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Green Business 2004
Alex Steffen, 4 Jan 05

Ally Joel Makower has penned an excellent post on the top ten green business stories of 2004. Here they are in short form. We've covered most of these stories in one form or another, but it's an excellent (and inspiring) summary.

1. Investors Warm Up to Climate Change

Two thousand four was the year that climate change hit the boardroom. ...[A] survey of the world’s largest companies revealed that many were paying increasing attention to climate change. The report also unveiled a Climate Leadership Index, comprising the 50 companies “whose responses best addressed the breadth of climate change issues.” The Carbon Disclosure Project, representing 95 leading institutional investors that account for $10 trillion in assets under management, similarly found that more global companies are developing coherent climate change strategies.

2. Companies Told to Account for Risks

"One scathing report, by SustainAbility, the United Nations Environment Program and Standard & Poor’s, found that corporate boards are failing to disclose to financial investors how environmental and social issues pose strategic risks and opportunities for their businesses. Another report, titled "Fooling Investors and Fooling Themselves", identified aggressive accounting and asset management tactics that can lead to environmental accounting fraud. The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, chimed in with a report concluding that environmental liabilities can pose significant financial burdens to corporations, yet there is currently no standard for reporting environmental risks.

3. Water Becomes a Business Issue

While the world has focused for three decades on global energy issues, water has bubbled up as a critical resource challenge for many companies. A landmark report from the Pacific Institute concluded that businesses around the world, from beverage companies to chip manufacturers, are failing to prepare for the serious economic and political risks posed by growing competition for fresh water, the threat of water contamination, and rising water-related costs.

5. Green MBAs Make the Grade

Getting sustainability thinking into business schools has long been a challenge, with only a handful of schools offering anything more than a few elective courses on business and sustainability. Some progress was made in 2004, however. Bainbridge Graduate Institute granted MBAs in Sustainable Business to its first-ever graduating class in May. ... Perhaps the biggest development came in the form of a survey of more than 800 MBAs from 11 leading North American and European schools, which found a substantial number were willing to forgo some financial benefits to work for an organization with a better reputation for corporate social responsibility and ethics.


6. Greener Buildings Break New Ground

The green-building movement has been making great strides for several years, but 2004 indicated that it may be hitting its stride. The movement was bolstered by a report offering compelling evidence that if there is any premium associated with building green, it is far less significant than a range of other factors that affect building cost. Another survey, by Turner Construction, of 719 building owners, developers, architects, engineers and consultants on green building issues, found that green buildings lead to increased efficiency and returns on investments.

7. Electronics Makers and Retailers Take It Back

Another emerging trend, the take-back of used computers, cell phones, and other electronic equipment, also hit its stride. While Europe faces new legal mandates on takeback, U.S. companies have no such requirements -- at least from the government. But activist groups have relentlessly pushed the major PC companies to take “voluntary” action. One example: Large institutional purchasers, representing over $140 million of sales, pressed the computer industry to improve the environmental performance of computers.

8. Old Companies Learn New, Green Tricks

Slowly but surely, some big companies are discovering some big opportunities in services that help their customers address environmental challenges. Two examples:

Pitney Bowes introduced a new service to help clients manage the flow of their paper documents and lower their document management costs, all while protecting the environment. Like many tech companies, Pitney Bowes has been extending its offerings beyond products to services. Its Management Services division provides customers help with everything from document creation to production, distribution, archiving, and retrieval. This year, Pitney extended those offerings to include environmental services by helping customers engineer the flow of communication in a way that makes both environmental and financial sense.

UPS announced a new service that helps companies properly manage the disposition of used and obsolete electronic goods and components. The program addresses the electronics take-back issue, above, but it also creates a new business opportunity for the world’s largest package delivery company. UPS’ facilities will serve as consolidation points for customers to return used and damaged electronic components for collection. Alternatively, UPS will manage the pick-up and shipment of obsolete and excess inventory from a customer’s own distribution centers.

9. Greener Fleets Get Traction

The Toyota Prius has been a big story for a couple years now, but 2004 saw the Prius and other hybrid, fuel cell, and cleaner diesel vehicles come to market -- and get adopted by fleet buyers, such as companies, government agencies, and other institutional buyers. That takes these vehicles beyond their image as the playthings of early adopters and greenies, and into the mainstream of buyers.

For years, activist groups have targeted financial institutions as a root cause of many environmental problems, for their financing of environmentally damaging dams, timber operations, and other non-sustainable ventures. The banks, for their part, largely passed the buck, saying they couldn’t control what their customers did with the money they borrowed.

That didn’t wash. And activist groups like Rainforest Action Network stepped up their campaigns. In 2004, they seemed to pay off.

Rainforest Action Network and Citigroup, one of the activist campaign’s big fish, announced that Citigroup had adopted a comprehensive environmental policy that would set a new standard for the financial services industry. The policy provides a long-term framework for Citigroup to promote higher environmental standards through its business practices. Bank of America joined in, reaffirming its commitment to responsible environmental practices in its corporate philosophy, everyday business operations, and products and services. B of A also pledged to take significant new steps in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, protection of intact forest ecosystems, and transparent public reporting to all stakeholders.

And HSBC announced its intention to be the first major bank to go “carbon neutral” in a program that may cost up to $7 million in the first year.

(Thanks, Joel!)

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