In the world of sustainability, as in any other, there is a difference between talking a good game and executing.

A company, community or entire country can set all the environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals it wants. But if there’s no follow-through, all that’s left are some nice murals and a stack of unused recycling bins.

Real green progress isn’t always photogenic. That’s why Site Selection’s annual Sustainability Rankings go beyond the cosmetic. We don’t just count solar farms, but the locations and expansions of the plants that build them. We tally LEED-certified buildings, but we also add up brownfield redevelopment funding that’s turning homely plots of poisoned land into usable, livable property. In addition to renewable energy metrics, we cross-reference our corporate facility investments database with CSRHub’s deep research into companies’ corporate social responsibility profiles to see where high-CSR firms have the most presence.

The results and the criteria attached to them are displayed in the charts on these pages, with Germany, Canada and the United States topping our Top 10 countries. Illinois, California, Michigan and New York lead the U.S. state index. Greater Toledo, Ohio, ranks first among U.S. metros above Grand Rapids, Michigan, and its fellow Ohio metro Cincinnati (where substantial roles are played by portions of the metro in Kentucky and Indiana).

If the flood of corporate sustainability reports doesn’t convince you that the time is now for environmentally and socially aware project investments, then the figures might: With a growing need to mobilize the vast sums of capital needed to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, UNCTAD’s World Investment Report 2021 estimates that the value of sustainability-themed investment products — including $1.7 trillion in sustainable funds and over $1 trillion in green bonds — amounted to $3.2 trillion in 2020, up more than 80% from 2019.

“In the coming years, the sustainable investment market needs to transform from a niche to a mass market that fully integrates sustainability in business models and culture,” said UNCTAD Director of Investment and Enterprise James Zhan.

Corporations are integrating as fast as they can. The Counselors of Real Estate finds ESG at No. 3 among the 10 top issues affecting real estate in its own new report. Michel Coulliard, global chair of the Counselors of Real Estate, notes high-profile instances of judiciary and shareholder pressure on companies, and also reports, “In 2020, ESG funds more than doubled net new money intakes, capturing $51.1 billion. The growth in ESG in recent years is fueled by multiple drivers, including consumer shifts, regulatory requirements, trillions of dollars of wealth transferring to GenZ and Millennials committed to philanthropic living (not giving), a blurring of work and societal expectations, and a full sprint to attract and retain top talent.

“Transformative, enterprise-wide ESG programs in all sectors of real estate can be one of the best ways to reduce carbon emissions, accrete value, and demonstrate reputational value,” he says. And where a clean conscience won’t take you, regulations will, starting with Europe’s commitment to reach climate neutrality by 2050, new ESG disclosure requirements in the EU and closer ESG scrutiny by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Wholly Toledo

If green doesn’t immediately come to mind when you think of Northwest Ohio, you might want to think again. Among other programs and initiatives, Lucas County Commissioners recently joined with partners on the Toledo-Lucas County Sustainability Commission to announce the launch of the online Toledo-Lucas County Green Map, designed to connect people to sustainable assets to improve their social, economic, and physical well-being.

Greater Toledo’s corporate community is no slouch when it comes to green industry, ESG and CSR either. The region is home to First Solar’s huge solar module manufacturing complex in Perrysburg, near where the company in early June announced it would add a third plant in nearby Lake Township. The project will scale the company’s Northwest Ohio footprint to a total annual capacity of 6 GW, which is believed to make it the largest fully vertically integrated solar manufacturing complex outside of China. The 1.8 million-sq.-ft. facility is projected to directly create approximately 500 jobs and is expected to produce an enhanced thin film PV module for the utility-scale solar market in the U.S.

The jobs impact is more than that, however. The Rudolph Libbe Group, the design/build contractor for the new plant and a longtime partner of the company’s since its first arrival in the region, will self-perform trades work through its own craftspeople and those at its specialty trades contractor GEM Inc. More than 500 construction jobs will be created by the project.

“As a partner to our solar program since 2003 and a DOE loan guarantee recipient in 2012, this company is a great example of how investment and innovation can build the clean energy future right here at home,” said U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer M. Granholm, “shoring up American competitiveness and bringing good-paying jobs to all pockets of the country.”

The Solar Energy Industries Association, along with more than 100 organizations, in June called on U.S. officials for a 10-year extension of the federal solar Investment Tax Credit in order to compete with manufacturers abroad (translation: China) which are often aided by local and national governments — Arizona-based First Solar is the only company among the world’s 10 largest solar manufacturers to be headquartered in the United States. SEIA President and CEO Abigail Ross Hopper said U.S. companies need a suite of pro-manufacturing policy options designed to provide demand certainty, incentivize investments in production capacity and support ongoing factory production.

In the S&P Global Platts Analytics Long-Term Forecast, which incorporates the adaptation of a national Clean Energy Standard commencing in 2030 and assumes tax credit extensions for wind and solar, nearly 230 GW of installed utility-scale solar capacity is projected by 2030. In September 2020, SEIA set a target of 100 GW of annual renewable energy manufacturing production capacity by the end of the decade, with solar accounting for half. That would only add to the country’s green industry credentials, one of the criteria by which we rank countries, states and metros.

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