Why Green Companies Keep Quiet

Most businesses end up recognizing that it’s easier to implement sustainability measures than to talk about them.
  • Transcript


Question: What businesses have emerged as major players in the sustainability movement?

Joel Makower:
Big, big companies from auto companies to Wal-Mart, to footware and apparel companies like Nike, or Coca-Cola in the food and beverage. And many others are now not only thinking about this deeply, but imposing standards on all of their suppliers which can number in the tens of thousands and making requirements of them to ship them less packaging, less waste, more energy-efficient, less toxic products and materials. 

This does not make them green companies... because I don’t even know how to define it.  We don’t have a standard yet for a green company.  Nobody claims them to be green, including these companies.  But that means that they’re looking at both large and small things and at the scale in which they operate, even small things can have a huge, huge impact. 

I'll give you just one little story.  And there are thousands of these.  A few years ago, McDonald’s eliminated the embossed golden arches on their napkins.  Right?  It’s a little embossed golden arches probably no environmental impacts of embossing that, there’s no toxic dyes or heavy metals, maybe there’s a little heat used in that embossing process, but what would happen as a result?  Well, it made the napkins 24% thinner, which means they can fit 24% more napkins in a box.  24% more boxes in a truck or tractor trailer eliminating the need for shipping by the equivalent of about 100 tractor trailers a year.  Just from napkins. 

Now, that doesn’t make McDonald’s green, they’re not green.  But the point is, they’re doing hundreds and hundreds and thousands of these things, and so are most companies out there.  We don’t hear about them, they don’t talk about them.

Why don’t companies publicize their sustainability efforts?

Joel Makower: You’d think that companies doing green things and having significant impacts would want to shout this stuff from the rooftops, but these... in fact, every company wants green stories to tell.  Everybody feel they need to have one, but the reality is that green stories are hard stories to tell.  For three reasons, first of all, most of them are all about doing less bad, right?  So, if you have a widget and this widget, say hey this widget has 54% fewer toxics than last year, that's a significant thing from an environmental perspective, but it still means that, hey, we're beating our wife 46% of the time.  All right?  So, that’s not a very easy story to tell however impactful it might be. 

The biggest reason is that a lot of these things have no value to the consumer in terms of the reason they buy a product.  So, if Anheuser-Busch, or Coca-Cola figures out how to wring out a third of the aluminum out of the aluminum can, which they’ve done over the past decade or so.  And if you think of that... consider the environmental impacts of mining bauxite to make aluminum, or the fact that manufacturing aluminum is so energy-intensive.  It’s one of the top three or four or five greenhouse gas emitting industries, that’s a significant thing for an environmental achievement.  But they’re not gong to put a green seal on Busch and Bud.  That’s not why people buy the stuff.  Or, if Frito Lay, or McDonald's, or somebody who makes potato chips sources potatoes from a processor that now uses closed loop washing instead of flushing the rinse water down the drain every time they wash a load of potatoes, they now recycle it and use it over and over, filter it, and you know, all of that, saving hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of gallons of water a year.  Again, a significant thing to an environmental prospective, but they’re not going to put a green label on a holster of fries or bag of potato chips. 

So these are things that you can’t always put on a hang tag or a label or a package or an advertisement.  But the third reason is that when companies start talking about what they’re doing right, they often unwittingly illuminate problems that the public didn’t know that they had.  So a few years ago I learned that Levi Strauss, which at the time was the largest cotton buyer in the world, had started sourcing 2% of their annual cotton buy organically.  And I thought that was a really interesting story and I called them.  I wanted to write about it.  And they said, "Well, we don’t want to talk about it."  And I persevered and I knew people there and I eventually got them to talk with me about it.  And of course, one of the questions I asked them was, "Why don’t you want to talk about it?"  And they said, “Well, look at it from our perspective.  When we go out to tell this story, we have to explain why we’re doing this.  First of all that cotton is one of the hardest crops to grow, incredible intensity of pesticides and fertilizers and water.  It’s very hard to grow.  And then we have to talk about the impacts of all of that, these pesticides and fertilizers and the groundwater runoff and the impact on worker health and safety and how that affects the birds and the trees.  By the time we tell that story, we risk our customers saying, 'So you mean 98% of what you make is bad for people on the planet?  Why only 2%?  Why not 5... you know we’re going to do campus boycotts until you commit to 10% organic cotton.'"  You could sort of hear that conversation unfolding in the marketplace and the conversation that unfolded at Levis is unfolding every day at big companies, which is to basically as the question, "Do we do it or do we talk about it, or both?  And if we talk about it, how do we talk about it?"

Recorded on June 8, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman