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Green Inc.

Is the proliferation of corporate sustainability initiatives an indication of shrewd capitalism, a dedicated response to climate change, or both?

By C.J. Hughes
March 2012
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Illustration by Lou Lou & Tummie
Big Business: The balance between doing good and making money.

Beginning in the 1980s, when McDonald's stopped putting its burgers in polystyrene clamshells, and accelerating dramatically in the 2000s when An Inconvenient Truth highlighted the dangers of greenhouse gases, businesses large and small have made it a point to be sensitive to the environment. While there may be an almost across-the-board belief that reducing pollution is important, being "green" means different things to different companies.

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Some corporations do it to cut costs, others to attract customers, and still others to practice what they preach philosophically (or all of the above). The ways to be eco-friendly can vary wildly, too, from using energy-efficient lightbulbs to illuminate stores, to cleaning up harmful chemicals at overseas factories that don't even have the same corporate parent. More than three decades after the green wave began, corporate America is now almost reflexively embracing the trend, even businesses that might seem unlikely converts. Critics say some of this is greenwash, a calculated attempt to appear environmentally conscious, but the companies would beg to differ. "I think it's very possible for a for-profit business to be green," says Jamie Meyers, sustainability manager at Walgreens. Since 2010, Walgreens, which is the largest drugstore chain in the country, has opted for 25-watt fluorescent tubes and high-efficiency mechanical systems. In addition, since 2007, 133 stores have added solar panels, though these stores make up less than 2 percent of the total, Meyers admits.

Can Walgreens and other companies, whose mission is to increase market share whenever possible, really be green while developing new stores which utilize significant resources, and which often require that customers drive to do their shopping? Yes, says Meyers, despite the fact that Walgreens has almost tripled in size, from 3,000 to 8,000 stores, in a decade. Parking lots are shrinking to 50-car lots, "less than what most cities mandate," he says.

Some critics are not so sure. Al Norman, the founder of Sprawl-busters, an advocacy group that began in 1993 to oppose the location of a WalMart in Greenfield, Massachusetts, says solar panels and low-flow faucets mask the fact that chain-store buildings are flimsily constructed. "These are disposable buildings that have life spans of maybe 20 years before they're abandoned," Norman says. "This is low-commitment, dead architecture."

Other critics are more equivocal, saying that the steps toward energy efficiency by big-box stores and other retailers can drive the whole industry, because they have the most to gain. Their "margins are pretty thin, so saving money on energy, water, and other resources goes a long way," says green consultant Bill Browning, who worked with WalMart in 1993 on its first prototype green store, in Lawrence, Kansas. Greenwashing incidents may be on the wane, Browning adds, because of greater scrutiny by government agencies like the Federal Trade Commission, which is increasing its examination of deceptive marketing practices, including what's stated about energy use. "It's much harder to get away with [greenwashing] now," he concludes.

Another influential watchdog is B Lab, which since 2006 has awarded its "B Corp" seal of approval to companies that significantly reduce waste, use non-coal energy, and support conservation causes and other efforts. Among the 450 current B Corp companies that B Lab monitors is Patagonia, the outdoor apparel brand, which got its B Corp status this past January. Much of what earned the company that recognition has to do with its decision that same month to reorganize as a "benefit corporation," a legal status that encourages businesses to make more socially conscious decisions, even if they may hurt the bottom line in the short run. Patagonia, whose website proclaims "we cannot avert our eyes from the harm done, by all of us, to our one and only home," is often considered a leader among companies that aspire to green initiatives.

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