Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Saving the World, One CD Case at a Time

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.
- Laozi, a Chinese philosopher and leading figure in Taoism, who lived in the fourth century B.C.

Someone told me over the weekend that she wanted to see Michael Moore's new movie "Sicko," but she felt like Moore has been a failure in that, ultimately, his films haven't changed anything. After all, she said, President Bush was re-elected in 2004. She went on to say that Moore's movies, along with Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth," are only watched by people who already agree with the films' arguments, but the people who need to be convinced do not watch thems and remain unaffected.

I respectfully disagree with that assessment. I admit that Moore and Gore (sounds like a law firm in a Dr. Seuss story) have not been able to have a quid pro quo impact on their subjects, causing the corridors of power to collapse and move to the points of view espoused in the films. But, I think that in a larger, less direct way, "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "An Inconvient Truth" were opening salvos that, over time, have spawned subtle (but pronounced) changes in the culture.

Much of Moore's argument in "Fahrenheit 9/11," mainly that Bush and his administration lied in an effort to support invading Iraq, while not explicitly accepted in November 2004 when Bush defeated John Kerry, is now a commonly held belief amongst Americans, including a big chunk of people that don't like Moore or his work. In November 2006, two short years after Bush was elected, the Republicans were voted out of control of Congress almost entirely on the Iraq war issue. Moore started an argument that, over time, woke up much of the country.

I think the same can be said of "An Inconvenient Truth." When Gore ran against Bush in 2000, Bush would not even admit that global warming existed. By 2006, Bush had shifted gears, admitting that global warming was a problem (although his new dodge was to throw up a smoke screen on the non-issue of whether or not man had anything to do with causing it, as this quote to People Magazine attests). Sure, Gore's film did not immediately lead to Congress adopting a 50-mile-per-gallon fuel standard or the President supporting the Kyoto Treaty, but it started the ball rolling that has, at the very least, established global warming as an important and dangerous problem facing mankind.

In that vein, I saw several news articles today that made me think that we have made progress, and that leave me hopeful of better environmental policies taking hold in the future.

According to a New York Times article, a minor league soccer team in eco-friendly Boulder, Colo., has become "The World’s First Carbon Neutral Soccer Team." The team, which is affiliated with Major League Soccer's Colorado Rapids, takes various steps to stay in tune with the environment, ranging from training on fields that are not painted with lines and holding most practices locally rather than taking the hour-long bus ride (and the emissions that come with it) to the Rapids' more professional facilities in Denver, to paying for carbon offsets. The team even wears warm-up jerseys that feature the slogan, "Kick Global Warming."

One of the men behind the Colorado team's eco-friendly campaign suggests in the article that while the actions of a minor league soccer team in Colorado are a tiny step, he would love to see the team's practices progress to MLS, and then to the bigger leagues like the NBA and NFL, and even, someday, taking in the poster child for emitting greenhouse gases: NASCAR. It may seem crazy, but these things have to start somewhere. According to the article, in what is probably a coincidence, but one that indicates positive movement on the issue, the English football club Ipswich, which plays in the League Championship (the second-highest level in England), has declared itself "the U.K.’s First Carbon Neutral Football Club." Right now, Ipswich and the minor league team in Boulder are pioneers, but several years from now? Who knows?

I also read today a Yahoo!/Reuters article about independent record labels that have moved to more eco-friendly packaging. Craig Minowa of the Minneapolis band Cloud Cult started his own packaging facility when he could not find one that was environmentally responsible. His Earthology Recordings uses geothermal and wind power, recycles materials for the CD cases, and engraves the packaging with soy ink. He notes in the article that the major labels won't use eco-friendly processes because it would cost them pennies more per CD, which add up to a large additional expense. Given the financial downturn the labels are facing, it's hard to blame them. But other indie labels are also going the environmentally sensitive route.

(As an aside, I checked out the Cloud Cult myspace page and really liked the band's music. The "Garden State"-friendly, achingly beautiful, Shins-like acoustic-rock songs drew me in.)

The Yahoo!/Reuters article notes that Kufala Recordings in Los Angeles uses transparent cigarette paper instead of cellophane to wrap their discs, and Seattle indie powerhouse Sub Pop (once the home of Nirvana and the Shins) purchases vouchers from the Bonneville Environmental Foundation to subsidize the use of renewable energy and switched from plastic CD cases to ones made from recyclable paperboard.

What the indie labels and the minor league soccer team have in common, and what might put them at the head of the curve towards a more eco-friendly approach to doing business, is that their decisionmaking did not shy way from economic realities, but in fact embraced them. While they all want to do right by the environment, they also view their processes as being effective for their long-term business goals. For example, while the paper CD boxes cost Sub Pop an extra 30 cents per unit, they are also saving 25 cents a unit on mailing costs. The economics of going green is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. For corporations to be more environmentally responsible down the road, they will need to address and embrace the economic side of operating in a green manner.

It's not just the little guys who are looking out for the environment and their bottom lines at the same time. I read no less than three articles today on Google's recent green efforts. A CNNMoney.com article described Google's decision to spend more than $10 million towards the development of vehicles that get from 70 to 100 miles per gallon. Also discussed was Google turning on its solar collection panels, which can generate 1.6 megawatts of power, making it the largest corporate solar project in the U.S. (A Yahoo!/PCNews.com article addresses the Google solar project in more detail.) And, another CNNMoney.com article describes Google's partnership with Intel to make more energy-efficient personal computers and servers.

Just as the debate on global warming has taken a quantum leap forward in a few short years, it is entirely possible that the recent actions of some early adaptors, from little guys like a minor league soccer team and some independent record labels to a major corporation like Google, will be looked at as the pioneers for a new way of doing business that can help address the looming threat of greenhouse gasses. They have taken the first few steps on the journey described by Laozi in the quote at the top of this piece. Importantly, the pioneers are also demonstrating that being eco-friendly and business-minded are not mutually exclusive. A path has been set for other businesses and individuals to follow. Will they? Only time will tell. But, if Bush can admit that global warming exists, anything is possible.