As Global Leaders Stall, Business Can Lead the Way

As world leaders met in Rio last week for the UN conference on sustainable development, they drew widespread criticism. Leaders from developing countries argued that the wealthiest countries aren't doing enough to fund environmental protection. And activists argued that agreements forged in Rio are too weak and watered down to create real change.

But for all the strife and disappointments coming out of Rio, our world leaders can still come home and take concrete steps to promote sustainable development and to wipe out poverty.

They can start by supporting businesses that protect -- and improve -- our air and water. Businesses that eradicate poverty. Businesses that innovate solutions. And they can stop giving handouts to companies that don't -- companies that keep us chained to the past with their outdated, polluting operations.

As they leave Rio, our leaders have heard millions of people of all nationalities calling on them to do something -- something meaningful -- to build a real sustainable economy.

They can do this first by exposing polluters who pretend to be green. They can take steps to build a marketplace that encourages transparency, accountability, and innovation -- rather than one that rewards greed and refusal to modernize.

It's true that our leaders -- especially here in the U.S. -- have not moved quickly or boldly enough on this front. That's why, more than ever, we need businesses themselves to step up.

And many of them already are -- from huge corporations to small local entrepreneurs. Take a look at Google, one of the most cutting-edge companies in the world. Google has invested more than $915 million in clean energy projects -- including committing to use wind power produced in Iowa and Oklahoma, where the company has large, energy-intensive data centers.

Meanwhile, we're seeing hundreds of small, local businesses lead the way in creating a healthier environment and more inclusive economy. Just take a look at Philadelphia's Wash Cycle Laundry. The company washes laundry with non-toxic detergent and delivers it by bicycle. Even better, Wash Cycle creates career pathways, with a focus on hiring and training people who've been left out of the old economy. Watch our video to find out more.

Has taking the high road hurt the bottom line for these companies? Not for Wash Cycle -- the new company is doubling its staff this year. And Google's certainly not suffering as a result of its investment in clean energy.

They're not alone. More and more companies are recognizing that ethical business makes good economic sense. In fact, when Accenture polled CEOs from 250 companies in the U.K., U.S., Japan, Germany, France, China, Brazil and India, the vast majority said they view sustainability as key to their growth.

All over the world, companies are finding new ways to do business that help the planet and its people. And many of these companies are the same ones that kept us all afloat through the recession.

Throughout the economic downturn, clean energy has remained one of our fastest-growing sectors. Global clean energy investment reached a record $263 billion in 2011, a 6.5 percent year-over-year increase. The American solar industry has seen triple-digit growth for the past two years. And in 2010, wind power generation accounted for more than one quarter of all new energy production. At a time when so many businesses have faltered and collapsed, these industries continue to thrive.

One reason is because they're making the most of the technological breakthroughs of the 21st century. And we need more businesses to follow suit. The fact that we continue to use taxpayer money to prop up businesses that aren't -- businesses that refuse to innovate, businesses that cling to the past -- like oil and coal -- just doesn't make any sense. It's like pouring our money into eight-track cassettes when we could all be using iPods.

Innovation. Accountability. Prosperity. They go hand-in-hand. They're what a real green economy is all about. It's about cutting-edge technology. Healthy communities. Safe jobs. And vast economic opportunity.

The sooner our heads of state begin to see this -- the sooner they start to catch up with the businesses that get it, the ones that are thriving by doing right -- the better off we will all be.