Researchers Urge Environmental Responsibility
BY Max Chafkin
July 14, 2005--A report released Tuesday by an international panel of experts offered stern warnings to businesses on the environment while suggesting possible opportunities, which researchers say can be good for the planet and your bottom line.
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA), a large research group with members from businesses, non-profits, and academia, issued its fourth report, on "Opportunities and Challenges for Business and Industry." The report, co-chaired by Jane Lubchenco, a professor of Marine Ecology at Oregon State University and Steve Percy, former CEO of BP America, presented possible environmental scenarios related to changes in ecosystems including decreases in the availability of clean water, clean air, quality soil, and cross-pollinating insects.
Lubchenco said that these "ecosystem services" are essential to a wide range of businesses but are often overlooked by managers who assume that price and availability will remain constant. "A lot of services now are provided free of charge, but as they become increasingly rare, the costs will increase," she said.
This fact should prompt businesses large and small to assess their dependence on natural resources. "A catalogue company should be asking where its paper comes from. If a t-shirt company depends on cotton, then water is critically important." While many of the gravest predictions in the report relate to long-range problems, Lubchenco cautioned that ecosystems do not necessarily evolve gradually, and may reach a sudden tipping point that dramatically alters business conditions.
Percy said that issues like climate change should be important to small businesses if they do contract work for larger companies, who are beginning to consider environmental impact in the procurement process. "Even if you don't believe this stuff, in the business world perception is reality. A lot of people are taking action on this and that is going to be real for you." Both Percy and Lubchenco agreed that businesses should also be ready to adapt to the near-certainty of future government regulations.
In addition to identifying a wide range of challenges, the report also offered some encouragement to forward thinking entrepreneurs. Percy said that small technology firms are well positioned to be engines of innovation over the next half-century. "There's a positive message in this: who better to solve these problems than businesses, and to make money doing it?" Chris Page, a Research Consultant for the Rocky Mountain Institute, a non-profit that advocates solving environmental problems without regulation, agreed. "Competitive business models and sustainability are complimentary," she said. "Waste is cost."