Give Your Credit Card Where Credit is Due

For many years, environmentalists were known specifically for their ability to stand strong on issues without budging.  Corporate entities could contribute to their causes, join environmental task forces, whatever positioned them as greener, and we’re constantly slammed by eco-groups for “not doing enough.”

Those more militant, extreme tactics worked well in the age of Love Canal when state and federal environmental protection agencies were in their infancy, permitting and regulations were still in development, and there was little incentive – economic or image wise – for business to do the right thing.

But times have changed. With the exception of those dedicated to fighting a loosing battle, most of us, for the most part, accept that we’ve got to find better ways of doing things before we damage our only home in some irreparable way. That change is under way – but it’s going to take some time. 

If you don’t believe me, ask Adam Werbach, once the youngest president of the Sierra Club. He’s now a consultant to eco enemy number one, Wal-Mart (see Fastcompany: Werbach likely wonders how he got where his is today himself, but Wal-Mart courted him, and took him behind closed doors to convince him they were absolutely serious.  He learned that as the movement progresses, cooperation and discussion are more constructive than protests, sit-ins and the “it’s not enough” attitude that has defined environmentalists for years. 

Werbach has lost lots of friends, yet he pushes on in a spirit of cooperation – he even addressed the Sierra Club as he left about how the traditional tools of the environmental movement have seen their day.

Yes, there are still many businesses out there that still don’t get it.  But Werbach makes a lot of sense in embracing those who are trying, and really do want to do the right thing – for whatever reason.  Think of it in terms of supply and demand.  Corporate efforts – like say Clorox’s commitment to its new Green Works line – will never be followed up on and expanded if consumers do not respond.  Instead of saying “that’s not enough,” we should be saying “OK, this is good start, let’s see what else you can do.”

In addition to following the latest on environmental science, we who truly care need to follow the latest in environmental business.  Yes, start ups and eco companies are great.  But let’s face it.  Few appeal to the larger consumer base, and the stories of breakthrough successes are few and far between.  Mainstream attempts are one of our best bets for real change.  Afterall, you can already buy sustainable clothing, furniture, footware, accessories, and thousands of other responsible items from major companies.

Recently, on a popular networking Web site, a member of the green business community asked others for names of premium brands that are truly green.  I sent in some ideas – Aveda, Timberland, Patagonia, Burt’s Bees, Method, and so on.  Other suggestions were all less than mainstream brands – some I had never heard of.  And of course all of the entrepreneurs were out there trying to pass their newer items off as “premium.”  Then the arguing started.  “Method isn’t really green.” “Not all of that company’s offerings are green, so the company is not either.” “Burt’s Bees is owned by Clorox!!!”

It’s that kind of hairsplitting by the so called green-minded that discourages big business from even trying.  Realize it or not, for many compelling reasons, industry cannot change on a dime.  Take the energy industry – we’ve relied on fossil fuels for decades.  They can not simply be removed from the mix tomorrow if we expect to be able to power our homes, businesses, hospitals and mission critical operations.  Any plan needs to consider a change in our energy mix over time – one that replaces traditional energy jobs with new jobs and is thoughtful about phasing in the necessary infrastructure to sustain a move to green power.  That takes cooperation, and unfortunately, time.

So, shop at Wal-Mart – they’ve made a real commitment to decreasing packaging that has spilled over into the retail supply chain.  Reward Clorox for buying Burt’s Bees and spending millions to promote a brand that makes a real difference in the cosmetics field.  Shop in Timberland’s mall stores – they’re the first retailer in the country to insist their mall shops are LEED certified.  Buy L.L. Bean’s “Water Hog” doormats, now made of all sustainable materials. 

Dare to surprise yourself. Be smart enough to know who else is doing what before you fall back on the easy “business doesn’t do enough” attitude.

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