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The Supreme Court’s West Virginia decision puts the ball of developing rules for business to contribute meaningfully to sustainability squarely in the private sector’s court. When, as Joel Makower’s disturbing article in these pages points out, there has been little progress in meeting the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, U.S. leadership is sorely needed.
But as I argued in a previous article, to make real progress in attaining sustainability we need a substructure of rules that creates a level playing field and prevents “free riders” from taking advantage of their rivals’ responsible actions.
The West Virginia ruling will undermine U.S. government regulatory action to do this.
We do, however, have a guide for action in Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel-prize winning work summarized in “Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action” as well as in academic research on voluntary environmental programs. Below I briefly summarize and extend Ostrom’s work with the results of academic research and my own experience.