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Big Green Myth

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I was extremely disappointed to read Ben Elgin’s cover story in the October 29th issue of BusinessWeek magazine. The article, “Little Green Lies,” wrongly suggests that profits and environmental initiatives don’t mix and that companies cannot hope to be both successful and sustainable.

This myth has long been discredited, and my dismay at finding it still being given credence was so great that I fired off a letter to the editor, a portion of which has just been published on the Opinion page in the magazine’s November 12th issue. Here’s the complete version:

To the Editors:

The setbacks that Auden Schendler has experienced while trying to make Aspen Skiing a more sustainable organization may not be unique to his organization, but neither are they evidence, as Ben Elgin implies (Little Green Lies, Oct. 29 Cover Story), that companies cannot be both environmentally friendlier and profitable. While it’s highly instructive to profile the difficulties some businesses face in attempting to lessen their impact on the environment, it’s hardly constructive to use one man’s self-described failure in realizing this worthy goal as an indication that the potential for achieving it is “going up in smoke.”

Amory Lovins never said that it would be easy for companies to go greener while staying in the black; he simply said that it can be done—an assertion that is being borne out day after day by consumer products companies such as 3M and SC Johnson, industrial manufacturers like Interface Carpet, energy companies like Duke and retailers such as Wal-Mart—one of Lovins’ clients. Leadership at these companies, apparently, is far more enlightened than the executives at Aspen who couldn’t see the value in making a one-time investment of $20,000 in energy-efficient lighting to save an estimated $10,000 a year. In light of that kind of C-level decision making, Schendler’s disillusionment is understandable—but it’s certainly not representative of every sustainability advocate’s experience with corporate America. Nor is it justification for Schendler’s decision to “make audacious green claims.”

The kind of “green washing” Schendler ultimately engaged in is becoming all too common, and it’s important to take those companies that exaggerate or blatantly misrepresent their environmental efforts to task publicly. I applaud Elgin for his efforts there, but worry that in the process he may have also dissuaded other companies from taking steps toward sustainability by portraying the economics of it as impossible. There are many companies that have figured out ways to make great strides in sustainability, and it is important for publications like BusinessWeek to hold them up as examples of what is possible—and increasingly necessary.


Jeffrey Hollender

President & CEO Seventh Generation