By Brian E Clark
MADISON – Wisconsin’s Green Tier program, which rewards companies with good environmental records by cutting bureaucracy, has put the Badger State at the forefront of the movement that is greening many of the country’s businesses.
That was the message of Joel Makower, a national authority on aligning commercial success with environmental responsibility. He was the keynote speaker yesterday (Tuesday) at the second day of the Wisconsin Green & Growing conference, which drew more than 200 participants to the Monona Terrace Convention Center.
Makower, whose clients include General Electric, General Motors, Nike and Procter & Gamble, urged business and government leaders at the session to move the process forward.
He also encouraged the state to adopt a “green” brand, but warned that it had to be backed up with substance or it would flop as a marketing effort.
Makower, who has authored or co-authored more than a dozen books on corporate environmentalism and social responsibility, said companies that had no conservation efforts two decades ago are now adopting “zero waste” manufacturing programs.
The ultimate goal is to have factories with no smokestacks or drain pipes, he said.
But he said some companies have not gotten credit for the work they have done to clean up their factories. And he urged greater cooperation between industry and environmental groups instead of viewing each other as adversaries.
Unfortunately, he said environmental compliance officers too often are some of the first employees to be let go during a downturn or reorganization.
The key to furthering the greening of American business, he said, is for firms to make environmental improvements a source of wealth. But he said he is convinced consumers will buy from companies with clean records.
On the global level, Makower said economies that destroy their ecosystems will not remain healthy.
“The natural world can live without us,” he warned.
But companies that are good corporate citizens have shown they can profit by cutting energy and material waste. He said Wisconsin firms have been leaders in the field.
“It’s the $50 bill that is sitting on the factory floor,” he said. “It’s the low-hanging fruit that is easy to pick. There are thousands of best-case studies that tell us what to do. The challenge is to make these things happen.”
Makower argued that 25 percent of the energy used by American factories could be saved by using more efficient motors. Likewise, industry could reduce by 20 percent the power they use to create steam.
He said some corporations have already achieved great savings by trimming excessive packaging and banning the use of wooden pallets.
And he maintained that leading companies will greatly reduce their use of water – which he called the “oil of the 21st Century.”
Makower praised Coca Cola for looking at ways to cut the amount energy used by the refrigeration units in its vending machines.
“Some companies are going way beyond the minimum,” he said. “There are huge opportunities for firms that have new ideas and new products.
“And when it comes to cutting waste, wise managers ask the people who work on the shop floor for their advice,” he said. “But too often, no one asks them.”
Makower touted “biomimicry” as a way to bring biology to the design table.
“Forward thinking people are asking ‘how would nature do that?’” he said. “After all, she has 3 billion years of R&D working on these sorts of things.”
He predicted that self-cleaning paints patterned after the lotus leaf would one day be on the market. And that companies might one day grow proteins to replace paints made of toxic materials.
Though some big companies, including General Electric, “get it,” Makower said too many environmental managers get marginalized inside their own companies because they don’t speak the same business language as their CEOs.
“It has to be more than a nice idea,” he said. “It has to be part of the business and marketing strategy that everyone buys into. You may be passionate about what you do, but if your CEO doesn’t understand how it helps the company, it may not last.”
“Still,” he said, “it’s a worthwhile effort. Which is why I’m pleased to see what you are doing with Green Tier here in Wisconsin.
“It shows how businesses can gain from doing the right thing,” he said. “The challenge is how to make things like this continue to happen.”
For more information about the Wisconsin Green & Growing conference, click on http://www.wi-ei.org. For details on various Green Tier projects, visit the DNR’s Green Tier page online at http://dnr.wi.gov/org/caer/cea/environmental/ and click under “applicants.”