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Environmental Responsibility V. Shareholder Value - The Tale Of Two Masters

Mar 12, 2008
Matthew 6:24 "No man can serve two masters. For either he will hate the one, and love the other, or else he will hold to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money." To whom do we owe our affection? Do we bless the shareholders without thought of anything more, or do we consider ethical and environmental obligations? Is there a balance that can be struck between the two?

The Wall Street Journal reported Rick Wagoner, General Motor's chairman and chief executive, announced on Sunday, January 13, 2008 that the company was purchasing an equity stake in Coskata. Coskata, a start-up company in Warrenville, Illinois, plans to make ethanol without the use of corn. G.M. would not disclose how much it paid, nor the amount of stake they took in the company. This is the first time that a car company has gone on record to invest in alternative fuel sources. Was this an act of environmental obligation? "I really don't see the logic of it," Christopher Flavin is quoted as saying. Flavin is the president of Worldwatch Institute, a Washington environmental group. He believes that G.M. should concentrate on maximizing the fuel economy of their current line. Lee Schipper, from the University of California, Berkeley, has given a stamp of approval for the project. "Ethanol made from waste materials could result in substantially less carbon per mile." He goes on to say later in the article, "Why wait for someone else to invest?"

In a similar movement, Wal-Mart recently "helped reduce the package of a popular toy. As a result, they were able to ship the product using 230 fewer containers, saving 356 barrels of oil, and 1300 trees." Constance E. Bagley writes in his book Managers and the Legal Environment, "Issues of social responsibility arise in the areas of product safety, sweatshops, and underpaid foreign workers, advertising, campaigns, antitrust violations, client conflicts of interest, managed earnings, and Internet companies." Most companies find a large gray area in the social responsibility angle. In the early 1990's, for example, Wal-Mart had made claims that products were made in America. In truth however, 12 year- old children were making the product in a Bangladesh sweat shop. Now, Wal-Mart clearly labels their products of origin, and has gone to the "Save Money, Live Better" slogan. They ease the conscience of the consumer with the promise of living better by spending less money. In recent years they [Wal-Mart] have adopted social and environmental standards. In further efforts to clean-up their social policies, Wal-Mart has also begun to support local companies, such as Nectar of Life Coffee Company, http://www.nectaroflife.com. Nectar of Life Coffee Company is a 100% organic and Fair Trade certified coffee roaster with roots in Spokane, Washington, and Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Wal-Mart's pushed to improve their image this decade, and it is paying off. They have increased the amount of organic products (crops produced without harmful pesticides and herbicides) offered nationwide.

Wal-Mart has also begun to build "green" stores to meet their energy needs. You can view more information on how Wal-Mart is attempting to, "provide cost effective merchandise while reducing their environmental footprint" on their web site. With G.M. now on the environmental cleansing bandwagon, you can expect more companies to find ways to compete to provide alternatives to fossil fuel, energy, and other resources. Countries around the world are shifting their focus to filling the need for alternative fuel.

Published in the New York Times on the same day, was an article by James Kanter, Europe is considering banning the imports of certain biofuel crops that lack sustainability. In countries such as Malaysia, and Indonesia mass deforestation is occurring in an effort to plant palm trees for the palm oil export. Palm oil is currently one of many crops that are being produced for use as alternatives to fossil fuel. Although Europe's current ethanol consumption is only at 1% as of 2005, they are thinking ahead to the impact of using food for fuel. "Farmers growing corn for ethanol could also be affected, because the European rules contain provisions on preserving grasslands, said Mr. Drinkwater." Matt Drinkwater is biofuels analyst at New Energy Finance in London.

With all the efforts of reducing a global impact are we really making any headway? "A flurry of studies has discredited some of the claims made by biofuel producers that the fuels help reduce greenhouse gasses by reducing fossil fuel and growing carbon-dioxide-consuming plants. Growing the crops and turning them into fuel can result in considerable environmental harm." (New York Times, January 15, 2008). So turning food into fuel is not a good idea after all.

The shareholders of General Motors may not have all agreed on the financial choice of Mr. Wagoner, but perhaps his announcement will help boost stocks as perceptions of the company's standards "change." The goal of improving stocks could be as simple as showing their care about the earth. While steering away from biofuel, Mr. Wagoner and G.M. stepped into the unknown world of ethanol made from waste. G.M.'s equity stake purchase will most likely be viewed as a very intelligent maneuver. There is a growing surge toward consumers demanding companies show their financial, and environmental responsibility. They are touted on commercials from companies such as Subaru that have 0% waste plants. McDonalds that purchased $3 Billion in materials made from recycled products. Ford Motor Company has even created a new "guilt-free" luxury vehicle, made from recycled materials, and "chrome-free" leather. It would seem only logical for companies to hedge their pocketbooks where America is buying. Clearly, America wants good to work.
About the Author
Hannah Jennings is a student, wife, mother and Co-Owner of Nectar of Life Coffee Company, www.nectaroflife.com. Nectar of Life Coffee Company is a kosher certified coffee roaster specializing in organic Fair Trade coffees. Nectar of Life's passion is to provide the public with truly gourmet, Fair Trade organic coffee and promote social justice. To contact 509-979-5245.
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