Business warming to environmental issues

The Business Roundtable, a trade group of chief executives of leading U.S. companies, yesterday announced a new effort to improve the environment and society in general through a series of voluntary programs.

Programs could include cutting energy use, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, reducing waste products, or funding education programs.

The effort is called SEE Change because it is an effort to improve society, the environment and the economy.

Chief executive officers from Sun Microsystems, Xerox, DuPont, Dow Chemical, Office Depot and American Electric Power described their companies’ individual efforts at a press conference announcing the initiative yesterday.

Although SEE Change is an effort to improve society in general, one clear focus is on environmental protection. The executives said embracing environmental protections such as reducing energy use or reducing pollution makes good business sense in attracting both socially conscious consumers and employees. 

But most also added that they would oppose efforts in Congress to mandate similar pro-environment goals, such as cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions.

“Regulation is impossible to make work,” said Scott McNealy, who is the chairman and CEO of Sun Microsystems, in a typical response. That’s so, he and others indicated, because American business is too diverse for an overarching mandate.

The one divergent voice came from Xerox’s Anne Mulchacy, who said that new regulations could be necessary. But she added that regulations are not sufficient and could set a “generic bar” on what businesses could achieve.

“Sustainable growth” was often touched on as the overarching goal, meaning efforts to cut pollution and the like should be balanced with the need to ensure economic growth.

SEE Change builds on a voluntary program embraced by the administration to cut the intensity of greenhouse-gas emissions — that is, to reduce emissions as a unit of economic growth — that the Roundtable and other trade groups in town are already participating in. Some critics in Congress and the environmental community continue to push for actual cuts to overall emissions.

The business community’s program includes ongoing corporate efforts. In fact, few new steps seem to be part of the initial effort. Many of the executives, rather, discussed initiatives that have been in the works for years.

McNealy, for example, discussed a new device to cut electricity use when running computers that’s the result of five years of research and development.

Steve Odland, president of Office Depot, noted his company’s growing use of recycled products, such as paper, and its work with groups such as the Nature Conservancy to manage forests.

But John Castellani, president of the Business Roundtable, said SEE Change is significant because it encourages information sharing among members to help other companies become better corporate citizens. It will also set goals to measure a company’s progress for shareholders and consumers to weigh, he said.

The Roundtable represents 160 companies. Eighteen member companies are among the early participants of the effort, which was just launched yesterday.

Castellani said participation would not be a mandatory requirement of membership.

A particular focus of SEE Change is on improving the quality, quantity and availability of water resources.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who attended the press conference, called expanding access to clean water a “profound good” because 1.2 billion people in the world live without it.

DuPont committed itself to cutting water use by 30 percent at plants in environments that the United Nations has identified as having limited access to clean water, said Chad Holliday, the company’s chairman and CEO.

That equates to 12 plants. DuPont has also promised greenhouse-gas emissions cuts and to use more renewable resources for its energy needs, which it is also working to reduce through efficiency programs.