Action, Not Just Words

Monday, November 26, 2007

Top executives from around Washington gathered last month to create a green agenda for the region under the banner of "Green as a Competitive Advantage." During the two-day Potomac Conference, sponsored by the Greater Washington Board of Trade, participants framed the debate with comments like, "Anytime someone says it's not about the money, it's about the money. We all know this, so let's just get down to it."

The trouble is the issue really isn't about money. It's about saving our world from a climate crisis that more and more scientists are readily acknowledging. In this case, competitive advantages and profit -- which are the purpose of businesses -- should be a byproduct of doing the right and sensible thing.

The result of the Board of Trade's event was this agenda: raise awareness about the region's green assets and practices, create incentives for companies to adopt green practices, set a regional greenhouse gas reduction target and support regional organizations' plans for transit-oriented development and alternative transportation.

Let's hope this agenda achieves something other than spin.

Unfortunately, most businesses and local jurisdictions are just beginning to react, thanks to the great pressure that people are bringing to bear on corporations and government. Events like Live Earth and the increasingly voiced need for green change as an election issue has thrust self-regulation upon corporate America. Companies know their buyers and workforces are demanding green solutions. Often their response is to offer small measures to appease the masses and declare their products and services are green.

But claiming a green city without substantive measures and actions on environmental issues equals, well, fabricated junk. The same goes for a company that claims to offer green services and products without having a real agenda to back it up. It's spin meant to change people's perception, but it has no substance. It's only a matter of time before consumers become suspicious about claims of environmentally friendly products.

This kind of "PR" is all too common. As the owner of a public relations company, I found the local business community's take on green to be disturbing. The classic goal of public relations is creating goodwill between a community and its stakeholders. That does not involve spin or setting false expectations. Nor is it about issuing a press release with a green "agenda" that is not backed by action.

Today's fragmented and highly competitive media environment, with blogs and social networks, brings about rapid questioning of perceived wrongs. This in turn has thrust demands for new ethical behavior upon corporate America. Much of the discussion around green in corporate social media and environmental blogs revolves around the authenticity of green PR. The end result: Green claims must be backed with supporting actions.

For example, Dell claims that it wants to be the greenest technology company in the world. Recognizing consumer concerns, the computer maker has thrust itself into the center of the environmental debate, pledging to listen and continue to change hand in hand with environmental organizations.

Dell put those words into practice at a recent technology conference, where it videotaped attendees' views on the environment and posted the clips on its Direct2Dell blog. The company offers free recycling, and handled 78 million pounds of computer equipment in 2006. Dell also allows consumers to offset the future electricity needed to run their systems by donating to a program that plants trees. Those actions have substance. They truly are green.

"When it comes to protecting the environment, permission to lead is granted only if the fundamentals are exceptionally strong," said Dell spokesman Sean Donahue. "In addition to designing energy-efficient products, committing to carbon neutrality and offering free worldwide recycling, this means engaging in a meaningful and continuous dialogue with customers."

If Washington wants to be seen as green, then we need to act green, not just profit from "enviro-friendly" spin. Authenticity is determined by actions. If the Board of Trade really wants to be taken seriously on green issues, it needs to demand strong legislation from local governments.

Beyond obvious and much-needed transportation initiatives, requested legislation should also migrate energy usage toward non-carbon-based sources and demand rigorous commercial real estate building codes.

Geoff Livingston is chief executive of Livingston Communications and author of Buzz Bin, a blog on public relations. He recently co-wrote a book, "Now Is Gone: A Primer on New Media," about how companies can better interact with online communities.

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