‘Business as usual’ in Corporate America

This week’s cover story of BusinessWeek, “Little Green Lies,” tells the tale of a corporate sustainability director who dares to tell it like is. Let’s see if this admirable character, Auden Schendler, now manages to keep his job at Aspen Skiing Co. He gives voice to the statement BW reporter Ben Elgin really wants to make: “Much corporate environmentalism boils down to misleading statements and hype.”

While that is hardly an earth-shattering revelation, Elgin has done his homework to prove his point. The greenwashing of Big Business is rampant, just as many of us suspected. In an accompanying podcast to the article, Elgin said he interviewed a couple dozen corporate sustainability types and read a bunch of sustainability reports issued by large businesses and other public carbon emission disclosures by these companies. His conclusion? “When you really sift through it, it’s a lot of business as usual.” Again, no real surprise, but it’s good to see a reporter with such a prominent business publication assemble the facts to prove what many of us believe to be true.

What Schendler told Elgin and Elgin corroborated in his research was:

“Companies continue to assess most green initiatives with the same return-on-investment analysis they would with any other capital project. And while some environmental advances pay for themselves in time, returns often aren’t as swift or large as competing uses for corporate cash. That leads to green projects quietly withering on the vine.”

Elgin reports Schendler now believes “companies won’t make serious progress without regulation of carbon emissions.” Elgin might also add that his BusinessWeek boss John Byrne, who interviewed him for the accompanying podcast on his reporting of the story, is also representative of the problem. Toward the end of the recording, there was this exchange between the two:

Byrne: “I tell you, when I buy a bottle of wine on the basis of green farming, I’ll need my head examined. And when I buy a car that reduces carbon emissions but costs me a lot more money than another car, I’ll need my head examined, too.”
Elgin: “No Prius in your garage?”
Byrne: “No! Because those are just not economical.”
Elgin: “They are pricey.”
Byrne: “And not only are they pricey and not only do you not get the payback on them, but more importantly how much waste, how much toxic chemicals are going to be released into the environment because you are replacing those damn fuel cells, and maybe you are going to someone who’s not going to properly dispose of them.”

This is the executive editor of BusinessWeek speaking. And yes, he did say fuel cells (not batteries) in reference to hybrid cars. Like the corporate executives Elgin interviewed for his piece, Byrne is telling the world he’ll go green when the payback (ROI) is right. It’s a small wonder Elgin’s piece made the cover of the magazine.

October 22nd, 2007

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