Some may argue that the trend towards “going green” began with the release of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and the brief American disillusionment with oil that began in the 1970’s. However, I would argue that the big change began with Al Gore’s 2006 documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. After the release of Gore’s film, companies quickly began to see that being more environmentally friendly was no longer an expensive nuisance, but instead a great marketing and long-term growth strategy.
Unfortunately for the environmental movement, green products sometimes come at a higher cost. Following the 2007 global economic recession, consumers were reluctant to pay the green premium. The years following the economic meltdown separated the true greenies from the fair weather fans, while only a handful of business executives stuck to their emission-free guns. New, greener companies – like Apple, Honda, and Verizon – found ways to promote and practice sustainability while still generating significant profits. Let’s take a look at how they did it.
Contrary to public perception, Apple wasn’t a very earth-friendly company until 2007, when Steve Jobs officially announced plans to reduce the amount of toxic chemicals involved in the production of their devices. His vision for the future included the elimination of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics and brominated flame retardents (BFRs) from Apple computers, which had been a point of criticism from Greenpeace for years before the change.
Since the early 2000s, Apple has undergone massive steps towards sustainability. What was the most significant change? Renewable energy. Apple began powering their data centers with 100% renewable energy sources this year. The company is now using solar, wind and geothermal energy instead of relying on coal and other fossil fuels. In fact Apple now gets 75% of its total power from renewable energy.
Honda consistently tops Fortune’s list of “Top 10 Green Giants”, but this should come as no surprise to those who have driven their fuel-efficient cars for years. Following the Oil Crisis of 1973, when a united Middle East completely shut off oil exports to Western nations for their support of Israel, gas prices skyrocketed and many Americans began to shun the gas-guzzling American vehicles and turn towards smaller Japanese and European cars.
For comparison’s sake, a 1970 Ford Mustang got about 13.5 miles per gallon, while a 1970 Honda N600 topped out at 42 miles per gallon – astounding even for today’s modern hybrids. In recent years, Honda has been at the forefront of fuel-efficient technology. It introduced its first hybrid electric car, the Insight, in 1999 and is nearly ready to release natural gas and hydrogen powered vehicles to consumers, which both boast zero emissions. The 2013 Honda Insight gets 44 miles per gallon, bringing fuel efficiency back into the spotlight for American consumers.
Like Apple, Verizon was strongly criticized for its below-average environmental record. But the company has made huge strides in recent years. In 2009, Verizonbegan a series of initiatives that included new programs for recycling used phones, cutting energy usage and carbon emissions from its data centers, and switching over to completely recycled (and recyclable) packaging for its devices. The company has reduced carbon intensity by more than 37% since 2009 and aims to achieve a 50% reduction by 2020.
Verizon was listed in the top 100 in Newsweek‘s “Top 500 Green U.S. Companies” list in 2010, 2011 and 2012, and the company has also been honored by the Environmental Protection Agency for its dedication to decreasing its environmental impact. Additionally, Verizon has shed the stereotype that updating current technology to environmentally friendly systems is cost-prohibitive: despite the changes, Verizon has posted increases in both profits and net revenue for 2013 and does not show any signs of slowing down.
It will be interesting to see what type of sustainability initiatives big companies like Apple, Honda and Verizon Internet Service will implement in the coming decade. These companies clearly aren’t perfect when it comes to their impact on the planet, but when big corporations change for the better, their competitors and collaborators must follow suit.