State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Will the Fortune 100 Save Us?

Environmentalists have long criticized our corporate behemoths for environmental violations and unsustainable business practices. Walmart, GE, Coca-Cola were once considered toxic to the environment and not the names that came to mind for a green future. However, environmentally friendly announcements over the past few years have challenged this perception.

  • Walmart is now the largest seller of CFL lightbulbs and has a goal to use 100 percent renewable energy in its stores;
  • GE is the largest supplier of wind turbines in the US and the leader in desalination and water treatment systems;
  • and The Coca-Cola Company just won the 2009 Gold Medal for International Corporate Achievement in Sustainable Development from the World Environment Center

For water specifically, recent announcements from IBM have me very excited.

My favorite is the Green Sigma for Water. For those familiar with Six Sigma, IBM is now offering these tools to tackle water usage throughout a company’s operations. Pilot programs have reduced water use by 30 percent.

They also announced the SmartBay sensor system, which monitors pollution levels, marine life, and wave conditions in Galway Bay, Ireland, and allows smarter environmental management and development of the region. The technology uses cloud computing and is one of the first systems to integrate data management and water management.

Their press release has a host of other announcements, but do take a look at their most recent Global Innovation Outlook on Water — it has some interesting takeaways on how private and public groups are working together to solve some of our global issues.

We can always argue that corporations are not doing enough, but I do feel there has been a paradigm shift in the past few years and that these companies will be the new drivers behind many environmental initiatives.

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Meaghan Daly
Meaghan Daly
15 years ago

It’s really interesting to see the interplay between private corporations and natural resource use and management.

Interesting to note that on the IBM GIO page, they claim that people need only 3 liters of water per day. When you compare this figure to the graph that you posted the other day, you see that in the U.S., each person uses over 550 liters of water per day. Even in least developed countries, water use is generally more than 3 liters per day.

It just makes me wonder where they are getting their statistics from and whether their claim that there is enough water for every man, woman, and child on earth is valid….

Dan Stellar
15 years ago

This is an interesting article and brings up several important questions. Can the Fortune 100 save us? In other words, can corporations be part of the solution? On the one hand , any solution to our environmental problems needs to include the private sector somehow. Retail in particular plays a massive role in the economy, and when a giant like Wal-Mart makes even a small change, its impacts reverberate through the supply chain. On a practical level it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, regardless of the motivation, one pro-environmental move by a massive corporation has an impact greater than thousands of individual, grassroots movements.

On the other hand though, there is something troubling about a company like Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola (or Pepsi) ever really being sustainable, if that word has any meaning. When a company makes or sells products at a massive scale that have negative impacts on human health or the environment, treats people in a way that invalidates their rights, or by its very presence destroys smaller communities, does it really matter if that same company also switches to high-efficiency light bulbs? Corporate efforts to become sustainable really do matter, but sometimes it seems like these same companies are working at bizarre cross-purposes. Instead of making and selling bottled water, but working to become “water-neutral”, how about just not selling bottled water at all and instead encouraging investment in a public good?

IBM’s Green Sigma and SmartBay, though, are interesting examples of a business model that really is sustainable. Here, instead of just green-washing existing operations, a product is being made and sold that is inherently good for the environment. Putting aside the business question of whether SmartBay the best of such services, it seems true that the more a service like SmartBay is utilized, the better the results will be, from an environmental and ecological perspective.

The Fortune 100 may be able to save us, but it will need to be by bigger steps than switching to CFL lightbulbs. Real business models will need to be created where financial profits and environmental goals can move in tandem, rather than at cross-purposes.

Johnny Jeffry
13 years ago

You make some good points. I guess it depends on your standpoint. – If only God would give me some clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name in a Swiss bank. – Woody Allen Born 1935