That's the word in business today as companies seek more ways to lessen their -- and their customers' -- impact on the environment

March 11, 2007|By Meredith Cohn

IKEA plans to charge customers a nickel for plastic shopping bags to reduce waste. Wal-Mart is pushing energy-efficient light bulbs. And Texas' largest energy producer, TXU Corp., will eschew coal for cleaner sources.

It seems that Corporate America is wrapping its arms around global warming, reducing waste or otherwise greening itself and, by default, its customers.

Efforts were once made only by niche companies such as Whole Foods Markets and Starbucks Coffee Co., but others not known for their conservation ethic seem to be jumping on the bandwagon in droves. Activists, the companies and business academics say the environment has become a mainstream cause, even hip. And companies across the country and locally, such as Giant Food and PHH Arval, are discovering it could be financially rewarding.

To be sure, the efforts still are not universal. Supporters acknowledge that some executives will not take action that costs them money or customers. And certainly not all consumers want to be forced into participating or paying more for items, such as bags, that once were free.

"I already heard people complaining while I was waiting in line about having to pay for a plastic bag after they spent money in the store," said Karen Arkenbout, an IKEA customer from Rodgers Forge, who supports the sale. "I'm originally from the Netherlands, where everyone charges for bags. Here, no one is used to it. So some people will complain, even though it's really a small step."

Other companies say they also will pass on costs to consumers, but IKEA's bag sale is among the latest and most directly aimed at pushing them to change their ways. Beginning Thursday, the Swedish home store will charge customers 5 cents for each disposable sack needed to cart away their purchases. Officials initially expect to cut in half the 70 million bags that U.S. customers use in a year.

The revenue from selling bags will go to American Forests to plant trees, which the conservation group says will provide wildlife habitat and absorb carbon dioxide that most scientists believe causes global warming. Some warehouse-style stores do not offer bags, and a number of grocery stores provide recycle bins for used plastic bags. But IKEA's effort is thought to be the first of its kind in the United States.

"We are educating our customers with a gentle nudge," said Mona Liss, an IKEA spokeswoman. "We can all make a difference in plastic bag reduction that is strangling our planet."

Recent mainstream media attention given to global warming and its high-profile spokesman Al Gore might be responsible for motivating companies and their customers, business academics said. Gore's documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth, won an Oscar last month. And a report by the United Nations released in February said human activities are warming the atmosphere and causing more extreme weather and rising sea levels.

But others said there are many reasons that companies have taken action of late: The rising cost of gasoline has pushed some into less volatile renewable fuels. The cost of other supplies has some companies recycling and cutting back. And some multinational corporations now subject to rules or cultural demands elsewhere are implementing changes everywhere.

Some might be trying to fend off mandates from the new Democratic-controlled Congress. Many environmentalists believe that federal caps on emissions are the only way to stave off climate change. But the Bush administration prefers incentives over mandates, such as the international Kyoto agreement on global warming and the planned European Union controls on airplane emissions.

Businesses have already been targeted at the state level, as the Maryland General Assembly and other legislatures seek ways to clean up local air and water. Proposals from Annapolis include tough new emissions standards for cars sold in the state and fees on developers to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

In some cases, such as TXU's, the public or the courts are forcing change.

The conservation group Environmental Defense agreed to settle a suit against the utility when the private equity firms aiming to buy TXU, Texas Pacific Group and Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co., dropped plans for eight of 11 proposed coal-fired plants. They also agreed to use more renewable energy and take other steps.

Charlie Miller, a spokesman for Environmental Defense, said the TXU deal will keep 78 million tons of climate-warming carbon dioxide out of the air each year.

"It doesn't alleviate the need for federal legislation to start reducing greenhouse gas emissions," he said. "But a lot of companies are trying to do the right thing. It's easy enough for them to do as long as there is no significant conflict with the bottom line."

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