Going green — why environmental protection is both a business and legislative concern
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The late Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman once said the social responsibility of business is to make a profit. He contended that anything businesses do to invest their money elsewhere detracts from the purpose of making money.  In that vein, businesses have often focused exclusively on making a profit.

Now that Earth Day is passed and gimmicky connections are over, it is time to get real. Businesses in the 21st century have a moral and corporate social responsibility to heed the protection of the environment.

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In 1970, Earth Day was started by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.) in response to environmental degradation and to advocate for environmental protection.  Later that year, President Richard Nixon signed an executive order to create the Environmental Protection Agency which initiated the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and more.  The government took a leadership position in protecting the environment.

On Earth Day 1971, Iron Eyes Cody portrayed a crying Native American in the Keep America Beautiful ad campaign aimed at reducing litter and pollution.  One of the most memorable ads in history, it helped reduce littering by 88 percent. This partnership between The Advertising Council, Keep America Beautiful and Marsteller, Inc. is an example of nonprofits and business working together for social change to protect our environment.

But today’s EPA is taking a new direction, one that has many alarmed, including its own employees.  The EPA is considering rolling back environmental protections against air pollutants that cause smog as well as eliminating programs that prevent exposure to lead poisoning for children, pregnant women, and workers who remove lead paint.   

President Donald Trump's administration has already supported the controversial Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipelines, revoked protections against dumping mining waste into streams, revoked the lead ammunition and fishing tackle ban on federal lands and waters, removed all reference to climate change on federal websites, significantly reduced the EPA’s budget, dismantled numerous regulations of the Clean Power Plan that protect against increasing carbon emissions, and rejected a proposal to ban continued use of a toxic pesticide.

These moves have the support of some businesses and industries that believe the environmental regulations are too harsh and restrictive.

But environmental destruction is blamed on advances made during the industrial revolution fueled by the business pursuit of profit. The industrial revolution refers to the gains made by business and industry since the development of mechanization in manufacturing around the late 1700s and throughout the 1800s.

These technological advances allowed society to move from small farms and agrarian lifestyles to agribusiness. From artisan handicrafts to mass production, oil lamps to gas lights, horse-powered wagons to steam-powered railways, business and industry were the heartbeat of the industrial revolution.

But as a result of the industrial revolution, we have climate change, pollution, toxicity, landfills, dead zones, environmental degradation and more. Because business and industry are partially responsible for our current environmental conditions, the social responsibility of business now is to save our planet.

Scientists warn us that we are at a crucial time when radical change is needed.  To avoid much worse impacts of climate change, scientists advise that we need to keep the average global temperature increase to no more than 2 degrees Celsius.

Within that scenario, the fossil fuel industry risks a $33 trillion loss, the U.S. agriculture industry risks 10-20 percent or more loss in crop yields, the U.S. energy industry will spend $12 billion more annually to fight rising temperatures, and we could lose up to $507 billion worth of U.S. property.

Without radical innovative change, business-as-usual with small advances to reduce unsustainability could put us on the path to a 6 degree Celsius or more increase in average global temperatures.  This is well beyond the 2-degree recommendation.

Two reports in recent years (from CDP and Ceres) both confirm that business is not doing enough.  Current corporate sustainability efforts amount to efforts to “be less bad” and are insufficient to tackle the foreboding environmental problems before us.

Switching to biodegradable or compostable products is a “less bad” approach that may sound eco-friendly, but when put in the trash and sent to the landfill, the products are sealed within the earth without access to natural processes, such as sunlight, water, and oxygen, that allow the products to biodegrade.  Walmart has just settled a lawsuit for selling products in California that make these misleading biodegradable or compostable claims.  The better choice would be to avoid producing, buying, and using plastic altogether.   

While Columbia, REI, and The North Face are marketing the reduced environmental impact of their apparel, Patagonia is the only one telling us to repair and keep what you have and don’t buy more stuff.  This is the radical shift needed by businesses.

Business leaders, such as Intel, PepsiCo, Google, and Tesla have communicated to Trump’s administration their commitment to continue sustainability efforts.  But more aggressive action is needed that includes the cooperation of business and industry, nonprofits, governments, and citizens.  

Unchanged, the current approach toward corporate sustainability will continue to contribute to increasing sea level rise and more loss of waterfront property, more frequent extreme weather events, increased air pollution, further extinction of plant and animal life, and an increasing number of human deaths.

This approach will keep us on track for increasing climate change.  Without radical innovative change, we threaten the very existence of human life.

We recognize business must make a profit to remain viable. But profit cannot be the sole purpose of the business’ existence. Businesses must exist to improve the livelihood of communities and people, not only because it is the moral thing to do, but because it is in the best interest of society.

Contrary to Friedman’s adage, the social responsibility of business is not to make a profit.  The social responsibility of business is to help save the planet for human life.

The earth does not need us; we need her.

Nancy E. Landrum is a Professor of Sustainable Business Management at Loyola University Chicago, co-author of Sustainable Business: An Executive’s Primer, and a fellow with Loyola’s Public Voices Greenhouse through The OpEd Project.


The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.