Will Big Business Save the Earth?
By JARED DIAMOND
New York Times
Op-Ed Contributor December 6, 2009
THERE is a widespread view, particularly among environmentalists and liberals, that big businesses are
environmentally destructive, greedy, evil and driven by short-term profits. I know — because I used to
share that view.
But today I have more nuanced feelings. Over the years I’ve joined the boards of two environmental
groups, the World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International, serving alongside many business
As part of my board work, I have been asked to assess the environments in oil fields, and have had frank
discussions with oil company employees at all levels. I’ve also worked with executives of mining, retail,
logging and financial services companies. I’ve discovered that while some businesses are indeed as
destructive as many suspect, others are among the world’s strongest positive forces for environmental
The embrace of environmental concerns by chief executives has accelerated recently for several reasons.
Lower consumption of environmental resources saves money in the short run. Maintaining sustainable
resource levels and not polluting saves money in the long run. And a clean image — one attained by, say,
avoiding oil spills and other environmental disasters — reduces criticism from employees, consumers and
What’s my evidence for this? Here are a few examples involving three corporations — Wal-Mart, Coca-
Cola and Chevron — that many critics of business love to hate, in my opinion, unjustly.
Let’s start with Wal-Mart. Obviously, a business can save money by finding ways to spend less while
maintaining sales. This is what Wal-Mart did with fuel costs, which the company reduced by $26 million
per year simply by changing the way it managed its enormous truck fleet. Instead of running a truck’s
engine all night to heat or cool the cab during mandatory 10-hour rest stops, the company installed small
auxiliary power units to do the job. In addition to lowering fuel costs, the move eliminated the carbon
dioxide emissions equivalent to taking 18,300 passenger vehicles off the road.
Wal-Mart is also working to double the fuel efficiency of its truck fleet by 2015, thereby saving more
than $200 million a year at the pump. Among the efficient prototypes now being tested are trucks that
burn biofuels generated from waste grease at Wal-Mart’s delis. Similarly, as the country’s biggest private
user of electricity, Wal-Mart is saving money by decreasing store energy use.
Another Wal-Mart example involves lowering costs associated with packaging materials. Wal-Mart now
sells only concentrated liquid laundry detergents in North America, which has reduced the size of
packaging by up to 50 percent. Wal-Mart stores also have machines called bailers that recycle plastics
that once would have been discarded. Wal-Mart’s eventual goal is to end up with no packaging waste.