Not since the beginning of the environmental movement in the late 1960s has the fate of planet earth received so much media attention. Business executives are, without a doubt, very sensitive to global warming concerns. The downside may be that with all the current focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption, executives may be unaware of other, possibly just as significant, environmental issues and opportunities. The media thrives on a good fight, and global warming provides an excellent array of high-profile politicians, Hollywood activists, scientists, and corporate CEOs taking one position or another on the issue. While everyone seems to agree that the planet is warming, the debate rages on about its source (anthropogenic or naturally occurring), its long-term effects, the cure and, indeed, even if warming may be a good or bad thing.
Just when you think the issue finally has been resolved by no less an exalted organization as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, along comes the British documentary “The Great Global Warming Swindle.” Solar activity, it claims, is the source of warming and all the current fuss is nothing more than a “political activist movement” driven by individuals akin to religious zealots. And on and on it goes. Al Gore is attacked in the media for his personal eco-footprint. The United Nations report Climate Change 2007—The Physical Science Basis is quickly set upon by contrarian scientists. The ratio of believers to nonbelievers may be a thousand to one, but the conflict gets played out in the press more like one to one. CEOs band together with environmental groups in the U.S. Climate Action Partnership initiative. Now there’s the media photo op: former antagonists together in unison.
Harvard Business Review, which historically rarely published environmental articles, now focuses on corporate social responsibility.1 Even The Wall Street Journal, which not that long ago claimed that “the political use of such hobgoblins as global warming and assorted toxic terrors would become an art form,” recently conceded that large corporations are recognizing that there has been a shift because of “a concession to the political reality.”2 In their BusinessWeek column, “ The Welch Way,” Jack and Suzy Welch stated it most succinctly: “Whether the impact of global warming is mild or severe, companies have to adopt a ‘here it comes’ mindset and mount a well-reasoned plan. Any other response would be bad business.”3 I could not agree more. But a “well-reasoned plan” on global warming does not constitute a comprehensive strategic plan for the environment. It is in this regard that many companies, if not most, may be critically lacking. While more and more CEOs proclaim their company greenness, the environmental troopers behind the scenes that I speak with admit to being underresourced for even such basic tasks as regulatory compliance. What is going on here?
The environment, for most businesses, has been a series of specific concerns that have been dealt with individually as they emerged. These issues are generally considered another cost of doing business to be reduced whenever feasible (see sidebar, “Environmental Evolution”). Most executives are not trained in this arena and few see the environmental landscape holistically, connecting all the dots, as it were. For example, although the principles of green marketing were available to businesses way back in the 1960s, it has only relatively recently become all the rage for mainstream companies. Some may say that the market itself was not ready for it back then, but again, the focal issue on management’s mind at the time was compliance. Once hot issues, such as compliance, Superfund, and pollution prevention, are largely off management’s radarscope unless propelled to the forefront by some specific crisis du jour.