Thar’s gold in them thar green businesses

Posted on February 10, 2009


Water drop on lilypadThe recent State of Green Business report has a few nuggets for us:

On education for sustainability:

Colleges and universities around the world have long been reducing their environmental footprints, engaging in the same long list of efficiency, recycling, and source-reduction activities taking place among their corporate counterparts. But the greening of the curriculum has lagged. Indeed, a study by the National Wildlife Foundation found that while campus administrators are ramping up their commitments to reduce their schools’ environmental impacts and making significant changes in day-to-day operations, environmental academics haven’t kept up, and may have declined since 2001. That dearth of green education is of growing concern to companies seeking to recruit the next generation of leaders who understand the business value of environmental thinking.

On carbon being the new black:

The year 2008 will likely be looked back upon as a time when carbon emissions became core to mainstream business.

and this has gone beyond haphazard attempts to reduce carbon footprints to become a real driver for business ($300 Billion in goods and services aimed at battling climate change):

Tesco, which began labeling products with information related to their greenhouse gas emissions. Japan followed suit, saying it would introduce carbon footprint labels for consumer products ranging from laundry detergent to beverages. In the U.S., California made it mandatory for cars to be labeled with global warming scores, figures that take into account emissions from vehicle use and fuel production.

but although “in recent years disclosures have been expanded to include non-financial matters” still a small percentage of companies actually report detailed environmental behaviour, and those that do “have some room for improvement in overall quality of reporting”.   

progress…barely reflects the increased accountability and transparency asked of companies in recent years by  customers, employees, shareholders, and others.

(worse)  A peek behind the numbers shows just 13.5 percent included any kind of thirdparty verification of the report, a growing requirement of activists and others. Just 6.8 percent featured a United Nations Global Compact Index, 10 principles related to human rights, anti-corruption, and environmental stewardship.

and this reported outcome is for major companies, those on the  Standard and Poor’s 500 index etc – there’s little measurement of the vast majority of smaller companies that fall under this radar. 
On water becoming the new carbon:

It has become eco-chic in recent years to declare that “water will be the oil of the 21st century” — an essential and limited resource, unevenly distributed around the world, the growing shortage of which will lead to economic power for water-rich nations and poverty for the rest, possibly even resource wars between the haves and have-nots.

Climate change hasn’t gone away, but this is a strong recognition that sustainability is not a one shot issue of carbon burning (with its two impacts of climate change and peak oil).  In addition to not having proper IT systems to manage carbon, we now don’t have systems to manage embedded or virtual water:

A cup of coffee, for instance, has 140 liters (about 37 gallons) of embedded water, when you consider the amount used to grow, produce, package, and ship the beans.

On top-down and bottom up approaches – lead from the middle:

Environmental issues have been garnering top-level attention for years — “Get CEO buy-in,” is a well worn piece of advice for aspiring corporate environmentalists — but for many companies, getting the CEO on board is the least of the challenges. Failure to engage the rank and file — not to mention that all-too-often impenetrable layer of resistance known as “middle management” — has thwarted even the more forward-thinking business leaders from realizing their green goals.

by engaging in sustainability beyond the environment:

Wal-Mart has engaged its employee base by asking them to create Personal Sustainability Projects, helping them connect personal and corporate missions to make a difference for their own health and the health of the planet…The idea is that employees often connect to the broader concept of sustainability through the prisms of finances and health and wellness, not just saving the birds and the trees.

On being green when the economy is in the red (actually they say blue):  from a survey in late 2008, only 26% of major companies report reducing “green” budgets.

On the focus on product stewardship:

Simply put, product stewardship requires that companies retain responsibility for their goods long after they sell them — and even after the goods have outlived their useful lives. That means making sure that products and packaging contain ingredients and materials that are least harmful to people and the environment, and that these things are disposed of in ways that don’t cause harm. 

is seeing good things from computing:

HP… introducing a notebook PC in a recycled laptop bag with 97 percent less packaging than typical laptops.

(what a sensible idea) but this is only a start: 

Of course, what goes inside those computer packages has also become a focus  of product stewardship advocates. Used computers and other so-called e-waste continue to plague landfill managers with its lode of unrecyclable and toxic materials, many of which have been banned from landfills in some jurisdictions.

and recession is making this more difficult:

The dramatic drop in demand for materials worldwide has dampened the prices of recycled materials in tandem with those of their virgin counterparts. That’s led recyclers to stockpile materials that are no longer profitable to recycle. It’s one step forward, two steps back: At the same time that new laws and corporate voluntary initiatives aim to ramp up product stewardship, thereby increasing the quantity of recycled feedstocks, recyclers will be forced to endure a tough economic climate.

On green marketing:

green claims have continued to grow (but) given the lack of definitions, just about anything can be claimed as “green” — or “greenwash” — further muddying the waters.

the problem is mostly about trust:

that consumers are ambivalent at best about shopping green. They claim they want to, but they also say that they don’t trust companies. For example, surveys show that the number of people concerned about climate change continues to grow, and that consumers believe businesses should bear the heaviest load in addressing it, but they aren’t convinced that the business sector is doing as much as it should… with the new players and products has come a new wave of claims about greenwashing, or at least public frustration that companies aren’t doing enough, aren’t telling their stories well, or both.


On concern and solutions in green design at different levels from green chemistry to biomimicry:

The need for green chemistry is clear. There continue to be substantive gaps in understanding the health and environmental effects for the great majority of the 83,000 chemical substances listed in the federal government’s inventory. And over the past 20 years, more than 20,000 new substances have been added to the inventory, as global chemical production continues to grow at about 3 percent per year. Green chemistry — the science of addressing pollution prevention at the molecular level — seeks to find safer alternatives.





Biomimicry is seen as a blossoming design principle (see my earlier post) but then the authors make the same misleading slip of using ecosystem out of context just because it sounds ecological (see same earlier post). 

On information technology:

Information technology has been both a hindrance and help to the environment — on the one hand, dematerializing commerce and increasing efficiencies; on the other, becoming a voracious consumer of energy.

they go on to discuss various approaches to saving energy: “an audacious revamp” and a “race to the top, in which companies are both cooperating and competing to create high standards of performance“.  Paper recovery rose from 44% to 56% over the past decade but the the authors raise the question of global recession on demand for recovered paper: 

the used paper will continue to pile up. For now, it’s cheaper for processors to take all that paper you’re putting in the blue bins at home and work and just sit on it, hoping prices rise soon. But a drawn-out downturn can make storage costs prohibitive. 

Here I think the authors have missed the even bigger impact of computing. All the business imperatives discussed earlier –  the $300B of goods and services aimed to reduce climate change, the carbon accounting, the water accounting, the environmental disclosure, the new frameworks for reporting embedded costs, and so on – all of these will require computing systems that currently don’t exist or are in their infancy at best.

As a swimmer I think the icons in the GreenBiz index are pretty nifty (although they would be hard to distinguish printed  in grey)