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Davos: Bottom Up Solutions From the Top of the Mountain

This blog is part of our Inspired Ethonomics series.

World Economic Forum

Since the wrap up of COP-15, a lot of attention has been devoted to debating "Who lost Copenhagen?" Last week in Davos, a far more promising question was being asked: "How can business and consumers create a sustainable economy from the ground up?"

It's nearly impossible to discern the true "mood of Davos," because there are simply too many micro-communities amid the 2,500 participants. But for those of us focused on sustainability, there were many reasons for optimism.

First, if the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos is a barometer of the global business and policy agenda, sustainable business now has a clear seat at the table. It wasn't long ago that sustainability was a fringe topic; today, it is one of the six formal "pillars" of the event.

Second, the gathering tackled the hard questions, particularly in the debate around sustainable consumption. Granted, it's easy to be cynical about how real the debate is when it unfolds at an event where many arrive via helicopter (I took the train). But while I worked with more than two dozen CEOs from across several industries to debate their vision for a sustainable future, I saw a seriousness of purpose that bodes well.

Third, the debate over the fundamental values driving the global economy rages on. French President Sarkozy challenged Davos Man and Woman to build a more moral form of capitalism. His words resonated with many—and angered many others. But they reflected and catalyzed a much-needed debate on just what kind of economy we want and need. And the question of values involved not only bankers' bonuses, but also the role of business in promoting sustainable outcomes. UN environment chief Achim Steiner delivered a stirring wake up call (literally, it was early Saturday morning) for business to advocate for a binding global climate treaty.

But in the end, there was a consensus view—which I share—that as much as a global climate deal is crucial, we can't wait for that to save us. The future depends on sustainability as a driver of innovation that stimulates consumer demand for different products and services.

So when companies begin looking at new avenues for innovation—like the Green Xchange, an open source platform launched by Nike in Davos—that's a win. When a group of designers and sustainability experts explore the creation of a Web- and mobile-enabled portal to information sources about products and services, that's progress. If social entrepreneurs like Harish Hande of Selco continue to spread solar power across India, the fight against energy poverty advances. And when a group of CEOs gets serious about the creation of common metrics they can use to drive water and energy reduction across all their products, that's a great step forward.

None of these ideas relies upon a globally binding treaty. If all these pockets of innovation grow and advance, we may begin to see the building blocks of an economy that is on a more sustainable footing.

It is possible that by the time climate negotiators gather again in Mexico in December 2010, the magic numbers are not G20 or even the 193 countries negotiating through the UN process, but the "G-7 billion." The seven billion of us who are consumers and who can make a real difference with the choices we make.

Aron Cramer Aron Cramer is President and CEO of BSR, a global business network and consultancy focused on sustainability. He is also coauthor of the forthcoming book Sustainable Excellence (Rodale 2010), about the corporate responsibility strategies that drive business success.