Isn’t “green” just a marketing guilt trip used by companies to fatten their bottom line?

It seems like corporations are now rolling out all sorts of new "green" products and saying, "Buy our stuff, it will save the world from the apocalypse." Are they being genuine, or is this just the ultimate guilt trip passed on to fatten their bottom line? Billy Burlington, Vermont

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That’s a great question. The answer is: no, they’re not being genuine, and yes, they’re trying to fatten their bottom line. But in the end, their motivations are irrelevant. Before I explain, I should probably point out that as an environmental writer, I, too, make a profit off this whole “green” movement. So even though you and the billions of others around the world who read this column see me as a saint-like do-gooder, fighting solely to make a better planet for our children and our children’s children’s grandchildren, I’m not.

Now, to the explanation: it doesn’t matter if companies are being “green” simply as a cynical ploy to boost their bottom line—as long as they’re doing something. Adam Smith wrote, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.” In other words, consumers are driving them to make “green” products, so they’re responding, however slowly. It’s our responsibility to show them that they’ll make money doing it.

Wal-Mart is a prime example (and one I use in my book Greasy Rider.) It didn’t become the world’s biggest company, ahead of Exxon-Mobil, by putting philanthropy before (or even in the same ballpark with) profits. Yet it has become the world’s largest seller of organic cotton products, its Great Value milk comes only from cows that aren’t treated with artificial growth hormones, and it has sold 137 million compact fluorescent bulbs in the past few years. In other words, someone—perhaps from one of those rabid environmental groups that’s always griping about them—brought to their attention that they can make damn high margins off selling hormone-free milk and squiggly lights. Then they responded accordingly.

Wal-Mart gets the big “green” picture in other very capitalistic ways, too. The company owns one of the nation’s largest trucking fleets, and is one of the largest private electricity consumers in America—so it’s now trying to save tens of millions of dollars by becoming more fuel and energy efficient as a company. They’re also boosting the bottom line by reducing packaging on products, so they can ship more items in one truck and reduce their solid waste disposal costs. Of course, the company still creates a suburban enviro nightmare every time it builds one of those atrocious superstores—and abandons one of their old stores, usually just down the street, in the process. So I’d prefer to see immensely stronger government regulations and incentives for companies to get a much better conscience and stop playing the environmental card solely for profit’s sake. But then again, maybe I’m not one to talk.

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