Companies Have “Unique Leverage” to Help Environment

Office Depot
Private industry can be an effective tool to promote positive environmental changes.

While it can be hard to get the U.S. government and even individual consumers to “go green,” private industry has the power to significantly affect the environment in the near term, according to Gwen Ruta, director of corporate partnerships at Environmental Defense. In a recent interview with Northwestern University’s Medill News Service, Ruta noted that companies like Wal-Mart, FedEx, and Home Depot increasingly recognize that their greatest ecological impacts come not from their own operations, but from “making, packaging, shipping and using the products that they sell. They have a unique leverage through their purchasing clout,” she said.

Forty-three percent of Americans want to be “extremely green” in the next five years, but only 11 percent consider themselves in this category now, according to Wal-Mart’s Live Better Index, a survey of consumer insights released in March. “It takes a lot of effort to educate and motivate a hundred million consumers,” Ruta explained “[This is] not because people don’t want to do the right thing, but they may not know what to do, or are confused about what to do.”

It can be much easier to educate private industry, according to Ruta. For example, as part of its push to sell 100 million compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) by 2008, Wal-Mart announced last month that it will offer varieties that use 33 percent less mercury than conventional CFLs. And the global shipping company FedEx boasts a fleet of 18 hybrid-electric delivery trucks, with plans to add more to create demand for the high-efficiency vehicles. After witnessing FedEx’s success, other companies have shown interest in making a similar switch, Mitch Jackson, head of FedEx’s environmental program, told Medill.

The Dogwood Alliance, an organization that works with corporations to protect forests in the southern United States, reports success in helping to get office supply stores Staples and Office Depot to commit to 30 percent post consumer recycled content in their products. These and similar pledges to protect endangered forests have bolstered the recycled paper product industry and put pressure on other suppliers to change their practices, the Alliance reports. Staples’s 2002 commitment has saved over one million trees to date, according to company estimates.

But new corporate policies that influence suppliers and push competitors to be more eco-friendly are not just about saving the environment, says Daniel Esty, director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy. In the long run, he told Medill, sharing techniques and experience in the area will create greater demand and innovation for green products, which will drive costs down. “This is way more than social responsibility, it is business strategy,” Esty explained. “Frankly (companies) are way behind if they are still thinking about it in that context.”

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.