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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The E Factor

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood talks with Joel Makower, author of the new book The E Factor. The book analyses the trend toward "green" business practices among American companies.


CURWOOD: Joel Makower is an author and journalist who's written "green guides" for consumers, but his latest project has turned to the perspective of business. Makower's new book, called The E Factor, chronicles how big and little corporations are factoring environmental considerations into their businesses. He also offers some advice for corporate managers. I asked him - What's motivating business to - quote - go green?

MAKOWER: Money. It's very much a bottom line thing. If you look at all the many, many things that are involved with going green, they basically boil down to two very simple ideas: minimizing waste and maximizing resource use. When you do those two things, it doesn't really matter what business you're in or where you're located or if you're big or small, you can't help but be more competitive and get a bigger return on your investment.

CURWOOD: Now, what's your favorite success story? Tell us a company that's done great by going green.

MAKOWER: I think my favorite story has to do with Herman Miller. Herman Miller is a furniture manufacturer based in Zealand, Michigan, and they work with a local tannery to produce some of the leather for some of their high-end chairs. In the process of tanning leather, you end up scraping a bunch of organic matter off the back of the hides, which this tannery had been disposing of it, at some cost to the tannery. Herman Miller decided to take this organic matter off their tannery's hands, mix it with sawdust from their own woodshop, to create a very high-nutrient fertilizer. They then went and bought a plot of land on which they are spreading this fertilizer to grow corn to feed to the cows that end up at the tannery! There's this great closed-loop system where everyone comes out as winners - except, of course, the cows.

CURWOOD: Now, what's the most important advice you can offer business executives that want to change?

MAKOWER: Listen to your employees. I think employees really know a lot about what's going on, where the waste is. I think the first step is just to figure out what you're doing, where the inputs are and the outputs are, what you're buying and throwing away. Companies that do take the time to look up and find that, we're buying tremendous amounts of paper for our photocopier. Where's it going, what's it being used for, how much of it is never being used? And when they start to take a look at even that one simple part of their operation, never mind the toxic chemicals that might go into a manufacturing process, they often can find there are tremendous opportunities for efficiency.

CURWOOD: What about companies that by nature are pretty hostile to the environment -- they make dangerous chemicals, they have nuclear products, they are drilling for oil, and the attendant mess that that has -- how can they go green?

MAKOWER: It's tough for them. Basically, the only way for them to be environmentally responsible is to go out of business, and I'm not going to advocate that, and not many people are. So it's really a matter of incremental improvements, and there are plenty to be had. I've spoken to oil companies and to auto companies, and I say if you really want to create a green image, if you really want to do something in advertising, spend your money teaching consumers how to drive their cars, how to maintain them, how to operate them. We have to put things in perspective here. For all that a single employee can amass over the course of a day or a week for the purposes of recycling, and that's a good thing to do, but the environmental benefits that might be gained from that are blown out of the water by the simple act of that employee getting into a poorly-tuned, gas-guzzling car with underinflated tires and a cold engine and driving three or five or ten miles to and from work. I think auto companies and employers in general should make sure we're dealing with the substantive things as well as the symbolic ones.

CURWOOD: How much has this change by business being driven by consumers, how much by business itself, do you think?

MAKOWER: Consumers really haven't changed how they're shopping. For all their talk about being green consumers, by the time they get through the checkout stand, their purchases look pretty much like they always have. But it's the perception of consumers, and particularly the perceptions of kids, changing their ways, that I think is driving some companies to pay attention to this stuff.


MAKOWER: Well, you know, kids influence their parents, of course. But kids also are the future employees and the future consumers. And certainly when McDonald's thought that there might be a generation of kids growing up looking at their company, the Golden Arches, as eco-villains, they said we have to do something here. And I think it's an interesting story, for a couple of reasons. So much attention was paid to this switch from clamshells to paper wraps, and that was significant, and it helped. But 80 percent of the waste savings at McDonald's were things behind the counter, things that we consumers never see. And I think that's important for consumers to understand, that for all of the importance on buying the right kinds of products, by being green consumers, that's just the beginning. We've got to move companies in their operations as well as in the final products that they put out. Those are really where the tremendous opportunities are for environmental savings and for corporate savings, too.

CURWOOD: Well, listen, I want to thank you for joining us. Joel Makower is author of The E Factor, and he also wrote The Green Consumer and edits the newsletters The Green Business Letter and The Green Consumer Letter. Thanks for joining us.



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