Rob Katz

Greening the Base of the Pyramid? SustainAbility Weighs In.

What does green look like at the base of the economic pyramid? SustainAbility’s John Elkington and Mark Lee take that question on in a recent article, Fatigue of Nations, published by Grist. Elkington and Lee write in the engaging, tongue-in-cheek style embraced by Grist, and the result is eminently readable. The authors discuss the potential role of business in greening the base of the pyramid:

In the business world, there are several levels of response to all of this. At the grassroots level, a growing number of social entrepreneurs are working to create new markets for, among other things, renewable energy and waste-management services. In the middle are the corporations that are being teased by the notion of the fortunes to be made at the bottom of the wealth pyramid. And then, perhaps the potential solution that really dares not speak its name, there is Wal-Mart and its globe-straddling supply chain.

The much-hammered $300 billion-a-year behemoth has begun pledging itself to sell everything from organic cotton baby clothes to sustainable fish. While its supply chain initiatives still lag way behind the likes of Nike and Gap, the potential for allying Wal-Mart’s cost-reduction power with the green agenda should tempt us to at least think the unthinkable. What if Hurricane Katrina really did turn out to be CEO Lee Scott’s Road to Damascus, and Wal-Mart really were to embrace sustainability? If Scott stuck with this long and effectively enough, would we put his name up in lights alongside the likes of BP’s Lord John Browne and GE’s Jeff Immelt? We shouldn’t count on it, but stranger things have happened.

I like that environmentalists such as Elkington at least acknowledge the potential for companies to create wealth–sustainably–at the BOP. There’s been a knee-jerk reaction among the green crowd to corporate involvement in emerging economies for a long time, but that’s starting to change. And when you get down to it, the so-called BOP isn?t going to care about the environment unless they have enough income to put food on the table, a roof over their head, send their kids to school, and stay healthy. Unfortunately for the hard-core green set, the best way to do that is with a job. Fortunately for the green set, the companies out to provide those jobs are increasingly interested in doing so in environmentally sustainable ways. Yet to be seen, but food for thought.