No Left Turn: Green Message in the Center Lane

by Kevin Kanarek on October 22, 2009

in business, politics, social change, West Coast Green

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At the West Coast Green conference earlier this month, Ray Anderson told the story of Interface Carpet: how a small manufacturer in Atlanta Georgia became a market leader while reducing the enormous waste of energy and materials inherent in commercial carpeting by completely rethinking the process. I’d heard the story many times before — beginning with the 1999 book “Natural Capitalism” by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins — but this was the first time I’d seen Anderson speak. I appreciated his graceful demeanor, somewhere between a wise and humble Sunday School teacher and an inspiring captain of industry.

At the same time, I was wondering:  aren’t there any new stories on the feasibility of large-scale greening? As if in answer to my question, keynote speaker Andrew Winston followed with a presentation that was uplifting, intelligent and often humorous. He described some excellent case studies, of which I’ve summarized a few below.

Drive smarter:
Con-Way freight estimates that their lowering the maximum speed of its truck fleet from 65 to 62 mph will save the company 3.2 million gallons of gas. At peak 2008 prices, that’s $15 million, or over 20% of Con-Way’s net income that year. And they found that the fewer stops to refill the tank equalled out the time loss in driving slower.

And my favorite: UPS redesigned its routes to eliminate left turns, since waiting to cross traffic wastes time, energy and fuel. The savings on “No Left Turn”? $3 million per year.

Turn the lights off:
Disney has started turning the lights off at night, on its theme park icons such as the Tree of Life, the castles, the big ball at Epcot. In addition to saving millions of kilowatt hours, it will also send a strong signal to guests as they see the park shutting down for the night. “Hmm, honey, maybe we should have turned the lights off at the motel…”

Open the door:
We think of computers as somehow being much less energy intensive than industrial machinery, but data centers are emerging as a major energy sink. As Winston says, “there’s a persistent (and believable) rumor that Google is the largest single energy user in the state of California.” Yet less than 4 percent of the energy use of a modern server farm is actual processing — the rest is cooling and keeping idle machines running. (This is reminiscent of Amory Lovins’ calculation that only 1% of a car’s energy use actually goes toward propelling the driver.)

Solutions? ”Outside air economization” or letting some of the hot air out instead of relying entirely on cooling systems. Also, “add the power bill to the CIO’s budget” — basically letting major energy users know just how much energy they’re using, and giving them an incentive to do something about it.

For more detail on these, and other case studies and insights, check out Andrew Winston’s new book Green Recovery, from Harvard Business Press, or the 30 page excerpt Green Cost Cutting which is available as a free download on his website.

Winston’s message is a powerful one: going green can be an investment, not a cost, and in many cases the pay back comes within one or two years. And if they choose not to invest in sustainable solutions, especially with respect to energy, companies are putting themselves as well as the planet at risk. Just compare Toyota today with their competition in Detroit.

Still, sifting through these examples, I had to wonder: the more sustainable course of action is not always the more profitable one, especially in the short term. Hopefully these stories are all part of a large scale shift in thinking, that will enable us to choose sustainable solutions even when there isn’t an immediate profit incentive to do so.

Photo Credit:Chris Campbell
under a Creative Commons License

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Bob Gower October 30, 2009 at 9:57 am

Great stuff a savings of 20% of net income is a powerful argument for having your company use less energy.

But all these examples are still simply “less bad” rather than truly sustainable. What’s inspiring about Interface is that they wanted to make their company truly sustainable meaning no “down cycling” meaning that they could completely recycle all materials used with no toxic side effects or loss of quality of the inputs.

These are compelling stories and I love that companies are seeing the benefit in slowing down the rate of environmental degradation. Now I’d like to hear some stories of actual sustainable businesses.

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