Disruptive Messages Are Easy to Dismiss

Real-world experience clashes with the old cliché about environmental regulation choking business. Why, then, is this positive message is so difficult for people to hear?

Recently, legislators invited me to talk about the impact of California’s cap and trade plans on local businesses. Cap and trade is one of several tools for reducing the state’s carbon emissions. I said small businesses have nothing to fear. Later, I described the hostile reception my words received in Capital Weekly.

My observations would have sounded like common sense to other business owners. But, as so often happens, I was the only small business owner in the room.

Despite the drumbeat about regulation stifling economic activity, economists tell me that the historical evidence shows something different. The impact of environmental regulation on the economic growth is utterly overwhelmed by much bigger factors. While employment at a few individual companies might suffer from time to time, the net impact on jobs is simply too small to measure.

The reason for this should be obvious: ordinary, everyday management choices can reduce a company’s costs far more than future energy prices are expected to rise.

Sadly, these insights are not obvious to many politicians or business owners. I am not ashamed to admit that I only discovered them after my attempt to go solar failed, and I resorted to less expensive options. I didn’t even try this experiment until after I’d been in business for twenty years.

Nobody is to blame for not seeing the obvious. Business owners don’t spend time fretting over small matters; we focus on our biggest challenges. Energy has been so cheap for so long that conservation simply hasn’t been a priority.

Moreover, the financial advantages of energy efficiency are hidden in other line items on the budget. The biggest mistake in selling energy efficiency is pitching the investment payback based on energy cost savings alone.

But there is a bright silver lining. When I learned that Bowman Design Group had cut greenhouse gas emissions by 65 percent, I decided to calculate how much we had invested, plus all of the savings that flowed from these investments.

I’ve described our approach at Yale Environment 360 and on the Cool California website. For example, replacing one copier with multi-function machine let us decommission most of our other equipment. Sure, we reduced electricity costs, but the big savings came on paper, toner, ink and service. It’s the aggregated savings that count. Our entire carbon-cutting program netted roughly $9,000 and we have repeated these savings every year since.

If you manage a small enterprise you do this kind of calculation routinely. But chances are you’ve thought about emissions cutting in terms of building a new building, installing a solar array or buying exotic technologies. Bowman Design Group couldn’t afford any of these big-ticket items, nor did we need to.

I can forgive lawmakers and fellow business owners for being surprised by our results. I can even forgive incredulity, since I, too, was taken aback. Green to Gold co-author Andrew Winston named us one of his Top Ten Green Business Stories of 2010. You don’t get this kind of recognition for doing the obvious.

But I do find lawmakers’ resistance to this simple message and our everyday methodology, which can help other businesses make similar contributions, quite disturbing. If I had a dollar for every time someone called our example irrelevant, I might not need to be in business at all.

Everybody says that efficiency is the cheapest source of new, domestic energy. Everybody says small businesses are society’s best innovators. We just was put these two statements together and got amazing results that everyone can share.

Too many leaders are mired in cliché assumptions about the perils of embracing environmental progress. Mitt Romney even played on this fear when he accepted the Republican Party’s nomination for President saying, “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family.”

Practical business experience says this is a false choice. We can no longer afford to indulge this kind of ignorance.

The small business community is generating invaluable knowledge about making carbon cutting pay dividends. They are not choosing the planet over its people. They are making smart, simple, common sense decisions that work.

Is anybody listening?


About the Author

Tom is founder and CEO of Bowman Change, Inc., a consultancy dedicated to helping organizations reap the benefits of working with purpose—making social issues and environmental change central to their missions.