In the early ’90s I worked on corporate sustainability with a group of young, smart, optimistic colleagues, paid virtually nothing, working out of an office closet next to the bathroom at Rocky Mountain Institute, a sustainability think tank. Beneath towering stacks of energy reports and to-be-read copies of The New York Times, we drafted brochures and consulting papers arguing that corporations were the only entities large enough, nimble enough, and motivated (by profit) to solve the climate problem.

We believed that the salvation of the world, the cure for climate change, and the end of pollution and waste, all of it, would be driven through business profits and strategic motivation. Doing good by the environment—cutting energy use with better light bulbs and boilers, reducing inefficiency through design and engineering, and adding renewable energy supply—was not only environmentally responsible, it was good for the bottom line. Win-win: green both ways.

That stuff actually happened. But 25 years or more in, even as the sustainable business movement grew, climate change, the single most important barometer for the possibility of a sustainable future, marched on. And a planet on fire, deluged in flood, and disrupted by drought and famine, warfare and heat waves is nobody’s picture of sustainability. And yet, over the course of the corporate sustainability revolution, climate change went from a concern to a certainty, with catastrophic warming beyond 2 degrees Celsius more or less baked in.

Systemic change is the only path to climate stability. But what the corporate sustainability movement has truly succeeded at is ensuring that everyone works within a narrowly defined playing field that leaves the one thing we need to upend—the fossil-fuel-based economy—intact and unthreatened.

Read the full article about corporate sustainability failures by Auden Schendler at Stanford Social Innovation Review.