Green business backlash: We could see this coming

There's a thought-provoking cover story in the latest issue of BusinessWeek that is sure to spark much green-o-sphere debate over the next few days, so let me lob my own two cents into the mix.The article, called "Little Green Lies," seeks to debunk the idea that being green can be profitable for a business (as businesses from Wal-Mart to Home Depot have implied).

There's a thought-provoking cover story in the latest issue of BusinessWeek that is sure to spark much green-o-sphere debate over the next few days, so let me lob my own two cents into the mix.

The article, called "Little Green Lies," seeks to debunk the idea that being green can be profitable for a business (as businesses from Wal-Mart to Home Depot have implied). Despite good-faith efforts, the corporate managers and companies highlighted in the article are sad to report that being green does NOT mean more green of the monetary kind. The main revelations come from Auden Schendler, who has been spearheading the corporate sustainability projects at Aspen Skiing Co., a resort in the town of the same name. Clearly, a ski resort should care about global warming. Snow-making machines can only do so much if it's not cold enough for the stuff to stick. One has only to visit a seemingly idyllic place like Lake Louise in the Canadian Rockies to see how much the glacier have retreated in just the past 30 years. Will ski resorts also go the way of the dinosaur? But, the story ask, how much is a company will to sacrifice for its green agenda?

As I was reading the article, it occurred to me that Schendler's apparent mission in speaking out are to level-set our currently wild expectations about what is really possible and realistic. After all, public companies are beholden to shareholders who, quite reasonably, expect profits to grow and their investment in a company to pay off. More often that that, green philosophies get in the way of that. Consider the example of Federal Express (cited in the BusinessWeek article), which committed back in 2003 to deploying hybrid trucks at a rate of about 3,000 per year. (The reported offset in greenhouse gas emissions created by diesel vehicles was 250,000 tons per year.) However, the article reports, FedEx today has less than 100 hybrid vehicles in its fleet. One big reason is the premium in price that the company would have had to pay.

It's incumbent on people like me and my fellow blogger Harry Fuller to be diligent about following up claims in the green tech, which won't be easy as there are a whole lot of them. I get as excited as the next environmentalist when a big company says it's committed to green business practices. But it's time for us to hold more of these businesses accountable. Tell us what you're doing, for real, and don't sugarcoat what's hard about being green. One day in the future, we'll be thankful.

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