The Feeling Grows That Going Green Is Good for Business

By Wilsher, Peter | Management Today, October 1991 | Go to article overview

The Feeling Grows That Going Green Is Good for Business


Wilsher, Peter, Management Today


The real environmental message was memorably put recently by a Swedish chief executive, Bjorn Stigson, head of the engineering firm AB Flakt. 'We treat nature like we treated workers a hundred years ago,' he said. 'We included then no cost for the health and social security of workers in our calculations, and today we include no cost for the health and security of nature.' But now that is starting to change. After the '80s froth of green consumerism, Europe's boardrooms (or at least some of the more far-sighted of them) are at last starting to get a serious grip on the managerial responsibilities-- and opportunities-- inherent in the notion of'cleaning up the planet'..

The sky above Dunkirk, on the north coast of France, used to glow a lurid orange, as the giant blast furnaces of Usinor Sacilor, the Community's second-largest steelmaker, belched out their daily consignment of atmospheric pollution. Now that once-familiar phenomenon is becoming a fading memory, as the company focuses on the development of less damaging production methods. But there is nothing cheap or cosmetic about the policy shift. The directors say they are now spending 15% of their total investment budget on these emission-reducing technologies. culminating in an ambitious scheme to eliminate coking coal entirely from the process in favour of directly-injected pure carbon. Major beneficiaries (apart from the long-suffering people of Dunkirk) already include the computer firm Machines Bull, and a small army of software programmers, who have been given a 100-million franc, two-year contract to develop the artificial intelligence package needed to monitor the new way of doing things.,

Indeed, the money and brain-power now being mobilised in the cause of 'global good-neighbourliness' is in many cases reaching staggering proportions. Multinationals like ICI and Ciba-Geigy have identified the environment as one of the three or four key issues determining their future, and have developed far-reaching green strategies. Some of the results, like ICI's biodegradable plastic, biopol, are already on the market, (making, in that case, bottles which are stable in the bathroom but quickly rot on the compost heap). But the real objectives are much more pervasive-- the implementation of a philosophy like that of the German chemical firm, BASF: 'to manufacture safely products which can be used and disposed of safely'.

It sounds simple if you say it quickly. But the underlying ideas are beginning to revolutionise the way businesses go about setting and achieving their objectives. The big chemical groups are in the forefront, as they were probably the 30 first to see that the rising distate for filth and waste among their customers, and even more importantly in the communities where they wished to operate, was beginning to pose a threat to their entire commercial future. So a company like Bayer now spends 20% of its total manufacturing budget on environmental protection -- roughly the same as its outlay on energy or labour. And though such determined activity is still rarer in sectors such as oil and cars, there are significant exceptions. Chevron, for one, is planning for a 10% annual expansion in its 'green' budget throughout this decade ('the only growth area of our industry,' as one spokesman gloomily recognised). And along similar lines, Fiat has just signed a wide ranging set of agreements with the Italian government, designed to speed up the Europe-wide attack on toxic vehicle emissions, which is scheduled to cost the company an annual 1. …

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