Over the past year or so, DC VELOCITY has published a number of articles addressing the greening of the supply chain. This issue is no exception, with John Johnson's report on how Hewlett- Packard is tackling the subject and the accompanying sidebar on how outdoor outfitter Patagonia operates an environmentally friendly DC.
Environmental issues—and global warming in particular—have received plenty of attention from the popular press as well. Just how important the issue has become was reinforced last year when Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. It is certainly on the agenda for business operations. The subject will be front and center at the Material Handling Industry of America's North American 2008 trade show and conference in Cleveland in April. Andrew Winston, a business strategist who concentrates on environmental issues,will deliver the keynote address on the topic "Green to Gold: How Smart Companies Use Environmental Strategy to Innovate, Create Value, and Build High-Performance Supply Chains." Large numbers of companies, it seems, are taking a closer look at how everything they do affects the environment. What they have learned, in many cases, is that reducing waste, curbing energy usage, and incorporating environmental considerations into their facilities and operations planning is not only good corporate citizenship, but also good business.
And yet all these efforts may have scant effect on the vast quantities of carbon pumped into the atmosphere. As psychologist Stephen Pinker pointed out in an article on the origins of the human impulse to act morally in The New York Times Magazine last month, "Even if every last American became conscientious about his or her carbon emissions, the effects on climate change would be trifling, if for no other reason than that two billion Indians and Chinese are unlikely to copy our born-again abstemiousness."
His larger point in this case was that "our heads can be turned by an aura of sanctity, distracting us from a more objective reckoning of [our] actions"—in other words, there's a danger that by focusing on, say, our own recycling efforts or switch to solar power, we could lose sight of the larger, more difficult questions. That's a debate too complex for this page. It does suggest that we will not solve something as complex as global warming through the efforts of individual businesses.
That in no way suggests that businesses should not continue to pursue these initiatives. I think back to one of the popular mantras of the environmental movement, Think Globally, Act Locally, which is precisely what a company that builds a green DC is doing. You don't have to save the world to make a difference.
I recently read a review of a new book by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger that attacks the way environmentalists approach issues like global warming. They argue that predicting doomsday if we fail to act will more likely lead to paralysis than useful thinking about how to respond. Reviewer Matthew Yglesias, writing in The New York Times Book Review, thought the arguments in the book, Break Through, underestimated what it will take to address global warming, but found compelling their case for shifting to a rhetoric that focuses more on hope than on fear.
That brings me back to the sorts of green initiatives we've been writing about in these pages. In some cases, businesses have launched these initiatives because of a heartfelt commitment to cleaner air and water, and to treading lightly on the planet. Many others have done so because it simply makes good business sense. What they have in common is that they focus more on what can be done than on the consequences of not acting at all. That's a model worth more attention.