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

Earth's Company

Air Date: Week of

More and more companies are trying to project a green image. Steve Curwood spoke with Carl Frankel, who is the author of a new book called "In Earth’s Company: Business, Environment, and the Challenge of Sustainability. "


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. More and more companies are trying to project a green image. A recent survey by Arthur D. Little found that 80% of companies believe that incorporating a sustainable development approach into their operations would have, quote, "real business value." But, the study also found that few companies are going beyond piecemeal projects like recycling or energy efficient retro-fits, measures that are relatively easy to implement or those that get a quick return on investment. Carl Frankel is the author of a new book called In Earth's Company: Business, Environment, and the Challenge of Sustainability, and he joins me now in the studio. Carl, thanks for coming.

FRANKEL: It's a pleasure to be here.

CURWOOD: First off, we've heard some numbers, but how would you characterize the level of commitment in the big business world to make the shift to sustainable practices?

FRANKEL: It's very mixed. Leading companies are putting a lot of effort into cleaning up their own nest. And this typically takes the form of what's known in business lingo as eco- efficiency, which is basically a function of shrinking the corporate metabolism -- using less stuff on the input side and producing less waste on the output side. And it's really a big question as to if and how corporations are going to up their own consciousness and their own behavior to address the full gamut of sustainable development issues.

CURWOOD: Now here's one of the $64,000 questions today. What does sustainability or sustainable development mean to you?

FRANKEL: That's the question, of course, and I think it's not a bad thing that there is a lot of difference of opinion about it because it means it's vague enough for a lot of people to believe in. If you started articulating exactly what it meant, then a lot of people would stop pursuing it. That said, I will share with you the two -- what I believe are the most conventional definitions of it. One definition basically says we have to use resources in a way now that maintains them for future generations. We cannot use up the Earth's resources so that the children, our children and our children's children, won't have a viable planet to live in. The second definition goes by what is called the Three Es, and the Three Es are, in no particular importance, environment, economy, and equity. Historically, we have pursued economic growth without regard to the environment, in fact, the environment has been something we've used in order to pursue economic growth, and without much consideration to social justice and equity issues. The problem is that doesn't work any longer. There is an expression that says even the frog knows enough not to eat the lily pad on which it sits. Every living system on the planet is in decline, and the rate of decline is accelerating. We are rapidly creating a planet that is not really going to be viable for economic growth especially in view of the fact that the world's population is expected to double in the next 30 to 40 years.

CURWOOD: Now, in your book, you say that right now we're in what? The third era of corporate environmentalism, this eco-efficiency. And we're just starting to advance into a fourth era. What is this fourth era? What do you expect business to do in the 21st century?

FRANKEL: Corporations have to start devoting themselves to measures that go beyond cleaning up their own house, to cleaning up the world's house. There are a number of companies in various ways that have set about, quite consciously, to make sustainability a core element of their business strategies. British Petroleum, to take one example, about a year ago publicly said, and broke ranks with its big oil colleagues, by saying, we accept that climate change is something we have to take really seriously. And as a result they are sinking big, big bucks into alternative energies like solar power. In fact, we're on the threshold of a solar and alternative energy revolution, which may be a significant step in the direction of sustainability. Another company that I tend to mention, with the absolute assurance that arrows are going to be shot my way from progressives --

CURWOOD: Okay, I'll get ready now --

FRANKEL: Okay, is Monsanto. Now, Monsanto is a very, very complex company, and it's one that environmentalists love to hate and with good reason. Monsanto has done a lot of very dubious things and it's pursuing a strategy that's premised on biotechnology, which quite rightfully frightens a lot of people. That said, they are planning to make money in the future by addressing the world's food shortages and the lack of potable drinking water.

CURWOOD: You mention British Petroleum. You mention Monsanto. These are companies that overall, one might say, are engaged in unsustainable practices, even if they are shifting their approach. What companies are basically sustainable in their outlook as far as you're concerned?

FRANKEL: Ultimately, I don't think any companies are sustainable. The closest company trying to move as close to sustainability as it can is a company called Interface, which is based in Georgia. And the CEO is a fellow named Ray Anderson, who has a very interesting story to tell. He was just plugging along, being a rich business man, and then he read a book by a fellow named Daniel Quinn called Ishmael. Then he read a book by a consultant, a person named Paul Hawkin, called Ecology of Commerce. And he really had what he himself characterizes as an epiphany. So he's done things like launch a program that instead of selling carpet, he leases it. That way, if you want to change the color in 3 years you can change the color. And most importantly, when the natural life of the product is over, he takes it back, and he can reprocess it, recycle it, or do whatever he wants. People have an extraordinary capacity for innovation to respond to challenge. Right now, sustainable development, especially in the United States, is kind of getting lost in the media clutter. But I think the solutions are available and if the will can be mobilized I think we can meet the challenge.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you for taking all this time with us today.

FRANKEL: It's been a real pleasure.

CURWOOD: Carl Frankel is the author of In Earth's Company: Business, Environment, and the Challenge of Sustainability.



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