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Joel Makower

Joel Makower is co-founder and executive editor of Greener World Media, Inc., which produces GreenBiz.com and its sister sites, ClimateBiz.com, GreenerBuildings.com, GreenerDesign.com, and GreenerComputing.com. He has written for over 20[…]

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

Question: What businesses have emerged as major players in thern sustainability movement?
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rnJoel Makower:
Big, big companies from auto companies to Wal-Mart, torn footware and apparel companies like Nike, or Coca-Cola in the food and rnbeverage. And many others are now not only thinking about this deeply, rnbut imposing standards on all of their suppliers which can number in thern tens of thousands and making requirements of them to ship them less rnpackaging, less waste, more energy-efficient, less toxic products and rnmaterials. 

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

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

rnQuestion:
Why don’t companies publicize their sustainability rnefforts?

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

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

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

Recorded on June 8, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman