Offshore wind farm for sustainable businessThe notion of "corporate social responsibility" has long faced criticism for reasons that seem almost contradictory. To the critics, the idea that businesses could care about anything besides maximizing profits is either too naïve or too cynical.

It's naïve because business managers would never sacrifice an opportunity to make a profit if it ran counter to loftier concerns, no matter the lip service. And it's cynical because the idea can serve as a pretense to allow businesses to duck regulation, the only real way to keep corporate behemoths in check.

However, two noted thinkers are now introducing a refreshing line of thought into this long-running feud. And they're turning many assumptions on their head as they marshal an unparalleled amount of evidence about some of the most cutting-edge initiatives by a variety of businesses.

In Sustainable Excellence, Aron Cramer and Zachary Karabell make a compelling case for why a focus on sustainability -- whether it concerns, for example, climate change, energy consumption or labor relations -- is now a form of enlightened self-interest for businesses. For starters, commodity prices have been soaring as investors wake up to a world marked by rapid population growth and overstretched resources. The authors point out that reducing wastefulness boosts not just egos in the executive suite but also future prospects for the bottom line.

"Green Is Green"

Cramer and Karabell draw on extensive research from the front lines of the push toward sustainability to show how enterprises big and small are using it to open up new opportunities. The book goes over some of the best known players, Nike (NKE), Wal-Mart (WMT) and General Electric (GE), where CEO Jeff Immelt is fond of saying "green is green" in summing up the profit potential of sustainability. Note how GE isn't content with being a leader in just wind-turbine technology but is also pushing hard into solar electric panels, according to an announcement today.

Another example that made news today: Google's major investment in an offshore wind power project off the U.S. East Coast. Said Google (GOOG) in its release: "We believe in investing in projects that make good business sense and further the development of renewable energy." Any payoff for Google is far down the road, but the Internet giant knows well how crucial it is to have a long-term focus.

But the more under-the-radar moves by smaller players are equally fascinating. Software maker Autodesk (ADSK) is ramping up design tools that emphasize energy efficiency in commercial real estate development. China, where a breathtaking building boom is underway and environmental concerns run high, offers a big opportunity for such tools.

Or consider Indian bank ICICI (IBN), which is drawing on everything from microfinance to mobile technology in the broader goal of making society more inclusive.

An Opportune Moment

Investors, too, are becoming more attuned to the sustainability dimension. Sustainable Excellence notes the evolving efforts now underway by Wall Street powerhouses like Goldman Sachs (GS) and Deutsche Bank (DB) to quantify these elusive characteristics.

Cramer and Karabell draw on research that is both thorough and wide-ranging, while they sidestep many of the oversimplifications and hyperbole that often come with the topic.

Sustainable Excellence also comes at an opportune moment because the usual prescription for making businesses more accountable to the societies in which they exist -- pouring on more regulation -- also has its shortcomings on full display. Major legislative initiatives in the U.S. aim to regulate finance, health care and energy have met lukewarm receptions. And these rules have proven much harder to craft than the pendulum swing back to regulation in the wake of the financial crisis may have suggested.

As businesses take on an ever-more transnational character, crafting regulation will become even harder. So, an increasing vigilance by the business and investor community could play a big role in striking a new balance. Sustainable Excellence represents a major -- and much-needed -- step in that direction.

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While it is worthwhile pursuing solar and wind energy, neither are economical, and they require large government subsidies. So let's see, in the: 1970's it was Global Cooling, 1990's it was Global Warming, and 2000's they renamed it Climate Change, it makes you wonder what's next.

October 13 2010 at 12:20 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Natural Global warming (from the warming up from the last ice age)I'm guessing is about 95% of the total and the human contribution is about 5% of the total. So, lets not spend anything on trying to alter it. Right?

October 12 2010 at 9:11 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Big business is giving the business to this incompetent administration. Someday the liberasses will get it

October 12 2010 at 8:35 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Joe Monty

Here is another link to read about the climategate fraud that has exposed this giant con and points toward many co-conspirators.

October 12 2010 at 7:52 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
Joe Monty

Liberal progressives are obsessed with this phony cult of theirs and have already been exposed as frauds and co-conspirators.

October 12 2010 at 7:48 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

The wind energy business sends jobs to China, India, Germany to make the equipment and lines the pockets of the unions here that build the junk. They do not work as advertised and will be monuments to the stupidity of pork barrel liberal thinking for decades to come.

October 12 2010 at 6:58 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

All of these "green" industries are a pipe dream. Add the wind mill power to the solar panels, and the electric cars and what do we have? A costly future for Americans. What we should do I drill for oil everywhere it is indicated to be. Quit messing around with the coal companies and use what we have, then tax it a reasonable amount until a real viable alternative is discovered. I want every one who lives in cities or drives less than 100 miles a day to buy electric cars then those of us who must use internal combustion powered transportation in our business can get lower cost fuel. I dont believe Global Warming is caused by co2, it is a naturally occuring cyclical phenoninum. Every so many hundred or thousand years the world temperature regions cycles from warmer then back to cooler. Don't mess with Mother Nature she can be a vicious enemy!

October 12 2010 at 4:14 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

Good riddance to the badly mismanaged '00's. Those thinking about long-term recovery, know the environment will be a big winner in the conversion to biofuels & biopower -- a cool site; Balkingpoints ; incredible satellite view of earth

October 12 2010 at 2:23 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply