This article is from the In-Depth Report How to Green Your Office

How Business Can Influence Climate Policy

Businesses can influence government action on climate in many ways—as long as they start by building their own environmental credibility


In his new book, Getting Green Done, Auden Schendler presents tested strategies businesses can harness to lessen their impact on the planet and to compel others to do the same. In the excerpt that follows, Schendler—executive director of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company in Colorado—explains how executives can also influence government leaders to spearhead efforts to preserve the environment.
—The Editors

I get a nightmarishly recurring call from businesses trying to go green, and it goes something like this: A caller from a (hotel management group, property management firm, Fortune 500 business ... fill in the blank) wants to talk about how they could be “greener.” “What do you mean by that?” I ask. “You know,” the caller says, “recycled paper and stuff like that.” Then I usually say something like, “If that level of ‘greening’ is what you want to talk about, you’ve got the wrong guy.”

In-office measures like recycling are important, visible and necessary. Aluminum cans, for example, are basically congealed electricity, because smelting aluminum from ore is so monumentally energy-intensive. But if progress against global warming stops at the copy machine paper, a lot of coastal copy machines are going to be underwater.

Instead businesses need to do some soul-searching to find their greatest leverage against climate change, then use it. The scope and scale of the climate problem make some form of political action the biggest lever that any business or individual has. That’s because, from a pure emissions standpoint, it’s not enough for corporations to simply green up their operations. That is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. For example, my industry—the ski business—could eliminate all its greenhouse gas emissions, but we’d still go out of business in less than 100 years if the rest of the world doesn’t change.

To get the government leadership we need, corporations must become involved in climate policy at the highest level possible. But here is a key point: the on-the-ground work is a necessary precursor to that policy work. Why? Before businesses can effectively lobby for government action on climate, they need to have done something themselves, or they lose their credibility and appear to be hypocrites. This may be the single most important reason businesses and individuals should implement carbon reduction: so that their political case-making has more power and credibility. There are, of course, also large emissions reductions (and dollar savings) to be had while we wait for government leadership.

Think Like Wal-Mart, Not Ford
How does a business determine the best course? Wal-Mart is a good example. As it embarked on a greening program, the huge discount retail company could have done what the public would expect—in-store education, greening of individual sites and little windmills and solar arrays that make a big statement but don’t do much else. Although Wal-Mart did do some of that, it also sat down and asked where its biggest impact was.

Wal-Mart sells things, more things than any business in the world. So the way for Wal-Mart to change the world and protect the environment is through what it sells. The company set out to sell 100 million compact fluorescent lightbulbs by marking the prices down and placing the bulbs at eye level in the aisle (prime selling space). Wal-Mart is creating a revolution by changing the market for bulbs. As of 2008, the company had sold 130 million bulbs; the resulting pollution reduction through energy savings is the same as that of two large coal-fired power plants.

If the story ended there, it would be a great high-leverage story. But it continues. Wal-Mart isn’t just selling a lot of compact fluorescents. Wal-Mart is contributing to the extinction of the incandescent bulb. Incandescents will be banned in Australia in 2010, and California is moving in the same direction.

This article was originally published with the title "Companies Pull the Climate Lever."

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