This tongue-in-cheek TV commercial for IBM's green initiative may poke a satirical finger at the green movement, but it does highlight a basic truth: going green often has little to do with the environment. The driving force behind many green initiatives is = you guessed it - money.
An overweight CEO stares disgustedly at the contract on his desk. “I’ve been looking over your green proposal,” he says to the employee sitting opposite him. “Should go over big with the tree-huggers. But the folks that I report to—they don’t eat granola.”
“Why should I sign this?” he asks.
“This plan could cut our energy costs by 40 percent,” says the employee. “And we spent 18 million dollars on energy last year,” she adds.
Flowers suddenly burst forth all around the CEO, and little birds flitter around his head as sweet music starts to play. “Where do I sign?” he asks.
This tongue-in-cheek TV commercial for IBM’s green initiative may poke a satirical finger at the green movement, but it does highlight a basic truth: going green often has little to do with the environment. The driving force behind many green initiatives is—you guessed it—money.
Corporate culture change
Some companies aren’t even aware that their cost-cutting measures are deemed eco-worthy. Take Stop & Shop Supermarket Co., for example. This US-based company installed skylights and re-used refrigeration heat purely to save on energy costs. To their surprise, they were awarded the EPA’s Energy Star Leaders recognition in 2007.
“Our goal wasn’t to win this award, though it is an honour. We were doing these things because they made good business sense … ,” said Robert Keane, a spokesperson for Stop & Shop.
Other businesses are starting to realize that green initiatives are not only great PR vehicles, but also offer a measurable return on investment. Wal-Mart, for example, has recently launched a formidable green campaign. They shaved $7 million off their electricity bill by replacing incandescent light bulbs in their stores with energy-efficient CFLs. They also cut their transportation and storage costs by working with suppliers to reduce the amount of plastic and cardboard in their packaging.
Wal-Mart’s many critics point to the retail giant’s green initiatives as a classic case of greenwashing—and who can blame them. After all, Wal-Mart is, well, Wal-Mart. Big-box retailers will always have a significant environmental impact compared to the mom and pop operation that sells locally grown veggies.
Big business, however, isn’t the only one donning a green halo these days—we all are, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Turning off our lights when we’re not using them, or walking instead of driving is good for Mother Nature and our wallets. When companies cut back on energy costs to save on the bottom line, the environment benefits as well. Some green trends, though, may actually be harmful rather than helpful.
Not such a bright idea?
One green initiative that has recently come under scrutiny is that green poster child, the ubiquitous CFL. There’s no doubt that CFLs save energy, but these bulbs also contain mercury, a hazardous material that could end up in the environment.
Even worse, it could end up in your lungs if you break the bulb. In this case, the Department of Environmental Protection recommends you ventilate the room, pick up the broken particles with tape, seal them in a glass container, and remove the contaminated carpet (especially if children or pregnant women are present). Hardly reassuring!
Furthermore, a recent UK study has found that CFLs may emit harmful levels of ultraviolet radiation. Health Canada is currently testing CFLs for UV and electromagnetic field levels, with preliminary results expected by this fall. If you find all this unsettling, then consider that the Canadian government has mandated that all incandescent bulbs be eliminated by 2012.
As eco-conscious consumers, we need to be critical about so-called green initiatives. Nowhere is this truer than in the hospitality industry. Hotels that wash fewer sheets and towels aren’t exactly going to bring global warming to a grinding halt. They’re just saving on laundry costs.
Alex Pettitt, host of the TV show Mainstream Green, believes some eco-resorts have a long way to go before being truly green. “They lower their water consumption, but don’t have a sustainable design,” he says. “Or they’ll offer eco-trips, but the facility itself is an ecological wart.”
Ask questions before you show up on your hotel or resort’s doorstep. Ronald Sanabria, director of sustainable tourism at the Rainforest Alliance, recommends asking “about their environmental policy, the percentage of their employees who are local residents, whether or not they support any projects that benefit the local community, and if they are certified.” Also ask about their energy, water, and waste management policies as well as their commitment to educating guests about the local ecological and cultural issues.
Cashing in on carbon
Carbon trading, also known as emissions trading, is the bureaucrat’s answer to global warming. This approach is based on providing economic incentives for reducing emissions of pollutants. It sounds good in theory, and happens to be the preferred modus operandi of Al Gore (and sadly, justification for a lavish lifestyle that has recently come under scrutiny).
Kevin Smith, researcher at watchdog group Carbon Watch, believes that “such schemes allow us to sidestep the most fundamentally effective response to climate change that we can take, which is to leave fossil fuels in the ground.” In other words, carbon trading allows wealthy companies to continue with business as usual while washing away their eco-sins with a fat cheque.
Perhaps even more worrying, carbon trading can open the doors to misappropriation and corruption. According to Ben Pile, co-editor of the Climate Resistance blog, the UK government went so far as to engineer profits from carbon trading while feigning neutrality.
The government set up an independent panel of experts called the Climate Change Committee (CCC). This panel, which Pile claims is a front for government interests, started pushing carbon trading legislation to fatten the government’s coffers but did little to tackle the root of climate change.
The CCC stated that the carbon market “grew from $10 billion to $34 billion between 2005 and 2006” and projects its worth to be over $100 billion in the future. By legislating greenhouse gas emissions, carbon becomes a commodity to be traded with potential profits that far exceed any money to be made from giving out a few parking tickets.
Green blooms in hard times
Ironically, the economic crisis may prove beneficial to solving the climate crisis. With the global recession forcing many companies to cut costs wherever they can, green initiatives are becoming an essential part of the business plan.
“Companies are starting to recognize that green means green,” says Chris Mines, an analyst for Forrester Research in the US. Some green initiatives offer a measurable financial return. “The motivation for these projects is foremost cost savings, and the environmental benefits are an added nice to have.”
However, with many companies going into crisis mode, easy short-term green solutions such as recycling programs, energy-use reduction, and optimized technologies are outweighing long-term investments.
Mickey Lee, strategic director for green business consultancy, Carbon Concierge, is finding that companies are delaying implementation of major green initiatives. Nevertheless, Lee encourages companies to plan ahead in these rocky times: “Take this time to educate yourself on what you need, and what you want to work toward, so that when the economy gets better you’ll know what decisions you want to make.”
As various cultural, political, and economic agendas transform and appropriate the green movement, it has become difficult to stay true to its founding ideals. At times the green bandwagon flounders under ill-considered eco-trends that fail to deliver, or worse—irresponsible greenwashing that distracts us from real solutions.
Hopefully, the recent knock to our economy will teach us to not only be more fiscally responsible but will also remind us that the environment should not be subservient to capitalistic greed. Perhaps then we can start to recover our sense of purpose—both economically and ecologically.
How they did it
These companies made money—and friends—by going green:
- Lockheed Martin: water reduction project to reuse clean wastewater; energy-saving project that involves a volatile organic compound (VOC) capture system.
- S.C. Johnson: reduced reliance on coal-powered energy by building its own power plant that runs on methane and natural gas piped in from a nearby landfill.
- Herman Miller: largest user of renewable energy in its industry (including wind power); facilities designed according to sustainability principles.
- IBM: saved over 30 million litres of gas by allowing 32,000 employees to work at home; has been recycling PCs since 1985.
5 questions to ask about green initiatives
Find out if green initiatives are more than just greenwash by asking companies:
- What’s your company’s environmental policy?
- What environmental certifications does your company have?
- What local projects is your company involved in to benefit the environment?
- What are your company’s energy, water, and waste management policies?
- What is your company’s internal commitment to environmental education?