San Francisco is the first city in the U.S. to have implemented a plastic bag ban, but there are many other cities up and down the west coast and across the nation who have enacted or are discussing similar measures (including Seattle, Los Angeles, Portland, and New York). As opposed to S.F.’s ban on plastic, most cities are planning to charge a fee for use of disposable or single use bags, both plastic and paper. The fee-based approach was initially introduced in Ireland, and according to the Irish government has been successful in reducing the use of disposable bags. In the U.S. the cost of the fee will vary by city, but the norm is $0.25 per bag. This cost will be paid by the consumer at time of checkout, and a large portion of the proceeds will go towards pollution and litter cleanup efforts.
There are several stakeholders involved, most notably municipal government, retailers, bag manufacturers, and consumer groups, making for a very dynamic environment. But perhaps most interesting of all is the fact that this may be the U.S. consumer’s first direct introduction to a new concept that will soon be a staple of the U.S. economy – the factoring of externalities into the cost and price of products. For many businesses, this impending change is frightening in both its intended and unintended impacts.
We all hear about the benefits that businesses derive from going green – cost savings, increased customer loyalty, great PR – and it seems that it’s the big brands that have embraced the opportunity most emphatically. But in fact, much of the ecological impact that our economy has on the planet occurs at a local level. Not only do global corporations impact the environment at a local level, but the millions of small businesses in the U.S. have a huge collective impact. And so it shouldn’t be surprising that much of the business opportunity can be found at a local level.
More than the global brands, a large percentage of small businesses interact with their clientele (their neighbors) at a local level. These are restaurants, gas stations, electricians, cleaners, and grocers. These are the businesses who consumers interact with the most, and at which they spend the most money. So it’s only a matter of time until consumers begin to understand the ecological footprint of the businesses they patronize and consequently make decisions about where to purchase based on that information.
I’ve recently struggled with the question: who bears primary responsibility for addressing the environmental crisis – government, companies, individuals, or all 3? Responses were split almost perfectly in quarters, suggesting that all parties are responsible for solving our environmental crisis. Fundamentally I believe that individuals hold the key – both government and businesses are beholden to them. But the reality of the situation is that institutions are far better organized to take concerted action. And without concerted action, we will see global warming, water shortages, and a series of other environmental problems come to roost.
Corporations are uniquely positioned to make a significant and positive impact on our environmental challenges, and for that reason they need to be held responsible. In other words, it’s time for them to step. It’s time for companies to step up to the plate and address our collective environmental challenges for 3 primary reasons.
It’s fair to say that, over the past few years, companies across all industries have begun to invest in the green revolution. These investments have come in many forms – from solar installations to design of more efficient delivery routes to development of new green products. To be sure, in most cases the initiatives have been undertaken due to promises of eventual cost savings as well as tangential benefits such as positive PR. But they have been investments nevertheless. In other words, resources have been put towards the initiative with the belief that there would be a payout down the road.
Historically, when the economy takes a turn for the worse – especially when credit tightens – we tend to see investments dry up. So it’s fair to ask the question: what will happen to the green revolution in business as the economy tightens? Will companies pause in their efforts, and will we see a corresponding slowdown in progress towards greener processes and products? Or will the changing economic conditions provide new opportunities for business to continue down the path that we’ve been on for the past few years?
The Read Green Initiative is a broad effort to raise awareness about the environmental impact of paper magazines. Participants get a 1-year *free* subscription to a variety of digital magazines. As the Read Green site tells us, the “trees will thank you”.
Obviously there is a self-serving aspect to this initiative. One of the primary organizers is Zinio, a digital magazine company. But there are many other companies including the Magazine Publishers of America which are co-sponsors, and that’s because paper magazines take a huge toll on our planet. There are 12 billion magazines published in the U.S. each year and only about 20% of those are recycled – resulting in millions of trees being cut down.
We’ve all heard of the carbon footprint, and many of us have heard of the ecological footprint, but the water footprint is less well known. Just as it sounds, the water footprint is defined as the total volume of freshwater that is used to produce the goods and services consumed by an individual, business or nation. You can measure the water footprint associated with making of a particular product, or we can measure the water footprint of the average citizen in the U.S. Conceptually it’s simple, but measuring is quite difficult…and the results are staggering.
It’s sort of shameful to say, but it comes as no surprise to me that we in the U.S. have the highest per capita water footprint on the planet. Each of us uses roughly 2480 cubic meters of water each year…it’s a little hard to picture, but suffice it to say that our footprint is roughly twice (2X) the average global citizen’s water footprint. In the wake of the Olympics, somehow it seems that we deserve the opposite of a gold medal for this distinction.
The time has come for companies to think differently about their environmental efforts. To be sure, it’s refreshing to see more and more companies stepping up to the plate and making significant changes to their operations and investing in infrastructure in an effort to gain environmental benefits. These are extremely important steps, and by no means do I want to discourage any company from taking them.
But it’s time for the leaders to move on. It’s time that they look outside their four walls and find ways to connect with their customers in ways that help the environment. It goes beyond green products and competitive pricing; it’s about partnering with their customers for a better environment.