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Attention Shoppers: Carbon Offsets in Aisle 6 March 19, 2007

Posted by Kira in Business-Society Issues, Consumers, environment.

As I write this blog, I am looking out onto the beautiful Atlantic Ocean and I can’t help but think about businesses that disrespect the earth and the effect that has on the environment.  I have written a few posts on business and the environment because it is of interest to me.  On Wednesday, March 7th the New York Times published a special section called “The Business of Green.”  I found the article titled “Attention Shoppers: Carbon Offsets in Aisle 6” of interest because some of the companies mentioned were discussed in our class. 

            Many companies have spent millions of dollars putting their money where their consumers’ mouths are and are taking pride in their environmental changes, but have consumers put their own money where their mouths are?  Consumers want businesses to go green, yet they are not going green themselves.  How much responsibility should be split between the corporation and the consumer?

            Companies such as Whole Foods and Travelocity are charging more money and are giving that money to places such as the Renewable Choice Energy or to the Conservation Fund.  The idea is that the mark-up that consumers are paying goes to offset their share of carbon emissions.  Companies have taken responsibility for the design, manufacturing, and disposal of their products and are offering consumers a convenient way to offset the climate implications of their usage.  However, is this too easy for consumers?  Is simply writing a check enough?   Doe this assuage their guilt for not changing their behaviors such as turning down the thermostat, car pooling, or weatherproofing their homes?  

            Dell, a company we have been discussing over the course of the semester, has been buying renewable energy and offering free recycling of computers.  Soon Dell will have a program whereby customers can pay an extra $2 for a notebook or $6 for a desktop that will be given to the Conservation Fund and the Carbonfund.  These organizations will use the funds to plant trees that absorb carbon dioxide and offset the emissions that their computers are generating.  Will paying an extra few dollars create consumers becoming lax about cutting real carbon reductions like driving and flying?  

I think that charging extra for products in order to offset emissions is both good and bad.  It is good because the majority of people find change difficult or are simply too lazy to abide by the changes that will reduce emissions, so this is better than nothing at all.  On the other hand, it will also enable consumers not to make other reductions that will help the environment substantially more than just offsetting the emissions.  However, this may show Congress that people care enough and that they will pay extra for “green” and that might speed up the development of alternate energy sources.  It is definitely a tough call.

I think the bottom line is if consumers really cared about the environment they would be switching to florescent light bulbs and hybrid cars.  Consumers need to take responsibility for the emissions they create and take action.  I am impressed with corporations that are going beyond their design, manufacturing, and disposal responsibilities to help consumers help the environment.  It is a two way street between the corporation and the consumer- the corporations have done their part of going green but the consumers really haven’t. 

These types of programs may become a huge competitive advantage for companies like Dell.  Consumers may feel better buying products knowing that they are helping the environment in some way.  I am interested to see how Dell and other companies will go about implementing and marketing this kind of program in the near future.     



1. Charley S - March 20, 2007

Yes, some companies have gone green and are taking the initiative like Dell and trying to improve the environment, but it is not as widespread as this article suggests. I would wager that the proportion of companies that are actively going green is equal to the proportion of people who as individuals strive to make a difference in the environment. The rest of the people and companies are waiting for it to be to their advantage to be more environmentally friendly.

2. Jordi - March 28, 2007

This is a very engaging, thoughtful reflection. I enjoy how your voice is so clear in your posts. I am disappointed that more of your classmates don’t respond to your excellent posts. Why? The length (pathetic)? The more personal tone? They are too “polite” to intrude in what feels like more of a personal journal. that is not a good reason either.

How did you become so interested in business-environment issues?

There is often a debate around positive enviro-business issues about purity of motive, don’t you think? Is Dell, or Whole Foods, or whomever, acting out of concern or profit motive? Does the social pressure for change get co-opted?

Your two-way street idea is an important observation in this debate. As is, I don’t know if we can “spend our way” out of unsustainable practices. So, changes in behavior have to happen. On the other hand, what consumers value is partially a function of what the marketplace offers. Demand is not one way from consumers to firms. Hence, firms can play a positive role in changing what consumers demand by changing what their options are.

At some point, you should explore where big change will come from on the range of environmental issues. From business-stakeholder alliances and cooperation? Or, only from more radical changes (confrontation or political action)?

3. Kira - March 28, 2007

I just became interested in business-environment issues this semester. I had to watch Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” for Business, Gov’t, and Society. We have also had a few discussions on businesses and the natural environment in that class. Both the movie and our class discussions scared me and interested me at the same time. I really had NO idea of the importance of the interconnectedness of business and the environment. I find it so interesting to see the many different ways businesses are changing to deal with this major concern.

Unfortunately, something is telling me that businesses are making these changes out of profit motives rather than their true concern for the environment. The majority of companies exist to make a profit which means becoming environmentally friendly in order to satisfy stakeholders. As much as we would like to believe that companies really act out of concern, underneath it all they are definitely money driven.

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