Tuesday, 14 April 2009

The End of the Low-Carbon Agenda?

The original version of this article appeared in the February (No. 72) issue of the IEMA journal 'the environmentalist'.

The emergence of corporate greening and corporate carbon reduction coincided with an unprecedented global economic boom. But does companies’ renewed focus on survival and the bottom-line mean they will abandon their low-carbon initiatives?

Recent evidence from both the United Kingdom and United States indicates that cash-strapped consumers are changing their buying behaviour. The growth of the UK organic food sector has fallen by 73% as shoppers cut costs. In the USA, organic producers are also witnessing slower than usual growth. Electric vehicle sales have stalled on both sides of the Atlantic, and Britain’s Nice Car Company has filed for administration. And according to Autodata, US hybrid vehicle sales in November 2008 were 53% lower than in 2007, compared with a 37 per cent drop in overall car sales.

Consumer items such as organic food or hybrid cars can cost at least 15% more than their “less-green” counterparts. For increasingly cost-conscious consumers, it appears this price premium is too much to bear. Gloomy retail sales across Europe and the USA underscore the lack of consumer and business confidence in the economy.

Are corporations taking a similar path? What does the financial crisis mean for the low-carbon agenda?

Making it pay

Companies struggling to get working capital loans or meet payroll may find it hard to justify long-term investments in energy efficiency, renewable energy, and greener manufacturing techniques. Many firms plan to defer new investment until their cash situation becomes clearer. When they do spend, they expect a clear payback.

One form of payback on environmental investment may come in the form of increased sales.

InfoPrint Solutions Company, a joint venture of Ricoh and IBM, has offices in 36 countries around the world. InfoPrint has focused on sustainability as a key component of their “triple bottom line” since hiring Joe Czyszczewski as chief sustainability officer in November 2007. The company has differentiated itself from its competitors in the printer market, by shifting its efforts from selling printers, to offering “work flow solutions”. As Joe, puts it, “we can look beyond the printer at the end-to-end supply chain and full life cycle.”

A recent InfoPrint's pilot study shows that a greener option can help them meet customers’ preferences for less direct mail, while providing clear energy and environmental benefits.

When InfoPrint surveyed over 1,100 consumers, 40% responded that the paper inserts accompanying “must read” documents such as bills are “always impersonal and irrelevant”, and a further 86 percent said they “never purchased a product or service after receiving a separate promotional document.” Infoprint has tackled the problem of “junk” inserts with tailored promotional information printed directly on customers’ bill statements. Paper usage can be reduced by 33% while increasing the mailing’s relevance to their clients’ customers. And since these inserts are pre-printed in bulk, the associated energy and environmental impacts of printing at an offset press, transport and waste can be avoided.

According to InfoPrint’s research, 43% of American households receive between one and three account statements, 39% receive between four and six statements each month, and 13% receive between seven and nine each month by post. We calculate that reducing the weight of each statement sent to American households by 3 grammes would save an estimated 20,233 tonnes of paper and 50,583 tonnes of CO2 – roughly equivalent to 15,000 return flights between New York City and London.

InfoPrint’s venture was launched with great fanfare at the height of the economic boom. Just over one year on, InfoPrint is a telling case study. Rather than scaling back, cutting staff, and allowing sustainability to slip down the list of priorities, the company has set its sights firmly on profit and sustainable growth tied to greener products and services.

Save Carbon – Save Cash

Initiatives which reduce energy and resource consumption and waste can contribute directly to cost savings. These cash-conserving measures are unlikely to be ignored in an economy when companies are squeezing every ounce of efficiency out of limited resources.

Marriot Hotels announced a five point environmental strategy to help address climate change in 2008, with a key goal to green their $10 billion supply chain. On his “CEO Blog” Bill Marriott on 6 January 2009 says, “Because of our size and scale, we can ask our vendors, ‘How can you make your products more environmentally friendly?’ And they've come up with some great solutions that don't cost any more money, which is good news in the current economy.”

As part of their “costless greening” programme, Marriott is introducing pillows stuffed with filling made from recycled bottles, and about 500 of their hotels are trialling “coreless” bathroom tissue, which “should save about 119 trees, 3 million gallons of water and 21 tons of packaging waste every year.” If Marriot rolled out “coreless” bathroom tissues in all of its hotel rooms, we calculate that the carbon savings could be an estimated 221 tonnes. And if recycled plastic instead of a virgin plastic product becomes the filling of choice in all of Marriot’s 2,900,000 pillows, the carbon reductions could amount to 11,300 tonnes annually.

Staying Competitive

Firms that choose to abandon their green initiatives may find themselves in a minority.

Eighty percent of corporate sustainability executives surveyed from across North America plan to maintain or increase levels of sustainability-related spending in 2009, despite the current economic conditions, according to Panel Intelligence's Quarterly Sustainability Tracking Study. Their November 2008 survey found that despite a declining U.S. economy and lower oil prices, corporate investment in energy efficiency remains strong.

The survey found that eighty-two percent of respondents rated energy efficiency as the most important area of current focus and investment, and that corporate spending on sustainable waste management initiatives is expected to grow by 20 percent in 2009, the highest percentage increase of any subcategory. Cost savings, revenue generation and brand strength are the most important drivers of environmental and clean technology initiatives.

Preparing for the future

More companies also recognise that failing to maintain their low-carbon initiatives could prove costly in the long run. Environmental initiatives are a key tool for engaging employees and maintaining morale in challenging circumstances. Customers and stakeholders are unlikely to believe that environmental improvement is “part of the corporate DNA” if green initiatives are cut whenever the economy slows.

Government is even less likely to show understanding. In the UK, the Government has introduced the Carbon Reduction Commitment, with a performance league table and compliance costs equivalent to about 11% of companies’ energy bills. Meanwhile, regional greenhouse gas emissions trading systems have been rolled out in North America, with most analysts expecting the incoming Obama Administration to introduce a national cap-and-trade scheme during the next year. Firms that abandon their carbon reduction programmes in the short term are likely to find their costs increasing down the line.

Challenges and barriers

It is clearly in companies’ long-term interest to continue pursuing a low-carbon agenda. But in a difficult economy, cash is king. The inability to borrow for capital intensive investments may prevent companies from taking measures that provide clear and lasting benefits. As discussed in our previous the environmentalist article (issue no. 68), low-carbon investments also tend to have disproportionately high employment and societal benefits. A case could therefore be made for government incentives to encourage businesses to go green.

Governments have an array of financial and policy tools to stimulate continued investment in lower-carbon business practices. These include tax incentives, direct subsidies, regulatory clarity that levels the playing field for different technologies, and direct government procurement that generates economies of scale and drives down the cost of green technology for businesses.

As Deere & Company CEO Robert Lane notes, “There need not be an inherent contradiction between government and business nor a perpetual dependence. Public policies can provide useful "pump priming" for new, evolving industries, creating the infrastructure needed for markets to develop and businesses to grow.” Deere proved to be ahead of the curve as these remarks are not recent – they were made in October 2006.


Climate change will not wait for the economy to recover. It is up to us to make the most of the opportunities that present themselves and take action now. Lee Scott, Jr., President and CEO of Wal-Mart Stores, captured this spiriti in his remarkes to the National Retail Federation on 12 January 2009, when he said, "If we as a country want to get through this time...and position ourselves to prosper and lead in the years ahead, then we need to tackle the hard issues. We cannot afford to postpone solving these problems."

Suzy Hodgson, AIEMA, is a principal consultant and Jamal Gore, AIEMA, is the managing director at specialist carbon management company Carbon Clear Limited.