Will Big Business Save The Earth?

By Jared Diamond - December 5, 2009

THERE is a widespread view, particularly among environmentalists and liberals, that big businesses are environmentally destructive, greedy, evil and driven by short-term profits. I know — because I used to share that view.

But today I have more nuanced feelings. Over the years I’ve joined the boards of two environmental groups, the World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International, serving alongside many business executives.

As part of my board work, I have been asked to assess the environments in oil fields, and have had frank discussions with oil company employees at all levels. I’ve also worked with executives of mining, retail, logging and financial services companies. I’ve discovered that while some businesses are indeed as destructive as many suspect, others are among the world’s strongest positive forces for environmental sustainability.

The embrace of environmental concerns by chief executives has accelerated recently for several reasons. Lower consumption of environmental resources saves money in the short run. Maintaining sustainable resource levels and not polluting saves money in the long run. And a clean image — one attained by, say, avoiding oil spills and other environmental disasters — reduces criticism from employees, consumers and government.

What’s my evidence for this? Here are a few examples involving three corporations — Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola and Chevron — that many critics of business love to hate, in my opinion, unjustly.

Let’s start with Wal-Mart. Obviously, a business can save money by finding ways to spend less while maintaining sales. This is what Wal-Mart did with fuel costs, which the company reduced by $26 million per year simply by changing the way it managed its enormous truck fleet. Instead of running a truck’s engine all night to heat or cool the cab during mandatory 10-hour rest stops, the company installed small auxiliary power units to do the job. In addition to lowering fuel costs, the move eliminated the carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to taking 18,300 passenger vehicles off the road.

Wal-Mart is also working to double the fuel efficiency of its truck fleet by 2015, thereby saving more than $200 million a year at the pump. Among the efficient prototypes now being tested are trucks that burn biofuels generated from waste grease at Wal-Mart’s delis. Similarly, as the country’s biggest private user of electricity, Wal-Mart is saving money by decreasing store energy use.

Another Wal-Mart example involves lowering costs associated with packaging materials. Wal-Mart now sells only concentrated liquid laundry detergents in North America, which has reduced the size of packaging by up to 50 percent. Wal-Mart stores also have machines called bailers that recycle plastics that once would have been discarded. Wal-Mart’s eventual goal is to end up with no packaging waste.

One last Wal-Mart example shows how a company can save money in the long run by buying from sustainably managed sources. Because most wild fisheries are managed unsustainably, prices for Chilean sea bass and Atlantic tuna have been soaring. To my pleasant astonishment, in 2006 Wal-Mart decided to switch, within five years, all its purchases of wild-caught seafood to fisheries certified as sustainable.

Coca-Cola’s problems are different from Wal-Mart’s in that they are largely long-term. The key ingredient in Coke products is water. The company produces its beverages in about 200 countries through local franchises, all of which require a reliable local supply of clean fresh water.

But water supplies are under severe pressure around the world, with most already allocated for human use. The little remaining unallocated fresh water is in remote areas unsuitable for beverage factories, like Arctic Russia and northwestern Australia.

Coca-Cola can’t meet its water needs just by desalinizing seawater, because that requires energy, which is also increasingly expensive. Global climate change is making water scarcer, especially in the densely populated temperate-zone countries, like the United States, that are Coca-Cola’s main customers. Most competing water use around the world is for agriculture, which presents sustainability problems of its own.

Continue Reading This NY Times Article HERE:

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