When I was asked if I’d like to speak with Dr. Richard Sayre, a leading biofuels researcher who was recently named director of the Enterprise Rent-A-Car Institute for Renewable Fuels at the Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, I admit my first thought was more the potential of corporate greenwashing than it was than about biofuels research. A rental car company funding biofuels research? (What next? Big Oil funding biofuel research? Hmm….)
Of course I’m always interested in finding out more about the potential of algae as a biofuel. But I also wanted to learn more about the motivation behind Enterprise’s funding of such research; if it was, as a colleague blurted out when I told him about it, “nothing but greenwash”.
Fortunately, I was afforded not only an interview with Dr. Sayre to discuss his work work, but also with Pat Farrell, Enterprise’s vice president for corporate responsibility, as well Lee Broughton, the newly-appointed director of sustainability.
I’ll get to my talk with Dr. Sayre regarding his algae-to-biofuel research in a subsequent post. In this post, I want to discuss my interview with Mr. Farrell as he spoke of Enterprise’s efforts of corporate responsibility and sustainability as they relate to his business, as well as the idea that many will perceive it all as just more corporate greenwashing.
All issues that Farrell was more than ready to address.
“We are not environmentalists”
And frankly, we wouldn’t believe it if you said you were. With the world’s largest fleet of passenger vehicles, currently some 1.1 million cars, it would be a tough case to make.
This is an important point Farrell wanted to stress; their approach to sustainability and corporate responsibility is a pragmatic one. They live in the same world as their customers and employees who are increasingly concerned about environmental issues. It is also clear to Farrell and CEO Andy Taylor that, in purely a business sense, sustaining a business based on such an enormous fleet of cars requires consideration of planetary sustainabilty as well. Eventually, clear-headed pragmatism can lead any business toward the triple bottom line.
How did Enterprise find it’s idea of that triple bottom line?
A brief history
Jack Taylor founded “Executive Leasing” in 1957 with a fleet of five cars. The company was, and still is, based in St. Louis, Missouri. In the late sixties Taylor renamed the company “Enterprise” in honor of the aircraft carrier on which he served in World War II.
In 1991, Jack’s son Andy took over as CEO and helped grow the privately-owned company into the $12 billion operation it is today (Enterprise also owns National and Alamo.)
In 2007, Taylor wanted to celebrate Enterprise’s 50–year anniversary as well as the company’s fleet growing to 1 million cars. As Farrell put it, Taylor’s idea of a celebration had more to do with finding ways to insure a sustainable business for the next 50 years than passing out balloons and glasses of champaign. He wanted to find a way to give back to the community for the last 50 years of sustained growth while making way for sustainability through the next 50 years. As Taylor puts it:
“We know that more and more consumers expect the companies that serve them to share their concerns about the environment. For our company and our industry to be successful, we must address those concerns while also working to sustain our business over the long term.”
The core platform for corporate responsibility
From that directive, Farrell described the specific planks supporting Enterprise’s platform of corporate responsibility:
- One million trees for 50 years. The Fifty Million Tree pledge is a public/private partnership with Arbor Day Foundation and the U.S. Forest Service to plant 1 million trees each year for the next 50 years in National Forests throughout the country. The program also funds initiatives to plant trees internationally where Enterprise does business.
- Enterprise currently has 400,000 cars in it’s rental rental fleet that get at least 28 mpg, as well as 250,000 SmartWay Certified vehicles. There are 5000 hybrids (Farrell says they’d get more if they could), and 70,000 FlexFuel cars that can burn E85. (Farrell indicates that Enterprise remains “agnostic” about the ongoing corn-based ethanol debate)
- Enterprise aims at helping scientists and manufacturers test alternative fuels and technology through Enterprise’s reach in the marketplace. By allowing new ideas access to the free market (and a fleet of over a million cars), viable alternatives will potentially rise to the top faster.
- The Institute for Renewable Fuels. Enterprise started the Institute with a $25 million gift from the Taylor family. The Institute works with the Danforth Plant Science Center and recently named Dr. Richard Sayre as the head of biofuel research (which I will get into in a subsequent post).
- Carbon offsets. Enterprise offers its customers the option to purchase offsets for their car rentals. Enterprise matches every $1.25 customers pay for offsets, up to $1 million dollars per year. The offsets are purchased from Terrapass.
Greenwash or green?
Or neither? All too often things that aren’t easily pigeon-holed are discounted or discarded. While Farrell is obviously proud of the strides Enterprise has made in just the past couple of years toward CEO Taylor’s vision of corporate responsibility, he makes no attempt to claim it is a total solution or that there aren’t many things left to do (energy efficiency in business operations being one of them).
He isn’t, in my opinion, greenwashing anything nor necessarily green either – though the argument could certainly be made there are few, if any, car rental companies any greener.
Farrell is a pragmatist with a conscious. He understands that, even for a company the rents cars – especially for a company that rents cars – taking into account the impact his business has is crucial if the company is to survive.
As CEO Taylor says,
“For Enterprise, our company’s success depends on the availability of vehicles and fuel, and both must be acceptable to society. That’s why we are taking steps now to invest in the future, as part of our commitment to sustain our business by addressing the parts of the world we touch with our business.”
As we ended our conversation Farrell told me that, in his thirty years in the corporate world, he has never before seen what he termed the “perfect alignment” – what is good for society is good for business – that he does now.
Businesses built from the ground up with sustainability and a triple bottom line as a core value are essential, of course. Just as essential is the corporate evolution from “old school” business. An awakening to, as Farrell puts it, the perfect alignment of society and business; fostering positive change instead of resisting it.
So is it all greenwash? People will certainly want to call it that no matter what Enterprise does. It’s a car rental company. That’s fine with Farrell, nor does it appear to slow him down. Corporate responsibility will necessarily take many different forms as companies begin to understand how their business “touches the world”.
For me, who doesn’t own a car but has occasion to need one, it’s good to know I have options that align with my own values. If I’ve been greenwashed into renting the most fuel efficient car possible, well, I guess the result is the same.