Green Consumerism Is Dead. Long Live the Green Corporation.
It seems like just yesterday Taco Bell came out with its super-duper, low-fat menu -- advertised larger-than-life-size on posters at registers. Now you can hardly find it on the menu board. It's fine print. What's hot now, apparently, is the bacon double-cheese burrito. How fickle these trends: from low-fat to mega-fat, overnight.In the same vein, we might expect grocery shelves next week to begin stocking "Dolphin-Mean Tuna," or "Ozone-Destructo Aerosol Pumps." Green consumerism, like the low-fat burrito, is a fad whose time has gone. Well, maybe it's not so bad. It may be good that faddishness, like adolescence, passes. What follows is less exciting -- but usually more real. "I think we're actually doing a disservice with this green consumer stuff," Joel Makower, editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Green Business Letter, said in a phone conversation recently. "It's misleading for people to think, if only they buy the right brand of toilet paper they'll save the world." Particularly when they're driving around on under- inflated tires, making a special trip to find "green" toilet paper.Fzzzz. That's the sound of another fad fizzling. Joel Makower giving up on green consumerism is like Kirby Puckett giving up baseball. Makower, after all, is the fellow who used to edit The Green Consumer Letter. Who used to do a syndicated column called the Green Consumer. And who's now dropped both. In Business Ethics not long ago, Makower issued his official "Post-Mortem for Green Consumerism." "I've lectured on four continents about recyclables, reusables, refillables, returnables, rechargeables, and all the other nuances of environmentally correct shopping," he wrote. "I fought the good fight. Now I'm getting ready to surrender." But wait. All is not lost. If consumers have proven less than heroic in their commitment to environmental shopping -- guess who the new hero is? Business. Fads pass, yes. What follows is more real. This, for example, is very real: a 43 percent reduction in reportable toxic releases by major manufacturing facilities, since 1988. Toxic releases have been cut almost in half, since the federal government began its Toxic Release Inventory. The law doesn't require companies to reduce anything -- only to report how much they emit. And, voila, emissions have dropped.That's the free market for you: full of surprises, but somehow it works. On environmental issues, it's a case of one step back, two steps forward. Biodegradable trash bags turned out to be a lot of hooey. Yet issues like that raised the consciousness of business people -- and they're making strides. Take Xerox, for example. The company has had impressive success in implementing initiatives like the "Waste-Free Factory" and the "Waste-Free Office" -- the latter of which aims to cut wastes to landfills by 90 percent, and to reduce energy use 50 percent. Since 1993, the programs have saved Xerox $50 million. But that's peanuts compared to the "Asset Recycle Management" program, which reclaims Xerox products for reuse and recycling. In 1995 alone, ARM generated savings of "several hundred million dollars," according to Jack Azar, associate director for environmental products and technology.There are two wonderful things about environmentalism at Xerox: first, it's rising up from the grassroots, and second, the company is serious about measuring progress. When customers (which means other business people) sent in product specifications, Xerox found many including environmental concerns. There was demand-side pressure. And internally, when the company began its Waste-Free initiatives, it found that employee concerns had already led many plants to take environmental steps. Xerox built on that -- in part by allowing plant managers to invest savings back into their own operations. It was self- guided change. Fueled by self-interest.Equally impressive is the company's environmental accounting. Plant managers are asked to conduct an environmental self-assessment, which headquarters compiles into a five- point matrix of goal achievement. Last year, the average score was 3.56 on a scale of 5.0. That meant Xerox was 70 percent of the way there. Clear goals, company-wide commitment, progress measured in numbers -- and results realized in dollars: That's good management. It also happens to be good for the earth. Who would have guessed? The market sees green consumerism fizzle. Only to find the green corporation bubbling with life. The invisible hand is alive and well, and turning green.