Gary Hirshberg: Green—Not Greed—Is Good

As consumers demand accountability from business, companies are learning that environmental responsibility can be good for the bottom line as well as the planet.

Public anger about Wall Street misdeeds continues to boil, fueled by almost daily headlines about secret bonuses and opulent corporate getaways with taxpayer-funded bail-out money. Corporate greed has reached its tipping point for the American consumer.

As the public demands greater accountability from companies, smart businesses will take stock and recognize that ‘green’ - not greed – is good. But I have good news for American Business: going green will earn you green, and we’ll all benefit.

Here’s your chance to earn back the public’s trust while mining your company for profits.

After more than three decades in the environmental movement and almost that long building a seven-cow operation in a leaky barn into the world’s largest organic yogurt maker, I know that economic self-interest is the most powerful, if not the only, force capable of bringing about the future we need in time to make a difference to the well-being of Mother Earth.

Did I say the most powerful? It’s second only to the power consumers wield when they choose goods and services that have lower environmental footprints. Those consumer choices send an undeniable message to the businesses that produce them — and the ones that don’t.

And here’s even better news for business: Ecologically sound practices are also economically sound over the long term. Indeed, saving the planet can prove profitable in both a fiscally narrow sense and in a much broader context of job creation and greatly expanded economic development. Addressing climate and environmental challenges will give 21st-century businesspeople and ordinary citizens the chance to grasp what Pogo called “insurmountable opportunities,” possibilities that may exceed anything humankind has ever seen before. And with the Obama Administration welcoming a greener economy, anything is possible.

As 2010 approaches, we still find ourselves mired in the same polarizing debates of the last century: rich versus poor, red versus blue, local versus global, the developed world versus the still-developing one,. And each passing day of gridlock takes us closer to the precipice of environmental catastrophe even as our modern-day prophets, the scientific community, warn of the consequences. Without decisive and immediate action, our children—indeed, all life on this planet—will be deprived of the clean air and water and the health-giving food that prior generations have taken for granted.

With such ominous warnings, why the polarity and gridlock? When it comes to the planet, too many participants in the debate subscribe to the myth that ecology and economy are somehow mutually exclusive, or that big is bad and small is inherently good. And advocates for each position are more focused on proving themselves right and opponents wrong than on actually averting the looming crisis.

There can be no doubt that one of the great contributors to environmental degradation is our excessive consumption, particularly in the United States. Experts have estimated that if everyone on the planet consumed energy, water, and natural resources at the rates Americans do, we’d need three Earths to sustain us. Clearly, any rational steps to shrink our environmental and climate footprints must begin with reductions in consumption. There are many texts, guides, and resources that exist to help us all reduce our gluttonous ways. As the adage goes, we need to reduce first, then reuse what we’ve had to consume, and then recycle what we have consumed but cannot reuse.

The reality is that even after we have cut our consumption, we will still consume – but how we consume makes all the difference.

By rewarding those companies who listen to us consumers, and work to reduce their resource use, we wield enormous power. American businesses spend many hundreds of millions of dollars on market research to learn about our consumption choices; these findings are the nectar that fuels them. And as the messages come back that large numbers of us want less fiscal irresponsibility, less waste, and more renewable resources used in the production of goods, the changes will follow.

Every one of us must unquestionably reduce our resource consumption and the size of our environmental footprints. None of us can afford to avoid scrutinizing and changing our lifestyles. But the quickest and most powerful way to effect large-scale change is to use our purchasing power as both carrot and stick to prod business to get to work saving the planet.

Thirty-plus years after committing myself to being useful to the planet and 25 years after starting in business, I’ve come to a few hard-headed conclusions:

  • It’s going to take a lot more than moral rectitude and virtuous principles to set us on a truly sustainable path.
  • Business is the most powerful force on the planet; it got us into this mess and is the only force strong enough to get us out.
  • Most problems exist because Business has not made solving them its priority.
  • Only when the solutions to our environmental problems are accompanied by profitable, commercial strategies for enacting them will the business world get on board.

As I explain in my book, “Stirring it Up: How to Make Money and Save the World” (Hyperion 2009), planetary fixes will never get off the ground unless they are part of a profit-making venture. But here’s the really cool thing: Sustainable ideas can and do work.

And here’s another cool thing:All it takes to make use of ecologically sound and profitable ideas is willpower, a human resource in plentiful supply.

Gary Hirshberg is Stonyfield Farm President and CE-Yo and author of Stirring It Up: How to Make Money and Save the World.