The Greening of American Industry

In addition to forming partnerships with environmental NGOs and working with groups like Terrapass to deal with their carbon burden, American industry (or at least some sectors of it) appears to be going through an epiphany in relation to environmental issues. A recent cover story in Newsweek magazine by Jerry Adler on the new momentum for green ideas in America stressed the role of industry in buying into the idea of sustainability. The article highlights efforts by Wal-Mart to save resources by changing how goods are packaged and even what goods it sells. For example, clothing made from organically grown cotton has become a Wal-Mart staple. The article mentioned other companies that have taken actions designed to conform to greener standards (and also save money for the most part), including Circuit City, Duke Energy Co., and Ford Motor Co., whose chairman, Bill Ford Jr., is described as a strong environmentalist.

The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and other publications have reported that for some of the major issues of the day, the best example being global warming, American industry is far ahead of the American government. The United States has not signed the Kyoto Protocol because of the possible negative economic effects this treaty could have for American industry. And yet some American industries have begun to take measures on their own, in the absence of governmental regulation, to address this crucial issue facing us and our children and grandchildren. Wal-Mart, General Electric, Shell Oil, and others have actually urged Congress to impose rules on carbon emissions from industry. Although some corporate leaders are acting simply out of concern for the benefit of humanity, including of course themselves and their families, others have wisely come to the conclusion, based on years of experience in such matters, that carbon regulations are inevitable and that it would be better to deal with the situation now and have rational, agreed-upon, and economically viable solutions in place sooner rather than later. These business leaders know that it is better for business to have a logical and consistent set of regulations to follow than to work in the current state of uncertainty and the attendant atmosphere of pending (but unknown) change in the legal and regulatory state of affairs.

An interesting and very important program in the movement toward sustainability on the part of industry has been initiated by the international chemical industry. This program, called Responsible Care, requires all companies to adhere to a set of environmentally sound guidelines that cover everything from controlling toxic emissions to reducing energy consumption. The program is run by the International Council of Chemical Associations and is truly global in scope, encompassing the national chemical associations of fifty-two countries. This program is not a rubber stamp or a strictly public-relations scheme to improve the image of the industry. The chief executive of each company signs a document of commitment to the goals and standards of the program. A key aspect of the commitment to Responsible Care is transparency, and all stakeholders, including shareholders, the communities in which the plants are located, governmental bodies, unions, and environmental groups get access to members' data and policies related to environmental quality. Another vital component is the idea of product stewardship, which means that the company accepts responsibility for the use and fate of all its products, from manufacture and use to transport, storage, and disposal.

I spoke to Dr. Judith Graham, who is the managing director of the Long-Range Research Initiative at the American Chemistry Council (ACC). Before joining this industry-sponsored organization, Dr. Graham spent over thirty years at the EPA from its inception in 1970. More than anyone I can think of, Dr. Graham has been a witness to "both sides'' of the environmental debate. Her comments (which represent her own views and not necessarily those of either the EPA or the ACC) largely confirmed the general impression I had of people and organizations of goodwill coming together in a shared and truly serious interest in protecting human beings from any dangers originating with modern chemicals. Dr. Graham's comments about the past forty years were illuminating. She remarked on the enormous improvements in air quality that have come to pass in this period, and echoing the theme of this book, told me, "it didn't just happen.'' Her perspectives on the industry response to EPA regulations were interesting and a bit surprising.

I asked Dr. Graham whether she had seen a sea change in big busi-ness's attitude toward green issues, as has been reported in the media. Although she admitted that some companies were always complaining and trying to fight against the imposition of new regulations, she said that overall, in the bigger picture, "industry needed the EPA and the national standards'' that came into force with nationwide regulations. Before the existence of the EPA, national corporations spent huge amounts of resources dealing with the myriad of differing regulations that existed in every state and locality. A single set of rules that apply everywhere actually saved a great deal of money for American business.

Dr. Graham's view of the battles fought in the past was that industry was generally willing to follow regulations that it perceived as based on sound scientific data. Some environmentalists might argue that the industry definition of what is good data may differ from that of those pushing for tighter control of chemical emissions or exposures. Now, she said, many of the discussions are about very small changes in allowable levels.

Dr. Graham also made an important point related to how controls on chemical toxic emissions (and other forms of pollution control) came about. Although the EPA uses data from academic and in-house scientists to formulate the regulations that set the standards companies have to follow, Graham adds that "industry had to create the technology necessary to lower emissions. Industry engineers made the engines more efficient and less polluting.''

Of course the EPA has its own pollution-prevention program and engineering laboratories, but on its own, government research and development would never have solved the technical challenges associated with changing manufacturing processes, stack cleaning, recycling, and all the other technology needed to reach the legal standards set up by the EPA and other agencies. Private companies often provided new technology to the EPA for dissemination, and a whole new technological industry devoted to pollution control and toxic-chemical exposure abatement has developed, much of it funded by EPA contracts and grants. This industry has grown enormously in recent years and now includes many subspecialties such as asbestos and radon abatement, pollution-control-device manufacture, personal safety-protection services, and household water- and air-purification systems. Dr. Graham concluded the interview with a simple statement that I believe is a good omen for the future—one that reflects my optimistic viewpoint regarding the more enlightened approach of much of modern American industry (especially the much maligned chemical industry) toward saving our planet: "Sustainability is good for business."

As long as scientists like Judy Graham and her colleagues at ACC have a say in the policy decisions of the American chemical industry; as long as John Vandenberg and his colleagues at the EPA and other state and federal regulatory and enforcement agencies continue to use creative solutions to new environmental problems; and as long as groups like Environmental Defense keep making productive and solid partnerships with corporate America, I trust that my optimistic views about continuing progress in controlling and eliminating pollution hazards and the effects of technological progress will prove correct. Now that we know we can make bad air better and dirty water clean, turn wastelands into parks, and really save the earth from ourselves, we are capable of making even more progress if we only continue on the paths we have been traveling and finally acknowledge (and this book is the beginning) the great progress that we have already made.

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