Smart Products Can Save the Planet

Article excerpt

Multinational corporations today shoulder an increasing share of social functions once reserved for governments. Trying to save the planet? These days, best to look to car companies like Toyota to develop better products such as the hybrid gasoline/electric car to solve our air pollution woes and reduce our consumption of increasingly expensive fossil fuels.

Cynics point to Enron, Tyco, WorldCom, and others as reasons why corporations cannot be trusted with guarding our future. Consider these companies, however, as examples of an aging, outdated, and even primitive form of capitalism. Social capitalists, on the other hand, embed new products with social values. They compete on price, technical quality, and social needs.

A few facts explain why corporations may even supersede governments and religions when it comes to providing the economic - and in some cases social - tools and services necessary to survive in the 21st century:

* Fifty-two of the 100 biggest economies in the world are now corporations.

* The 100 largest multinational corporations, such as GE, DuPont, Hewlett Packard, Home Depot, and Wal-Mart, now control about 28 percent of global foreign assets.

* Three hundred multinational corporations now account for 25 percent of the world's total assets.

* The annual sales revenue of each of the six largest multinational corporations now exceeds the GDPs of all but 21 countries in the world.

As government budgets retreat, the meaning of this larger social pattern deserves further inquiry. Take again the case of Toyota's Prius, a product that is transforming the auto industry. By tilting the playing field toward cleaner cars that can be on the road today, instead of betting the future on risky hydrogen road maps for tomorrow, Toyota is not waiting for the necessary infrastructure or public policy support to emerge. They are shaping tomorrow, as their well-advertised mantra promises. And the rest of the major car companies are now following.

Due in large part to the Prius, Toyota can boast a record $10.5 billion profit in 2005. In contrast, General Motors, behind much of the recent hype over hydrogen, struggled with a $1.6 billion third- quarter loss. Ford is not doing much better and is now jumping into the gas/electric hybrid market, too. …