Why Green Companies Keep Quiet

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

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

This does not make them green companies... because I\r\n don’t even know how to define it.  We don’t have a standard yet for a \r\ngreen company.  Nobody claims them to be green, including these \r\ncompanies.  But that means that they’re looking at both large and small \r\nthings and at the scale in which they operate, even small things can \r\nhave a huge, huge impact. 
\r\n
\r\nI'll give you just one little story.  And there are thousands of these. \r\n A few years ago, McDonald’s eliminated the embossed golden arches on \r\ntheir napkins.  Right?  It’s a little embossed golden arches probably no\r\n environmental impacts of embossing that, there’s no toxic dyes or heavy\r\n metals, maybe there’s a little heat used in that embossing process, but\r\n what would happen as a result?  Well, it made the napkins 24% thinner, \r\nwhich means they can fit 24% more napkins in a box.  24% more boxes in a\r\n truck or tractor trailer eliminating the need for shipping by the \r\nequivalent of about 100 tractor trailers a year.  Just from napkins. 

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

\r\nQuestion:
Why don’t companies publicize their sustainability \r\nefforts?

\r\n

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

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

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

Recorded on June 8, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman

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