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Is Corporate Greenmania Real?

by Ralph Nader

The "Business of Green" and "Green is Gold" are among the phrases finding their way onto the nation's business pages and into the advertisements of major corporations.

After years of corporate greenwashing, is this wave of corporate greenmania for real? Is it more than hype when the New York Times marks a recent article with the sidebar "The market tells producers: It's go green or goodbye."?

Well, not if the impetus has to come from stronger regulation or environmentally driven government purchases. Those two pressure points have largely been kept dormant or are de minimis.

When business sees environmental management as saving it money, increasing productivity, becoming more competitive and attracting young talent, the prospect of sustainable policies taking root becomes more likely.

Obviously, it was not always viewed this way by corporate bosses who, not long ago, saw our air, water and soil as their toxic sewers.

There is still a long way to go to "green" the entire supply chain from the mines to the markets.

No corporation illustrates this broad continuum better than the Atlanta-based Interface Corporation-the country's largest commercial carpet tile manufacturer. In 1994, founder Ray Anderson started his company on its goal as a "restorative enterprise," which he described as zero net pollution and 100% recycling by 2020. The company is 45 percent there, he estimates.

Anderson speaks figures in his 100 plus lectures around the nation and world. His company's use of fossil fuel is down 45 percent, net greenhouse gas production is down 60%, while company sales are up 49 percent. Water use is down by a third in its manufacturing and the filling of landfill with waste is down 80%.

"Sustainability," Anderson told the New York Times, "pays in customer loyalty, employee spent-hard cash," plus 336 million dollars in savings since 1995.

Anderson is unique in that what he and his team have done is not anecdotal, but system wide in scope. The news is replete with one large company achieving this with lighting or that with their transportation. With Interface, ecological efficiency is across the board.

Since even a stodgy company like General Electric is moving quickly into selling "green" technology as the next profit center, why are the aggregate figures on hydro-carbon use, greenhouse gases still increasing? Because there are no national missions to take these successful examples-these best practices-and make them a mandatory floor for all companies.

I refer to mandatory performance standards by the federal government-not specific design standards-backed up by specifications set by Uncle Sam, who is the buyer of so many products we all use, for its departments and agencies. These include vehicles, building construction, paper and many other goods and services that could be purchased only from solid "green companies." (See: Forty Ways to Make Government Purchasing Green by Eleanor J. Lewis and Eric Weltman. Available from the Center for the Study of Responsive Law for $10. Mail orders to PO Box 19367 Washington, D.C. 20036.)

Mandatory federal standards and government purchasing specifications brought the people safer cars, higher recycled paper content and greater fuel efficiency for their vehicles and appliances. The deregulation craze of the past twenty-five years ended most of this forward progress.

Moreover, the retarding corporate powers are still going anti-green. They oppose a carbon tax and long overdue upgrades of fuel efficiency and pollution control standards. They want to build dozens of costly, unnecessary, unsafe atomic power plants with no less than 100% federal government loan guarantees.

This overall persistence of corporate intransigence needs to be kept in mind as the blizzard of green announcements by companies continues.

To keep our demands on industry and commerce to become more efficient, productive and environmentally benign, it is worthwhile to quote a passage drawn from Natural Capitalism, a book co-authored by a physicist, a lawyer and a successful businessman:

"Whether through better design or through new technologies, reducing waste represents a vast business opportunity. The U.S. economy is not even 10% as efficient as the laws of physics allow. Just the energy thrown off as waste heat by U.S. power stations equals the total energy use of Japan. Materials efficiency is even worse."

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer, and author. His most recent book is The Seventeen Traditions.

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