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Working With the Enemy? The Challenge of Greening Companies
Mindy Lubber, 19 Sep 07
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This month's Fast Company magazine has a fascinating article on whether former Sierra Club president Adam Werbach "sold his soul" by going to work for Wal-Mart. Since last year, Werbach and his company, Act Now, have been running a program to teach Wal-Mart's 1.3 million US employees about personal sustainability. Werbach's new job raises important questions about the environmental movement and whether it is better to pressure companies from "outside" or from within, as Werbach is doing.

I'm a long-time environmental activist whose first gig was with the Public Interest Research Groups (PIRG), which is as activist and outsider as you get -- and, in my judgment, have also been quite effective. Activist groups have had substantial successes affecting corporate sustainability policies (how can you argue with the successful campaign to stop Home Depot from selling old-growth wood?), but other approaches deserve our attention as well. More collaborative strategies are gaining ground -- working with corporations to establish solutions, both short and long term, to improve our environmental situation.

Environmentalists need a seat at the corporate table not just to say, "change or else ..." but as part of an ongoing dialogue, making the business case on why tackling sustainability challenges makes sense.

Amory Lovins, the Johnny Appleseed of energy efficiency, has achieved enormous success working the inside game with Wal-Mart, Coca Cola and other Fortune 500 companies. One of his proposals to Wal-Mart was that the company's truck drivers use small, more efficient engines installed behind the fuel tanks of their rigs to air-condition their cabs while parked, instead of running their main engines. The change is expected to eliminate about 100,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions and save $25 million a year for Wal-Mart.

This "inside" approach is a strategy I embrace. At Ceres, we hold quarterly meetings with companies such as Bank of America, Dell and McDonald's to discuss pressing sustainability challenges, and strategies for dealing with them. Participants at these meetings include investors, environmentalists and labor groups -- each bringing a different perspective that the companies need to hear. These outside stakeholders learn in turn about business challenges, and work on influencing the development of solutions.

Developing these close relationships takes time, but it does yield results: in one recent example, Dell's commitment to press its biggest suppliers to report their greenhouse gas emissions and reduce its own operational greenhouse gas emissions 15 percent by 2012.

If we are going to have a real shot at tackling the magnitude of environmental challenges we face today, we need to use as many constructive approaches as we can come up with to get practical, get results, and keep pushing ourselves. And the more we can leverage each other's ideas, the better. Oftentimes, it takes a combination of external pressures and input from trusted outsiders to create positive changes within companies. By working with industry giants whose actions can create enormous ripples all across the world, the successes will outweigh the defeats.

Image Credit: flickr/Dilip Muralidaran

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I've been thinking a lot about that article since reading it a couple weeks back. I couldn't believe how black and white they were making it, to be an environmentally conscious person: "Oh, you work for Wal-Mart now? Well, don't ever call again." Please. It's my conviction that environmentalist can make a big, if not bigger and more important, difference by collaborating with these companies, as you say. This is an elementary concept. It's easy to break one pencil, but harder to break an entire bundle of pencils. Think in the inverse. Efforts of one are magnified through the accomplishments of large corporations.

Posted by: Preston on 19 Sep 07

I think that this post's title is quite telling with its use of the word “Enemy.” Right now unfortunately, the US/THEM mentality prevails, as it does in so many other aspects of life. That's why I like the fact that the green business is phenomena is continuously on the rise, thus blurring the lines. I'll go out on a limb here and mention that I like to remind myself from time to time that the non-profit/for-profit dichotomy is in essence merely a legal and tax related criteria, and carries no inherent meaning beyond that. The people who populate organizations can do good or evil no matter what is their categorization.

Posted by: Eylon on 19 Sep 07

We can do our part for the environment regardless of whether we are in a NGO or company. What matters is that our values and the desire to protect the environment does not change.

Posted by: Eugene on 19 Sep 07

Wal-Mart does not have a sustainable business model. Shipping cheap (because there are no labor or environmental regulations) disposable crap around the world to be sold in a giant disposable box in a sea of parking lots and six lane suburban roads cannot be made sustainable. No amount of solar panels on the big box roof will make Wal-Mart environmentally sound. Like buying a hybrid for your 50 mile commute, it only serves to assuage your eco-guilt so you don't actually have to change anything.

Posted by: mo on 20 Sep 07

Thanks for the thoughtful article Mindy. It is always refreshing to hear a sober perspective on a highly emotionally charged subject.

Posted by: Bill on 20 Sep 07



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