Gary Hirshberg got rich by adhering to the theory that environmentally symbiotic businesses can be profitable. Now, he’s spreading the word.
When the Reagan administration cut the funding for the ecological research nonprofit he was running, Gary Hirshberg was faced with a decision: start fundraising or go into business. Armed with a budding belief that helping the planet and making money didn’t have to be mutually exclusive, he chose the second option and a short while later, Stonyfield Farms was born. Twenty five years on, Hirshberg runs the largest organic yogurt company in the world. In his new book, Stirring It Up: How to Make Money and Save the World, Hirshberg sets an example for businesses of all kinds that reducing consumption of energy, chemicals, and materials doesn’t only make ecological sense, it makes business sense, too. -JF
What’s the biggest misconception you’re encountering in your attempt to convince companies to go green? I’m running into a lot less skepticism than I thought I would and than I might have if I had launched this book five years ago. Oil, as of this morning, was $114 a barrel. When George W. Bush took office it was $26 a barrel. Whether I’ve spoken at a Fortune 100 board meeting, or a business school, or a consumer group, I’m not running into much resistance to the idea that reducing energy use is profitable. I think that it’s fairly easy to show them that this is a good way to reduce their costs. The bigger challenge is getting folks to accept that what is today a novel idea is going to become absolutely the norm. It’s going to become accepted that this is absolutely how we do business in the 21st century.
What’s the first thing a company should do if they want to reduce their energy consumption? Any time you can seal your windows, change your lighting, better insulate your walls, you’re going to get an extremely fast payback. Transportation is an even bigger user of fuel than heating and lighting our buildings, so any time you can cut your logistics – how much you’re shipping and how you’re shipping – it’s just money in the bank. All we really need to do is ask the question, “Why not?” Why not try something? Here’s a good example of what I mean: UPS has 95,000 trucks, and they figured out that by not making left-hand turns, they can save themselves 3.3 million gallons of gas per year. Because when you’re idling, waiting for the cars to go by, it’s an unproductive use of fuel. Somebody said, “Why go left, why not make three rights?” And it translated into $9.9 million in savings last year.
Buying carbon offsets seems like a good idea, but your book doesn’t name that as a solution. Why not? While offsets have a definite role to play, we need to make dramatic reductions in consumption first. The reality is that after we’ve reduced our carbon footprint, we will still be producing CO2 and methane emissions. We just have to be careful to keep offsets in their proper context. It’s a little bit like recycling: it’s a great idea, but it’s not a solution.
One of the examples you use of a company making big strides to decrease its energy consumption is Wal-Mart. Really? It’s infuriating to a lot of people, especially my “green” friends. Let’s face it, Wal-Mart has not always had the best reputation. But Wal-Mart also has such an enormous reach that they have to be commended for taking this seriously. They have the biggest supply chain on earth, and if they go out and tell all these companies that they must reduce their carbon footprints, that’s exactly what is needed to turn this planet around. I don’t bother preaching the moral imperatives any more because the people who get that are already doing this. What I preach is the profitability, because that’s how we’re going to make change happen. Not because it’s the right thing to do, but because there’s more money to be made by doing it.