On Earth Day, it's time to admit business isn't the enemy

Every year around this time, we summon our collective guilt at our mistreatment of the Earth and promise each other that we'll do better. We host and attend benefit concerts, participate in walkathons and sign online pledges. We swear to use our purchasing power for the good of the planet, to take the future of our world into our hands and out of the pockets of big corporations.

But what if these Earth Day promises we've been making for almost 50 years are actually contributing to the problem rather than helping solve it? What if our anti-corporate slogans are alienating the groups that could make a big difference in the fight against climate change?

Earth Day Protest
Spencer Platt | Newsmakers | Getty Images

It's undeniable — and understandable — that Earth Day has traditionally stood in opposition to the business community. The first Earth Day marches and rallies were made up of groups who were protesting factories, power plants, freeways, and other infrastructure systems and businesses that were polluting and damaging the environment.

They weren't wrong to do so — companies have to be held accountable for the environmentally destructive decisions they make. But the revolt against big business has alienated the very constituency that can most effect change: the business community. Equally unfortunate, it has forced individuals into unnecessarily one-dimensional categories: environmentalist or CEO, animal lover or profiteer, tree-hugger or cold-blooded capitalist. Instead of seeing conservation and business as allies, we've turned them into enemies.

Here's the truth: We don't have to choose between the environment and the economy. Being green is profitable. Businesses around the world understand that fact — companies from Toyota to Tesco are flourishing because of it. But the rhetoric around Earth Day continues to ostracize the business community, and with global average temperatures rising dangerously, we can't afford to keep giving business the cold shoulder. Companies have an indisputably bigger environmental impact than everyday citizens, and that's why including them in the fight against climate change is so important. It's time to reclaim Earth Day from the fringes and make it count for activists and capitalists alike.

In 1993, I co-founded the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), a nonprofit organization dedicated to sustainable buildings and communities. USGBC created a voluntary rating system — Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED — which scores buildings based on their sustainable features.

Since its inception, communities and companies have found that investing in LEED brings them energy savings, water savings, cost savings, and a significant return on their investments. In just 15 years, 14+ billion square feet of real estate around the world have been LEED registered and certified, reducing energy use by double digit percentages and avoiding immeasurable environmental toxins and greenhouse gases. Cutting down on energy use is helping companies to increase their profits.

The American economy overall has seen a similar boost from going green. Green construction added $167.4 billion to the U.S. GDP from 2011 to 2014, according to a 2015 Green Building Economic Impact Study. This year, the green building sector will employ more than 2.3 million Americans, and by 2018 it is expected to nearly double in size.

Businesses all over the world are catching on to the fact that sustainability can drive profits. Take Unilever, one of the world's largest consumer-goods companies, which has reduced emissions by 37 percent since 2008 and saved the company more than $422 million.

United Technologies, the manufacturing powerhouse that ranks 45th on the Fortune 500 list, has, over 20 years, cut water use in half and lowered GHG emissions by a third while growing sales more than 200 percent. Last year, Siemens' Environmental Portfolio eliminated 428 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions. The list goes on.

The power of business to drive change is undeniable. And given the environmental impact that companies have, harnessing that power in the pursuit of good — rather than seeing it as inherently bad — is the right way forward for those of us who want to heal the planet.

This Earth Day, we need to bring the environmental movement and the business community together. Earth Day stands for our collective drive to improve the world we live in. But you can be an environmentalist, a concerned citizen, and good at business all at the same time. Assuming that the business community can't offer anything to the environmental movement is to ignore the immense power of capitalism to rebuild the planet.

So let's reclaim Earth Day and make it mean more than bottle-cap drives and green T-shirts. Let's make meaningful change together and build a future where you can think green and make green, all at the same time.

Commentary by Rick Fedrizzi, CEO and founding chair, US Green Building Council. Follow him on Twitter @rickfedrizzi.

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