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Why This Is the Right Time to Go Green

This article first appears in Harvard Business Online on June 2, 2009

One of the core pillars of going green is doing more with less — saving physical and financial resources. So while the instinct may be to pull back from green initiatives in hard times, that would be shortsighted and a huge mistake. Not only should companies not put their green efforts on hold, they should accelerate them in targeted ways to save money quickly and prepare for the future.

The green movement may be at risk of slowing down, especially within the business community. Many business people hold on to an outdated view of green: the misconception that environmental practices always cost a lot of money. So logically, in this economy they're asking, "Is this really the time for green? Can we really afford it now?"

At same time, most of the global discussion about getting the economy on track focuses on the macro picture — large stimulus packages at the national and industry level. But how can the economy as a whole get on its feet if individual companies don't as well?

I believe that these two questions — can we still go green and how do we revive the economy — are heavily intertwined. In this time of austerity, sustainability is perhaps even more relevant and will provide a path out of this mess. One of the core pillars of going green is doing more with less — saving physical and financial resources. So while the instinct may be to pull back from green initiatives in hard times, that would be shortsighted and a huge mistake.

Not only should companies not put their green efforts on hold, they should accelerate them in targeted ways to save money quickly and prepare for the future. Those who navigate these tricky waters the best will emerge from the downturn in better shape than their competitors.

The reality is that most of the forces driving companies to go green have not gone away — in fact, many of these factors have increased despite, or even because of, the economic situation. Environmental crises such as climate change and water shortages continue to evolve. Megaforces such as technology-driven transparency and the long-term mismatch between supply and demand of oil and most critical resources (billions of new consumers and not a lot more stuff in the ground) continue to advance.

Closer to home, key stakeholders still demand more of companies than ever, especially corporate customers greening their supply chains (they want to save money right now, and it's pretty easy to demand that your suppliers reduce waste, energy use, and cost). Even your employees, both of whom are under extreme financial pressure, still want a measure of environmental performance and social responsibility in the companies they work for and buy from. In fact, employees may want more green programs as they look for meaning (beyond money) in tough times.

Luckily for business, the solutions to both economic and environmental problems overlap heavily. The same strategies and tactics that address long-term environmental challenges will help you survive today's economic conditions.

Getting lean, particularly on energy and resources, will save money and reduce carbon impacts (as well as making you more competitive when energy prices inevitably rise again). Thinking through your value chain and getting creative about how you can help your customers manage their environmental impacts and lower their costs will help you grab market share in tough times. And it will likely do much more to address environmental challenges than focusing only on your own environmental impacts. Getting your people engaged around a dual mission — save the company money and preserve our collective bounty and assets — will help boost morale in tough times and keep your company going strong.

In many ways, the economic and environmental challenges are the same. We over-leveraged financial resources and over-extended ourselves. Isn't that exactly what we're doing with natural resources? Isn't now the right time to cut back where it makes sense, but also to innovate and grow in better, smarter ways?

Your company's, and our economy's, recovery may depend on how we all handle these multiple challenges at once. We can't afford to tackle them one at a time.

 






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