What should businesses do to fight climate change?

David Douglas, the VP of Eco Responsibility at Sun Microsystems, suggests that green-minded businesses should look outside their own operations to the carbon footprint of their supply chains and customers:

Carbon neutrality is a step in the right direction, but for many companies, its only a very small part of the overall impact they could have. It is in the best interest of those companies, as well as our collective best interest, that they take a broad view and prioritize appropriately across all of their potential environmental opportunities.

For the purpose of illustration, Douglas uses the Toyota Prius. Toyota can do more good for the world, he suggests, by designing energy-efficient products than by minimizing emissions from its own operations. Ideally every company should be doing both, but if Toyota has to choose a place to focus its efforts, fuel-sipping cars are the higher priority.

This is a worthy sentiment. One problem, though, is that the Prius is a cherry-picked example. For most businesses, the relative environmental impact of suppliers, operations and customers can be tricky to gauge. CIO Magazine points out that it’s hard enough to know the carbon content of a bunch of bananas sitting on a store shelf, much less a piece of electronics made of parts sourced from thousands of different suppliers.

Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Carbon neutrality is a great place for most businesses to start, both because measuring your carbon footprint is the first step toward reducing it, and also because your own impact is most directly under your control. (For a quick estimate of your organization’s emissions, check out our online calculator.)

But for many or most organizations, it also makes sense to look beyond your own walls at your suppliers and customers, who may be your greatest source of leverage in fighting climate change.

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  1. disdaniel - January 22, 2008

    I’ve got a basic question…how does one buy products made with recycled raw materials? (plastic, aluminum, glass, paper)
    I’m considering getting into the solar business (making panels) and I’d like to use as much recycled material/content as is practical. Do you know of any resources for helping with this? Are there “green”/recycled product exchanges, directories of companies, industry associations, etc?
    Or do I have to take this up with my garbage collector?

  2. worrier - January 23, 2008

    I don’t know if this subject has been brought up by anyone else yet, but it occurs to me that individuals and even businesses can do only so much to reduce carbon impact. A huge source of carbon into the atmosphere by power usage has got to be from scientific research projects such as super-cold experiments for quantum computers, supercolliders, and others. Recent programs on PBS got me to thinking about this. I’d like to hear from others about it.

  3. Rob - January 28, 2008

    Transport is 40%. Buildings are another 40%. That’s 80% without even going anywhere. You’ll find different numbers in different places, but a good way of thinking about it is “how much money do we spend on ‘pure’ R&D like the kind that uses supercolliders?” A tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny fraction.
    It’s true, as individuals we don’t control everything; better examples than supercolliders might be the concrete in (publicly funded) sidewalks — there’s no market effect in the world that can influence those, you have to vote with your…pen! Yes, the market can solve some of this, but ultimately voting in greener governments is probably the biggest single difference you can make.

  4. Rob - January 28, 2008

    Oh right, the thing I actually wanted to say: Adam, I’m not sure I agree. Google has another great example of this, and it’s (potentially) even more leverage than the Prius; the Climate Savers Computing Initiative (I think that’s the name) that Google pushed off has the potential to change not just Google’s computers, but to increase the power supplies in a large percentage of the world’s computers. They did this with a beefy but still fairly small chunk of the server market, and it makes their own direct carbon neutralization efforts look pretty small.
    Imagine if Walmart or Target or any other large retail chain insisted on better shipping carbon-efficiency; this wouldn’t just impact their own shipping, but all their competitors as well, since it would (potentially) shift an entire industry to greener places.
    You’re probably right in some ways, though — this is primarily the domain of multi-national behemoths, but I’m not sure it doesn’t scale down; ultimately most businesses have people really trying to sell them stuff, and so they may have leverage to push greenness way back up the chain and out to other purchases of the same goods or services.