It has been over a week since President Obama’s speech on climate change, and the debate still rages. Depending on one’s perspective, he is hardly doing enough or has us on the fast track to socialism. Of course the press generalizes the debate as environmentalists being all for this agenda, with the business community against it.
The truth is more nuanced, however. As with other issues, from diversity in hiring to expanding trade in new markets, business is often ahead of the government on this issue. Only a few years ago, many business-led “climate change” projects were more of a show-and-tell exercise to score some corporate social responsibility points.
But as energy prices have become more volatile and more companies worry about local water supplies, increasing numbers of global companies are taking climate change more seriously. Panasonic is one of them, and earlier this week I interviewed the company’s Eco Solution President, Jim Doyle, to gain some perspective.
“Interesting how the President talked about ‘clean fossil fuels,’ but we’re past that,” said Doyle as we started our talk on Wednesday morning. Panasonic certainly has a lot on its plate–enough to not be distracted by the fractious American political climate. Indeed the company, which has had a long and venerable history as a leading electronics and consumer appliances manufacturer, is in the midst of a compelling, and painful transition. The company is undergoing a rough patch, with layoffs and divestments marking much of 2012. But sunnier horizons loom. By 2018, Panasonic aims to become the world’s leading “green innovation company” within the electronics sector. Acquisitions such as Sanyo position the Osaka-based giant to become a leader in solar energy equipment sales and other technologies such as fuel cells.
So environmental stewardship can provide the company long-term financial benefits as well. Panasonic is on a mission to slash its carbon emissions and run on 100 percent renewable energy (as in NOT natural gas or “clean coal”) by the end of the decade. Its new headquarters in Newark, NJ will shoot for LEED Platinum certification. And in its home base of Japan, where much of its lucrative home appliance manufacturing is centered, the company has become a leader in the recycling of white goods—everything, in fact, from the gases trapped in refrigerators to the rare earth metals that help these products run “smartly” for discerning consumers along the Pacific Rim. Appliances will always be part of Panasonic’s kit, but that is a tough industry in which to thrive as they have become commoditized and less profitable—especially with Chinese firms such as Hiaer in the mix. So the future for Panasonic may as well be in the already competitive solar market.
Watch for this $84 billion company to become a big mover and shaker in the clean energy sector, especially solar. “We are closing the loop on solar all across the value chain,” Doyle said, “as we see huge opportunities in small and medium sized enterprises.” As Doyle explained, the company found a sweet spot lodged between residential, where the SolarCity’s of the world are strong, and the large multinationals, many of which have already started investing in clean energy projects. So Panasonic is consolidating its solar offerings, investing in everything from the actual equipment to the installation and construction to even construction. “Companies want to know who will be around in 20 years after they invest in these solar projects,” said Doyle, so Panasonic offers a brand reputation and level of trust smaller and newer players in the market cannot offer. And there is still plenty of room for growth for solar within the Fortune 500 or Global 1000 market—after all, the Fortune 500 generally wants to deal with peer companies.
So whatever one’s opinion may be on Obama’s on-again, off-again campaign to fight climate change, one trend is clear: many companies are already moving forward on their plans to confront a warming planet, either by mitigating their impact on the environment, developing new products that run more efficiently or use less energy . . . or as in the case of Panasonic, both—and aggressively at that.
Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is the editor of GreenGoPost.com and frequently writes about business sustainability strategy. Leon also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Sustainable Brands, Inhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).
[Image credit: Leon Kaye]