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03.10.10

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Profit Motives

Economists prove it: hug a tree, increase the bottom line

By Juliane Poirier


Environmentally literate people have long been unrecognized heroes at the office, invisibly applying an intelligence that actually helps everyone. Like Superman at his day job, we're either just barely tolerated or sometimes scorned. This is because eco-literate people suggest strategies that upset the routines of eco-illiterate co-workers; we "move the cheese," and everyone runs around setting their hair on fire because they can't stand change. It's a thankless job.

Unlike media-favored tree-dwellers or protesters on hunger strikes who bring attention to corporate crimes against the earth, the average environmentalist grabs breakfast in the morning and goes to work drinking from a reusable cup. When not dutifully pulling the occasional apple core out of the blue recycling bins, this person is remembering to turn off lights, and always makes sure the doors and windows are closed when the heat or the cooling is on (if it must be on at all). While our special knowledge goes well beyond what can be expressed at work in the face of opposition, we do what we must because knowledge brings responsibility.

Now lo and behold, the accountants of the world have discovered our previously secret powers! The news is out: environmentally literate workers naturally give clients and employers an advantage in the business world. So says the National Environmental Education Foundation (www.neefusa.org), which just released "The Business Case for Environmental and Sustainability Employee Education." It seems that leading companies have found that they need environmentally literate employees. Imagine that.

For decades, we have been the irritating element of business organizations, getting scant thanks for our efforts. In 1989, when I worked for UC San Francisco, there was no recycling program. Yet the office where I worked was right next to a neighborhood recycling site. At a staff meeting, I proposed a plan to recycle our paper. The room grew silent and people shifted uncomfortably in their chairs. One co-worker told me he had "never met someone so na´ve." Correction: he had simply never met an environmentally literate person.

Ignored by my otherwise hip colleagues, I found out who was in charge of waste services for the entire medical center and spoke my mind. It turns out that at this world-renowned research facility there were a number of environmentalists like me, aghast at the waste being produced by an organization which back then employed 10,000 people. They too had called and demanded something be done.

A few months later, UCSF had a formalized, campus-wide recycling program. And no one in my office dismissed the idea anymore; they recycled. (But no one ever thanked me for pursuing the matter, either.)

Fortunately, things have changed. While environmental literacy has always been an asset to business, it is now being recognized as such. The NEEF report claims that by raising the environmental literacy level of their organization, companies saved money, enhanced efficiency, improved staff attraction and retention, and built stronger customer relations.

Examples from NEEF: "Lockheed Martin 'Green Teams' improved energy efficiency at company sites nationwide, reduced waste and saved money by better managing the use of lighting and air conditioning. Lighting system upgrades at one facility have saved more than $300,000 and reduced carbon dioxide reductions by 2,511 metric tons; an employee-led team at eBay's headquarters encouraged the company to build the largest solar installation in San Jose, reducing carbon dioxide emissions by more than 1 million pounds per year and saving the company $100,000 in energy costs—so far; and environmental initiatives at Baxter International Inc. totaled nearly $91.1 million in savings and cost avoidance over the last six years."

I will always wonder how many dollars I saved the University of California in trash-hauling fees by being one of the employees who demanded a recycling program. I'm sure they are not going to track me or other gadflies down and pay us a commission. But I can see a future in which environmentally literacy earns a higher wage. It should, because environmentally literate employees increase the value of any organization. And the proof is right down there where the accountants finally noticed it: on the bottom line.


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