Getting It Right Before It's Too Late

No one can have failed to notice the shift in public perception of climate change in the past few months: the scientific debate, dangerously prolonged, is truly over. But this is not in itself a victory for those who are struggling to avert planetary disaster (as I'm sure most readers are well aware). Before there is anything to celebrate, we'll have to take that momentum and turn it into action.

Right now, action is often something we talk about in very general terms. We want to "do the right thing," or "take our responsibility seriously," or "go green." But what all this means is not always clear. I don't mean to unfairly accuse anyone of greenwashing. But I think it is safe to say we're not all pulling at the same oars, both as businesses and as individuals. And that's probably natural. Consensus is just emerging now.

That makes this a threshold in human history. This may sound like Hollywood melodrama, but the inescapable fact is that the decisions we make right now will have a disproportionate effect on future generations. In other words, it is a time when leadership will bear immense rewards.

For this reason, I was very proud to take part last week in a conference that brought together some real leaders. Some were household names. Federal Liberal leader Stephane Dion, Toronto Mayor David Miller, former Prime Minister Joe Clark all spoke passionately about leadership and the environment. I took the stage immediately after it was vacated by a man named Al Gore. (I have to say, speaking after Mr. Gore teaches humility.)But the real potential for leadership and for change, it seemed to me, lay in the hands of the people who were listening. The conference was called Canada's Top 100 Employers; in the room were hundreds of men and women whose decisions in the course of their nine-to-five jobs affect the lives of millions of employees and millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide. Though they may not think in these terms, in a very real sense, the future of the planet is in their hands.

I spoke as the moderator of a panel of representatives from three forward-looking companies: Ellen Pekeles of VanCity, Frances Edmonds of Hewlett-Packard, and Carolyn Clark of Fairmont Resorts and Hotels. I took the opportunity to announce the creation of a new Zerofootprint project, our Employers initiative, which will put our online environmental calculator in the hands of the employees of participating companies, which will in turn be able to generate an aggregate portrait of their organizations' environmental footprint, and their employees' environmental concerns. This information will allow companies to engage their people on the issue that poll after poll show is most important to them, and to take concrete steps to make their own organizations more sustainable.

I couldn't have picked a better place to announce an initiative like this: the three panelists represented companies with exactly the credentials for participation in something like Zerofootprint Employers. I'd like to touch on a few of the things these companies are doing to turn good intentions into real action, all of which give some idea of the scope for radical change that exists if we were to aggregate all these efforts, and involve all 100 top employers, or even all employers.

VanCity has already positioned itself as the cutting edge financial institution in Canada, despite its relatively small size. Their "green" mortgages give a sense of how a small but consistent and carefully considered gesture can have an enormous impact: by setting aside only 10 basis points (or $250 on each $250 000 mortgage), VanCity expects to raise $12 million for high-risk investments in climate change solutions.

Incidentally, their CEO is one of a handful of Canadians trained to give Al Gore's slide show. It's a classic viral campaign put to good use. By giving the "Inconvenient Truth" talk to 150 employees, and getting them to commit to simple measures, basic math (something a bank should be able to manage) indicates they'd trim 520 tonnes of CO2 emissions and get 104 cars off the road. Get them to tell two more people each and triple those numbers. Deliver the slide show ten times to audiences of 300, and get two million cars off the road. Not entirely likely to work out quite this way perhaps, but the numbers show just how much effect advocacy can have when its carried out by an activist CEO.

Frances Edmonds from HP talked about both how a well-articulated commitment to the environment can improve employee morale and retention, and exactly what her company is doing to turn that commitment into action. Specifically, she talked about how redesigning something we hardly think of as a major source of greenhouse gas emissions (in fact, something we seldom think about at all) can have a profound effect. HP's new printer cartridges, they estimate, will save 37 million pounds of CO2 this year. HP inkjet cartridge multipacks, for example, are now made with recycled content paperboard instead of PVC. In fact, since 2003, HP has reduced overall package weight for inkjet cartridge packages by 80 percent and quadrupled the number of packages that can be carried in a single truckload. The new toner cartridge packaging uses 45 percent less packaging material by weight. The smaller boxes can be shipped 30 percent more efficiently — a standard shipping pallet holds 203 cartridges instead of the previous 144. Overall, the more efficient packaging is expected to reduce truck traffic in the United States and Canada by an estimated 1.5 million miles in 2007. All this from new printer cartridges and packaging. Imagine if everything were redesigned this way. How many million tonnes of CO2 and how many millions of highway miles could be shaved off with a little careful thought?

Needless to say, this is not charity. HP expects to do quite well with their newer, smarter products, as well they should. And one way they'll benefit is by working with their employees on something they feel is important. A recent Globescan poll showed that 91% of Canadians surveyed prefer to work for a company that is socially and environmentally responsible — and, in fact, the more socially and environmentally responsible a company is, the more attractive it becomes as an employer. An internal HP survey showed that 70% of respondents said that the company's commitment to environmental responsibility affected their decision to work for the organization. (It is worth noting that 92% of Canadians surveyed said that the more socially and environmentally responsible a company is, the more likely they are to purchase its products or services.)

Finally, Carolyn Clark confirmed the pattern. Fairmont, she said, takes the view that if every household can make a difference, then imagine the difference a home with 20,000 rooms could make. Fairmont uses CFLs in its buildings and water-efficient fixtures. Its resorts' landscaping equipment runs on biodiesel made from kitchen grease. Its California resort generates 60% of its electricity and 100% of its hot water from renewables. Its internal guide to running its properties sustainably has become the industry standard. Sure, this may sound like no more than marketing self-congratulation. We hear things that sound like this all the time. But the idea, and the possibility for change, is staggering. What if every hotel in the world operated this way? What if every one of those millions of rooms, with millions of sheets to launder and little bottles of shampoo to somehow dispose of, were managed so thoughtfully?

At this point in history, the real question is why aren't all hotels, and IT companies, and banks run like these? Why aren't all companies? The other side of the brilliant example set by some organizations, and the sheer scale of the opportunities to save the world by aggregating efforts is that we're forced to acknowledge that until we emulate these companies, we're being bloody stupid. It would be a wretched irony if capitalism, for all its dangerous enthusiasm for innovation, were to ruin the planet for later generations because it was too lazy to do things right. If we can make a huge difference through choices as seemingly trivial as packaging, and we choose not to, we're blundering badly. And not only in our responsibility to the planet. The smart companies are going to get the best employees, the lion's share of the customers, and they'll be the leaders.

Where is the downside?

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