Will HP get greener with Meg Whitman at the helm?

Meg Whitman is set to take the helm at HP so what can the environmental movement expect of her leadership?
Written by James Farrar, Contributor

It's confirmed, so all change again then in the HP C-suite: Leo Apotheker is out and Meg Whitman is in. With sustainability an issue at heart of corporate leadership and strategy many will now be looking closely at Meg Whitman's record for clues to HP's green future. However, the readings aren't that clear.

In her ultimately unsuccessful campaign for the California Governor's office last year Whitman carved out a tricky position on Proposition 23, a ballot initiative for voters to decide to kill off California's climate regulations also known as AB 32. Introduced in 2006, AB 32 aims to cut California greenhouse gas emissions emissions by 25% by 2020 with mandatory caps due to come in effect from 2012. The regulation is widely credited with providing the necessary market signals and regulatory certainty to stimulate the green tech market. After weeks of leaving the question open Whitman opposed Prop 23 but if elected she said she would immediately suspend AB 32 climate regulations it for a year which could have risked throwing Silicon Valley's grown green tech investment climate into disarray. 

My plan is to suspend AB 32 for at least one year while we develop the sensible improvements the law badly needs to protect the jobs of hard-working Californians while improving our environment. This is not an easy issue. While green jobs are an important and growing part of our state's economic future, we cannot forget the other 97% of jobs in key sectors like manufacturing, agriculture, transportation and energy. We compete for jobs with many other states, and our environmental policy must reflect that reality.

Meg Whitman called AB 32 as a 'job killer' but VC Steve Westly, a former colleague of Whitman's at eBay and previous California Controller begged to differ:

That would be a stunning step in the wrong direction.......Most of the people I know throughout Silicon Valley realize that to be a colossal mistake. This is the highest growth job segment. This state's job engine for the future is in clean technology.

And so it went in the public debate with the business community broadly split on whether regulatory action to reduce emissions would stifle the economy & throw people out of work or unleash green innovation, create a wave of new jobs & stimulate economic growth. To be fair, and HP employees can take heart in this, its clear that Whitman supports a thriving & competitive green tech sector in California, its just she did (does?) not support AB 32 as the means to that end as she explained in this video.

But where did HP come down on Prop 23 in the run up to last year's ballot?  Unusually (some would say bravely) for a larger corporation HP stuck its neck out with this special statement released at the time: 

HP strongly opposes Proposition 23, which would impair California’s leadership in reducing greenhouse gases. As a top employer in California and one of America’s greenest companies, HP takes seriously its role as a leader in protecting our environment, and supports the state’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions and provide regulatory certainty that fuels innovation.

So is Meg Whitman likely to smother HP's leadership on environmental policy? Will she take a laissez faire approach to environmental markets and snuff out green product innovation and eco ops improvement before they've had an opportunity to mature on the vine? That's unlikely on two counts.

First, the enigmatic 'HP way' of employee community and environmental engagement is woven into the fabric of the company's culture. As incoming CEO she will do well to pull on that lever to help consolidate and unite the workforce.

Secondly, many believe that last year she was tacking hard to the right in the election campaign to capture a populist vote but her real convictions actually lie elsewhere. As evidence, her family foundation of which she is a trustee, granted $300,000 to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in 2007 & 2008. As you might imagine, EDF is a strong supporter of AB 32 and claims to be an original co sponsor of the bill. Whitman's charitable foundation has continued to support a bunch of progressive educational charities though no further support for the environment in the latest filing which was for 2009 prior to the run for Governor's office. The largest recently recorded donation of $200,000, was gifted, not to an upstart environmental pressure group, but to the rather more stately Goldman Sachs Philanthropy Fund.  

The good news is that Meg Whitman is clearly comfortable in the world of public policy, she is demonstrably pragmatic in approach, clued up on social and environmental issues and is actively engaged on sustainability issues. HP's drive for green product innovation, operational performance and public engagement will continue but it will likely change direction and that could be good news. The entire corporate sustainability field across the board needs a jolt to break up the accumulating PR plaque & find faster ways forward to integrate sustainability into the business model. Maybe Meg's the one to plow new furrows for sustainability and put the 'HP way', way out in front once again.

For more analysis from ZDNet on unfolding events today at HP see also:

  • HP: Apotheker out. Whitman in. A Hangover decision?
  • Will ousting Apotheker at HP make any difference?
  • Meg Whitman's ledger:  Is she up to running HP?
  • HP's CEO carousel continues; Whitman officially in, Apotheker out
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