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Can capitalism be truly green?: Trying to reconcile profit and sustainability

The Philadelphia Inquirer

By Diane Mastrull

Going green in business might seem altruistic.

But just like health care, the environmental industry is a business sector – one of the few these recessionary days with growth potential. And those toiling in it hope not only to do some social good, but also to make money in the process.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Or is there?

A Web poll last week tried to gauge public sentiment on the greening of capitalism. When asked whether two New York marketers who promote the use of tap water and environmentally friendly bottles they sell are “greedy entrepreneurs,” “selfless environmentalists,” or “both,” respondents gave mixed reviews.

As of Friday, the voting on was running: greedy entrepreneurs, 13,296; selfless environmentalists, 14,608; both, 23,475.

It premiered the same week a program was launched to get businesses in the Philadelphia region to commit to more sustainable practices. Organizers of the Greater Philadelphia Green Business Program said companies should join the movement for environmental and economic reasons.

“There is no inherent contradiction between going green and capitalism,” Josh Kaplowitz, a lawyer at Drinker, Biddle & Reath L.L.P., wrote in an e-mail.

His firm is one of the charter members of the Green Business Program and has instituted a number of environmentally friendly measures over the last couple of years. Those have included replacing bottled water with filtered tap water, and plastic forks and knives with cornstarch-based utensils.

“What is so unique about the climate crisis is, we’re all in the same boat, and good business is good for the environment and vice versa,” Kaplowitz said. “We’re not going to find solutions without harnessing theinnovation and profit motive of the private sector.”

At Rohm & Haas Co., Catherine Hunt, director of sustainability, said the company’s greening efforts – including the installation of a cool (as in temperature) roof made of acrylic emulsion on its Center City corporate headquarters – “has opened doors to talk to our customers.”

The company is working to develop products that will be easier on the environment, and it is making efforts to reduce its own carbon footprint. But it is also “about leadership and about being a good citizen,” Hunt said, and it “makes good business sense.”

And for that last part, she made no apologies.

Nor should she, said Leanne Krueger-Braneky, executive director of the Sustainable Business Network (SBN) of Greater Philadelphia. SBN is a nonprofit organization of local business leaders who share an interest in growing successful companies that have a positive social and environmental impact.

“Part of sustainability is being able to pay your bills,” Krueger-Braneky said. “If you’re not making a profit, you’re not staying in business.”

Roux Associates Inc. is a national environmental consulting and management firm with a regional headquarters in West Deptford. It, too, has signed on as a charter member of the Greater Philadelphia Green Business Program, having implemented a number of green initiatives – including recycling, energy efficiency and employee education. Those actions will help reduce operating costs and also validate for potential clients the importance of Roux’s subsidiary, Domani Sustainability Consulting L.L.C., said Beth Hyde, director of business development.

“It was something that was not profitable immediately and it’s still a question how profitable it is,” Hyde said of the decision to acquire Denver-based Domani three years ago. “We believe, in time, it will be a really good business decision.”

Those who suggest that green businesses should not expect profits, Hyde said, are “people who think there is something bad about making a profit, period. There are plenty of people out there that tend to be antibusiness in general.”

A desire to survive is why Tyra F. Hodges, of Horsham, and Melissa R. Parker, of Bryn Mawr, cofounders of Tymel Style L.L.C., do not give away their fashionable totes made of recycled materials – even at trade shows where freebies are common.

A Tymel bag retails for $8.

“We are environmentalists who are in the business also of making money,” Hodges said. Formed last August, Tymel also offers consulting services on what businesses, organizations, and individuals can do to become more enviro-friendly. It has yet to make a profit. “We hope that will change real soon,” Hodges said without betraying a hint of guilt.

Eric Yaverbaum borders on being a braggart over his earnings from selling more than 400,000 stainless steel and plastic bottles free of BPA (bisphenol-A, an organic compound) since he and partner Mark DiMassimo launched their pro-tap water campaign in November 2007. He said sales – bottles and a duffel bag made from recycled single-serve water bottles and yogurt containers – have exceeded $6 million.

Truth be known, they are the ones behind the tappening. com Web site and its greed-vs.-green poll.
Pressed for his reasons behind sampling public opinion on whether he and DiMassimo are considered “greedy entrepreneurs” or “selfless environmentalists,” Yaverbaum came clean: “It’s overtly designed to get attention.”

If some consider that greedy, so be it, he said.

“While greed is a very bad word in these days and times,” Yaverbaum said, “when it comes to the environment, if you can do something good and make money doing it and you want to attach the word greed to it, it’s not a bad word.”

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