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BOOK REVIEW

'Getting Green' eyes the bottom line

SCHENDLER SCHENDLER
By Rich Barlow
February 25, 2009
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From fuel-sipping cars to forever-burning fluorescents and energy-saving building designs, environmentalism can save businesses money. Being green isn't just virtuous; it's financially savvy. So goes the mantra.

Trouble is, it's not always true. And even when it is, companies may find grounds for balking.

Case in point: Early in his tenure as the paid environmental guru at Aspen Skiing Co., Auden Schendler approached the manager of the nearby Little Nell Hotel with a can't-fail pitch. Install compact fluorescent light bulbs in the resort's 90 rooms, Schendler said, and the savings will pay for the lighting in less than a year. To his astonishment, the manager replied with a flat-out no. The bulbs could dim the hotel's five-star rating, the manager explained.

Brimming with such examples, "Getting Green Done" is a valuable tonic against the sophistry that saving the planet is as easy as a beach stroll. Schendler, a protege of renowned environmentalist Amory Lovins, is a committed but non-shrill environmentalist who juggles sympathy for business concerns with a conviction that time is running out to reverse global warming. His common-sense point is that if environmental measures were truly profitable, profit-seeking business would have implemented them already. The reality, he says, is that contrary to consultants' claims, environmentalism doesn't always pay off - and, if it does, the payback may come so far into the future that no self-respecting financial officer will bite.

Journalists writing about Schendler have deployed metaphors involving heat as lavishly as, um, a volcano discharging lava. Time magazine called him "a triple shot of espresso," waking up the ski industry to environmental needs. According to BusinessWeek, the notion of profitable corporate environmentalism is "going up in smoke," and Schendler is "the man wielding the torch." Actually, real life has been a pretty effective flamethrower. The New York Times recently reported that Europeans, who have been faulting US policy on global warming, have watched their own plan to charge companies for their greenhouse gases stumble, partly because industry successfully lobbied against the charges as too expensive.

The story confirms Schendler's point, and I suppose it's fair to fault his book for stating the obvious. Yet Schendler is surely right that the blizzard of feel-good press on environmentalism's alleged profitability can blind the public to the need for government mandates, backed with money, to halt climate change. He doesn't ridicule small-scale, individual efforts; he just insists that individual efforts aren't enough.

"Getting Green Done" drags in spots; green building design is important, but the chapter on this topic has details only a building contractor could love. Even so, I find myself hoping that President Obama makes it through that chapter. He is looking to battle the recession in part by creating jobs to retrofit buildings with energy-efficient technologies. Schendler's suggestion for a public-private partnership to retrofit government and private buildings might be a worthy expansion of Obama's idea.

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlow81@gmail.com.

GETTING GREEN DONE: Hard Truths From the Front Lines of the Sustainability Revolution By Auden Schendler

PublicAffairs, 292 pp., $26.95

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