2 The green environment
2.1 The response of business
For most of human history, our influence on the planet has been small (i.e. sustainable). The waste produced by our presence has traditionally been dealt with by a process of dilution; burying things, or perhaps dumping them in the ocean, was a viable proposition because we were few and the land and the oceans were vast. Mankind was a minor perturbation on the planetary ecosystem. But with change as the ever-present factor, we grew in both numbers and influence.
In the last century, the population of the planet has risen from approximately 1.65 billion to somewhere in excess of 6.5 billion. In that time, we have witnessed the arrival of the motor car and the aeroplane, and usage of both is accessible to an increasing number of those people. The human race is now in a position to have a major influence on its environment. Global warming is possibly the most pressing problem, with most arguments now concerning not whether, but by how much, and the question becomes how to deal with the problem. Energy considerations seem to be paramount. How much do we consume? How should it be generated? What will happen if developing economies become as profligate with it as are the more ‘advanced’ nations?
At some very basic level, there are three ways in which businesses can respond to the green imperative. They can adopt environmentally friendly policies as a matter of belief, as a conscious piece of niche marketing or because they are required to do so by regulation.
Popular examples of the first are not hard to find; Ben & Jerry's, The Body Shop, the Co-operative Bank all started as organisations that ‘wore their heart on their sleeve’ – for them their values and beliefs were a major part of what they do, and to do otherwise would be unthinkable. But Ben & Jerry's is now part of Unilever and The Body Shop has recently been acquired by the L'Oréal group; how will the new owners handle their acquisitions?
The idealistic might argue that the smaller organisation will somehow ‘infect’ the larger, to the point where the parent will exhibit the values of the new acquisition. The more cynical may claim that the original values of the smaller will be lost inside the giant multinational. Ultimately brand-management may come to the rescue and the names, and at least some of the values, will be preserved within a sub-brand; for the new parent to do otherwise might sacrifice the customer value so expensively acquired.
Hence the second possible response: niche marketing. As more and more people come to the conclusion that they would like to do (or to be seen to do) something more helpful to the environment, so businesses will emerge to cater to such a demand with some sort of ‘caring capitalism’. Many organisations such as Dow Chemical, Johnson and Johnson and Ecover find value in being seen to make their contribution to the environment. Many others are painfully aware of the consequences of getting it wrong: the shipwreck of the Exxon Valdez in Alaska, Shell's disposal of the Brent Spar Oil platform and the Union Carbide plant disaster at Bhopal.
It might reasonably be argued that both of these ‘voluntary’ approaches to environmental friendliness are perturbations. To really make a difference is almost certainly the province of government (or rather governments, given that transnational agreement is needed in the globalised business environment).
Activity 2 Environmental responsibilities
Does your organisation have a policy regarding its environmental responsibilities? To what extent is its behaviour consonant with its espoused beliefs?