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"Business Week" Says Corporate Greening Is a Lie
But How Honest Is Their Cover Story?

 

The tag line of the cover story of Business Week's October 29 issue reads “LITTLE GREEN LIES”, words that then fill the entire opening page of the article inside.

The article's subhead then tells us, “The sweet notion that making a company environmentally friendly can be not just cost-effective but profitable is going up in smoke.”

Evidently we are in for a thorough debunking of the precept that business can profit by investing to cut its energy consumption and carbon emissions. Right off it looks like “Amory Lovins, legendary author of the idea that by ‘going green,’ companies can increase profits while saving the planet” is about to be bombarded with tales of how his pioneering work with major American corporations has been a bust. We are about to witness failed attempts by major corporations.

Instead, the article centers on one Auden Schendler, the “sustainability advocate” at resort operator Aspen Skiing Co. He’s an alumnus of Lovins’ Rocky Mountain Institute, but tells Business Week he has "utterly failed in what I set out to do. How do you really green your company? It's almost f------ impossible."

The central example of why the green movement is a hoax? The resort’s emissions have crept higher because “more vacationers mean larger lodges burning more power” and warmer winters call for tons more artificial snow.

What’s wrong with this picture? Should larger lodges be expected to use less power? Were green initiatives supposed to prevent warmer winters? Oddly missing is any mention of structural changes in Aspen’s plant that might have reduced emissions per vacationer. It turns out that Schendler failed because Aspen management wasn’t interested. They wouldn’t even change the light bulbs to fluorescents.

The efficacy of the story plunges down its own slippery slope immediately thereafter. Contrary to expectations, Business Week does not set out to prove that corporate investments in solar roofs, natural lighting and hybrid trucks are somehow a failed promise, as the worrisome teaser headings imply. Rather, almost the entire story is about corporations that make boastful claims of cutting emissions but have in fact not lived up to announced intentions (FedEx in 2003 said it would buy 30,000 clean-burning trucks, has since bought less than 100, says BW) or have only bought renewable energy credits (RECs).

RECs are the real subject of the article. A corporation simply writes a check to an intermediary to purportedly invest the money in green projects, such as solar and wind. The money typically buys “credits” denominated in units of power. For a price as low as $2 each, a company can claim that it has “offset” its actual consumption of a megawatt hour of electricity. Staples, Pepsico, Whole Foods and Johnson & Johnson are cited as companies that have bought RECs so as to claim, as with J&J, a 19% emissions reduction since 1990 whereas emissions have in fact increased 24%.

Corporate use of RECs to dodge physical emission reductions -- not to mention the question of just where REC money goes, whether it really buys what is claimed, and why bragging rights can be bought at such suspiciously bargain prices -- is a valid story on its own. But Business Week is guilty of false labeling with a splashy treatment that calls the green movement in corporate America a lie.