Wal-Mart. GE. DuPont. Starbucks. Timberland. Coke and Pepsi, Ford and GM, BP and Shell. Is there a big company in America that isnâ€™t saying all the right things about â€œgoing greenâ€?
And yet for all the hype, and the good intentions, and real progress that some companies have made, a big question towers over all the CSR reports and full-page newspaper ads and much-touted efforts to reduce energy and waste, cut emissions and invest in clean technologies: Is it making any meaningful difference to the environment?
My friend Joel Makower, who is a tireless entrepreneur, writer, speaker, consultant and blogger about business and the environment, has made a sophisticated attempt to answer that question by gathering data. His verdict is mixed, at best.
â€œCompanies are getting cleaner, and more efficient, but only incrementally, and many of the gains are offset by the ever growing economy,â€ he writes in a new report called the State of Green Business 2008, produced by his company, Greener World Media.
On the biggest of all issues, climate change, he says, â€œCompanies, in aggregate, arenâ€™t changing quickly or significantly enough to move the needle.â€
And in some areas, things are getting worse. Electronic waste more than doubled between 2000 and 2005, for example, despite all the good work that Dell and HP have done around recycling. Although the organic food industry is booming, the 2002 USDA census of agricultureâ€”the latest data availableâ€”found that only 0.14 percent of acreage in the U.S. is farmed organically, and pesticide use was higher in 2005-2006 than in 1999 or 2000.
The report, which can be downloaded at www.greenbiz.com, is a must-read for anyone interested in green business. It reports on 20 indicators including macroeconomic measures, such as carbon emissions, toxic releases and paper use per unit of gross domestic product, as well as business-specific measures such as corporate fleet purchases of alternative fuel vehicles, construction of green office space and investments in clean tech.
Nowâ€”a caveat or two, before you get discouraged. As the report makes clear, much of the data on environmental impacts is incomplete, out of date or unavailable. So many of the green business initiatives weâ€™ve read about recently are too new to be reflected in the reportâ€™s findings. Much of Wal-Martâ€™s massive efforts, for instance, wonâ€™t be felt for years.
Whatâ€™s more, thereâ€™s evidence of real progress in some arenas. Since 1950, the energy intensity of the U.S. economyâ€”measured per dollar of GDPâ€”has declined by an impressive 75%. Aggregate energy use is about the same as it was in 1968, even though the economy is now about three times as big. Studies by McKinsey and others show that we can become a lot more efficient, too.
Finally, the study doesnâ€™t attempt to measure either political or cultural attitudes about business and the environment. In the last year or so, Congress has moved tantalizingly closer to enacting climate change legislation; the remaining presidential candidates, except Romney, support mandatory caps on carbon emissions. Weâ€™ve gone beyond the stale debate about the environment VERSUS the economy.
These meaningful new attitudes will surely lead to behaviorial changes over time, especially among young people.
Thatâ€™s already happened in Europe, which has adopted mandatory carbon regulation. Iâ€™ve just returned from the UK, where the newspapers are full of stories about carbon and green business and sustainable food. (On a train from Manchester to London, I was amused to be offered a breakfast of vegetarian sausage and a free-range fried egg. Amtrak it wasnâ€™t.) More significantly, the UKâ€™s environmental ministry reported last week that Britainâ€™s greenhouse gas emissions fell slightly last year because homes and offices used less energy and recycled more waste. GHG emissions are now about 16% lower than they were in 1990, with the sharpest drops coming from landfill-produced methane. The amount of household waste has risen from 3 kg per person in 1984 to 135 kg in 2006.
If nothing else, this State of Green Business report is a reminder that we canâ€™t depend on corporate Americaâ€”which, after all, is built on the notion of ever-increasing consumptionâ€”to solve our environmental problems. Government regulation of carbon will be required. So will cultural changes, perhaps radical ones. Until we can learn to buy less, waste less, drive less, eat less meat and live in smaller homes, weâ€™re sunk, no pun intended if you live on the coast.
As Joel writes: â€œThere is much to celebrateâ€¦.Green business has shifted from a movement to a market. But there is much, much more to do.â€
Joel is interviewed this week on Corporate Watchdog Radio, and you can download the podcast here.