.