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Think Twice Ecology, the Next Apartheid

Doing good isn't always bad for the balance sheet -- and your employees know it.

September 6, 2001
Related Topics: Ethics, Retention
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Twenty years ago, employees were asking HR directors, "Does our companyinvest its money in South Africa?" Divestment was a litmus test for corporatesocial responsibility.

    The apartheid issue is no longer on the front burner. In its place is environmentalawareness, which -- particularly to some of Generations X and Y -- represents the dividingline between a company that cares about something other than profits and onethat does not.

    One may ask, Isn't turning a profit enough? Do we have to offer telecommutingas an option in order to save gas? Do we have to analyze what percentage ofour materials is made from recycled and recyclable components? Do we have toreview all of our company's eco-practices?

    Yes, according to environmentalists. And these days, there are a heckuva lotof environmentalists.

    Some of the more hard-core have a Web site, Ecopledge.com, where they've gottencommitments from almost 100,000 employees to reject offers at corporations that"fail to take specific, positive environmental actions identified by ecopledge.comresearchers."

    These steps include discontinuing the sale of polluting products, increasingrecycling, and halting controversial developments. Ecopledge is targeting BoiseCascade, BP Amoco, Coca-Cola, Citigroup, Daimler Chrysler, Dell, Disney, Nestlé,PricewaterhouseCoopers, Sprint, and Staples.

    The group was partially responsible for getting Ford and GM to abandon theirmembership in the pro-business "Global Climate Coalition," and alsohelped get GE to increase washing-machine efficiency. In April, job candidatesdumped hundreds of "embargoed" résumés at BP's regionaloffices. BP is now negotiating its position on Alaska oil drilling.

    I should mention that I have stock in a couple of the companies on the Ecopledgelist. So might you. So might your company. This matters, because environmentalistscould eventually boycott companies that invest in other companies they don'tlike. During the divestment era, you didn't have to conduct business directlyin South Africa to get on someone's bad list.

    In the environmental game, doing good isn't always bad for the balance sheet."Being environmentally responsible almost always makes good business sense,"says John Zurcher, IKEA's North America environmental coordinator. At IKEA,each store now has a person with that title who carries out environmental trainingfor the store's employees.

    Kinko's is converting its more than 850 stores to energy-efficient lighting,and is purchasing faxes, scanners, printers, and copiers that carry the EPA'sEnergy Star™ label. Kinko's has earned accolades from Fortune's "BestCompanies to Work For" list partly because of its eco-initiatives.

    "Companies known as environmental leaders have waiting lists of peoplewanting to work for them," says Rona Fried, whose Web site lists "greendream jobs."

    You may think that employees concerned about environmental issues aren't theones working for you. Think again.

    This is not your parents' environmental activism, with divisions along liberal/conservativelines. In California, initiatives have sprung up in every section of the state,pitting union Democrats on the side of development against wealthy Republicanson the side of the environment. Survey data from the respected firm Harris Interactiveshows that more Americans are "very concerned" about the environmentthan about nuclear war, political leadership, terrorism, and even the weak economy.

    When President Bush abandoned a plan to regulate industrial output of carbondioxide, he was criticized by leaders of DuPont and Alcoa. These guys aren'trunning around in tie-dyes.

    "Several years ago, large corporations looked at global warming and feltit had no effect on them," says Mark Lowenthal, program advocate for Ecopledge."Now, there's more long-term thinking at the corporate level. Corporationsare beginning to moderate their policies."

    Smart ones are. And they're not ramming environmental causes into the backroom, separate from the business. I left a message with Patagonia a couple ofweeks ago, saying I'd like to talk about the environment. Who returned my call?Their VP of finance.

    Patagonia, which racks up nearly a quarter billion in annual sales of high-endoutdoor clothes, knows that rock groups aren't writing songs about sweatshops.They're not writing about ergonomics.

    They're writing about the environment, the apartheidof a new generation.


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