Just before Halloween, a promising new sustainability blog went live over at Bloomberg News. The official title is “The Grid,” and it aims to cover “Energy, Environment, Economy & Power.” Possibly the world’s foremost business news agency is now on the green beat — as good an indicator as any of the mainstreaming of sustainable business.
One of the first posts at The Grid was an interview with Bart Alexander, chief corporate responsibility officer at Molson Coors, in which Alexander explains why the beer brewing giant is building sustainable practices much more deeply into its operations than ever before. Alexander reports that it came down to two factors: 1) the broad public sense that embracing sustainability is “what’s expected of well-run companies,” that their brand value, in other words, depends on being seen as responsible corporate citizens; and more importantly 2) money. More specifically, that “the cost of goods is a huge driver of whether we have a good year or bad year.” The raw materials in a six-pack of Coors Light are as susceptible to volatile energy and commodity markets as the stuff in your gas tank is, and making smart decisions about efficiency and stewardship simply makes good business sense. (Full disclosure: MillerCoors, a joint venture of Molson Coors and SAB Miller, sponsors MNN's Beverages channel.)
A somewhat snarky summary of the interview was posted at Grist under the title, “Molson Coors explains why it decided to give a crap about the environment.” The implication is that because the beer company’s motivation is financial, its attention to the environment was somehow, you know, less substantial.
Suspicion of megacorporate "green" campaigns inevitably meets this kind of skepticism — there is even a whole sort of subgenre of analysis of the legitimacy of corporate claims to green altruism that goes by the name of greenwashing. Some such dismissals are well-deserved — BP’s mostly content-free rebranding campaign “Beyond Petroleum” remains the gold standard for fake green, as it were — but I’d argue the kneejerk criticism in this case is unwarranted.
In the interview, Molson Coors’ Anderson provides an example of the company’s newfound environmental crap-giving: a series of pumps and reservoirs delivering water to its brewery that used to run all the time, needlessly and wastefully, and now don’t. The brewery now uses less energy and less water. Anderson gives every indication that the brewery decided to do so primarily, if not exclusively, because it saves money.
So here’s my question: What difference does it make why they chose to shut off the pumps when they aren’t needed? Does it create less of a reduction in energy use if they don’t first come to some enlightened moment of awareness that it was just plain wrong to waste water and power? Of course not. And I’d argue moreover that this line of argument traps sustainability rather too tightly in a moralistic box — one that insists the right (green, altruistic, unselfish) intent must precede action; that intent, in the end, trumps action. It suggests that corporations are right to tuck their sustainability initiatives into the “Corporate Social Responsibility” silo and pay little attention to them when they're making the big dollars-and-cents decisions.
One of the most powerfully transformative things about sustainability is that its logic demolishes the artificial wall between doing right for the planet and doing well at the bottom line. It makes sense to Molson Coors for different reasons than it did to Interface’s Ray Anderson (rightly hailed as the enlightened godfather of corporate sustainability), but the results are the same regardless.
This question of intent and action — and in particular of the way sustainability’s unintended consequences are win-win for the planet and the bottom line — is worth exploring in more detail. And as in so many things sustainable, many of the clearest examples are in Germany.
In particular, I was blown away during a recent visit to Hamburg by the amazing innovations I found there, particularly in the business sector. Stay tuned for the next week or so and I'll unveil three lessons in how Hamburg became a model city for sustainable business without much in the way of stating its intent to do so.
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