the Sidewalk Ends
on their minds
a scholar, but I'm also a citizen. I separate the two somewhat,
but I think the purpose of acquiring knowledge is to improve
Howard Frumkin, School of Public Health
Steven Walton I
look at how companies manage their business processes, their
suppliers and distribution systems, to minimize the waste generated.
And if there is waste generated, how do they deal with that?
Take Delta, for instance. To service the planes at the airport,
they used to buy hazardous chemicals in 55-gallon drums because
that's the cheapest unit price. They'd keep a fourteen-year supply
of acetone. But then they started buying one-gallon cans that
the supplier delivered two hours after they placed an order,
so they went from a fourteen-year supply to an eight-hour supply.
That meant $500,000 to their bottom line, and they reduced acetone
usage by about 80 percent. I realized very quickly that companies
can save a lot of money by doing things that turn out to be environmentally
good. They don't have to do them because of public pressure.
I am the
voice of dissent most of the time. Environmentalists often assume
that corporations will not act in the best interest of the environment,
and my point of view is that nothing's going to change until
the corporations change it. There's just a natural tension there.
And I'm often alone at the end saying, Let's think about this
from the company's side. They're not in business to make everybody
happy. It seems awfully self-serving, but the whole reason businesses
exist is to make money. The biggest knock against sustainability
is it's a beautiful dream, but how do you possibly accomplish
something like that?
Where do you
think businesses are in terms of putting these ideas into practice?
SW They've hardly started. They
aren't using it very much yet because the front edge companies
are just now figuring out they need to be doing this stuff.
Are you drawn
to be an advocate, encouraging companies to consider these possibilities?
SW It's a delicate role. My advocacy
comes in demonstrating that environmentally sound decisions can
be really good for businesses. They don't have to decide to spend
money for what feels like no return except to get Greenpeace
off their backs, for example.
Does the question
of business ethics or ethical decision-making factor in to these
issues or your teaching?
SW In my classes, it doesn't need
to. I think it's a strong enough lever to say I can show you
$100,000, $200,000, $500,000 savings, and that's something that's
meaningful to the company. While ethics is an important question,
it tends to cloud the water. If you take five people standing
side-by-side and watching the exact same event, you'll get five
different interpretations out of it. So how do you resolve the
ethical dilemmas that two of those people feel, while the other
three feel like everything went fine?
AE What if the opposite were
true, that decisions that are good for the bottom line were not
good for the environment?
SW If I were retained by a company
as a consultant on these questions and I found two solutions
to their problem-one environmentally friendly, one less so but
clearly economically the preferred choice, then the role my client
has put me in says I've got to tell them what the economically
best choice is. I would have a clear responsibility to point
to the economic one, but I would build a qualitative argument
around the environmentally preferable one. There are things you
can't evaluate economically that matter a great deal. The value
of the brand, for example; the goodwill associated with your
name. Don't mess that up.
AE Where do you think scholarship
on the urban environment is headed?
SW There's only one type of organization
that's big enough, strong enough, and rich enough to accomplish
the kinds of changes necessary for the environmental gains we
need, and that's the multinational corporation. The businesses
are going to lead the changes, and the last thing they need is
someone else beating them up for how they should behave environmentally.
In an urban setting or any other setting, only if the business
gains will these changes take place. And I patently disagree
with the groups that say if businesses make money on an environmental
change, it doesn't count. I don't care if they do it for self-serving
reasons; the goal is accomplished, and that's the only group
that has the power and the money to do it. To me, business is
going to be the place where it starts. Business is everybody's
life, like it or not.