Whose idea was it to go green?

The theme of corporate responsibility over the past decade has been clear: go green. Be environmentally-friendly. Reduce your carbon footprint. Conserve resources. Minimize your impact.

Just five years ago, according to Climate Counts, a non-profit, only a quarter of corporations surveyed had publicly available climate and energy strategy. Today, about two-thirds of firms make the information publicly available. The question this naturally brings up is, ‘why?’

In a survey conducted on CEOs by Ernst & Young in 2011, 37% said that customers are driving corporate responsibility while employees and shareholders followed, with 22% and 15% each, respectively.

The picture of who is the most dominating force in the push to go green is often muddied and is usually never clear. But the fact that so many CEOs said that customers are driving corporate responsibility cannot be ignored. The power of the consumer has long been established as the panacea or poison of the corporation of which they are customers. Companies dare not defy the wishes of their customers for too long or they will lose them.

An anonymous investor said in 2007, near the start of the major push by the public for companies to be ‘green’, that, “The market has spoken. Global warming exists.” Scientific qualifications aside, the investor had a point: It does not matter the actual impact or scale of change going ‘green’ produces in the economy; what matters is that ‘green’ sells. People will purchase cars, furniture, toys, electronics, etc. from companies that are seen as environmentally responsible. No one wants to be seen buying a car that produces more pollution that the city street sweepers.

What is even more interesting about the 2011 Errnst & Young survey is that CEOs said employees are more responsible for the push to show environmental transparency in companies than any other stakeholder or outside influence, even more so than shareholders. This trend would appear to suggest that going ‘green’ is attractive to customers so that they can feel and look better about buying a ‘green’ product compared to others, but being ‘green’ for a company may not be the most financially sound decision they have ever made, and perhaps employees and shareholders know it. This is not to say that employees and shareholders do not care about firms being environmentally responsible, but it does show that they are probably not caught up in being so extreme in their care so as to unnecessarily financially burden the firm.

Being called a polluter and not receiving the blessing of the public for being ‘green’ is almost a death sentence for companies today. Firms are willing to spend millions of dollars simply to manage that public image and ensure they are at least at the level of their competitors. After all, “The market has spoken. Global warming exists.”