Multilateral corporate partnerships and market-based approaches have become standard practice.
American corporations began joining with environmental groups to increase sustainability nearly 30 years ago. This trend was still on the horizon in 1986 when I wrote an op-ed for this page describing an emerging style of environmentalism dedicated to problem-solving, market-based approaches, and partnerships.
Now widely known as Third Wave environmentalism, the idea first became a reality in 1990, when McDonald’s teamed up with my organization, the Environmental Defense Fund, to reduce more than 300 million pounds of solid waste by doing away with its foam-clamshell packaging.
The Third Wave built on the progress of the first two: Teddy Roosevelt-era land conservation, followed by mid-20th-century antipollution laws like the Clean Air Act.
In the 1990s, the advent of reliable pollution monitoring opened the door to flexible Third Wave solutions such as the U.S. cap-and-trade system for sulfur dioxide, which causes forest-killing acid rain. Since 1990, this program has helped reduce coal-plant sulfur-dioxide emissions by more than 90% nationwide.
Market-based approaches and corporate partnerships are standard practice today. Yet too many environmentalists still regard business as the enemy, and vice versa.
That may finally be changing, because an emerging wave of environmental innovation is making these partnerships more productive, and their results more precisely measurable.
Call it the Fourth Wave of environmental progress:
Innovation that gives people new ways to solve environmental problems.
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