Did business blow it?

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Stephen Evanoff

My family and friends know that I’ve been working in the environmental field for over 20 years. My wife proudly tells people, “Stephen got awards from Carol Browner and the Secretary of Defense for his environmental leadership work.” So when an environmental issue enters the zeitgeist friends will ask me about it. The question is usually posed with an expectation of a good news story. You know what I’m talking about.

Unfortunately, over the past several years we’ve witnessed a steady stream of negative news stories about how certain businesses acted while a de-regulatory philosophy prevailed within the federal government. I am not going to cite specific examples here, but I bet you can name one or two off the top of your head.

Since the modern EHS movement became part of the mainstream, business has advocated that voluntary standards are a more efficient and effective way of managing EHS issues than regulation. But, in the wake of numerous stories on environmental misdeeds during an era lacking in aggressive oversight and enforcement, and coming on the heels of the banking and finance meltdown, my family and friends have become wary. As my teenage son put it, “gee pops, looks like business blew it.”

Yes, it’s not fair and it paints business and industry with one very broad brush. But, I’ve been unsuccessful coming up with a persuasive response. I wonder…has the worm turned? Are we entering an era of re-regulation and public skepticism of business in EHS issues? What have your family and friends been telling you?

What do you think?

You can meet Stephen and hear him speak at the NAEM EHS Management Forum in October on the topic of  corporate survival skills for EHS managers.

About Stephen Evanoff

Stephen Evanoff is Vice President of Environment, Health and Safety for Danaher Corp. and President of NAEM’s Board of Directors. Follow him on Twitter at @SteveEvanoff.

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8 Comments
  1. Richard MacLean

    September 14, 2009

    What industry did with voluntary initiatives they are now doing with all the spin surrounding “sustainable development” and “green products”. It will take a decade or two for the public, media and politicians to fully see the implications. I wonder if our own profession really understands the consequences.

  2. Kenna Coltman

    September 14, 2009

    It’s an interesting topic. It seems to me that no matter what the regulatory climate, you have good players and bad players, and the bad players are usually the ones that are going to get the press. It’s unfortunate, but it is a reality that to spread good news you have to work much harder; to spread mediocre news, harder still. It just isn’t that interesting to our doom and gloom society.

    I don’t ever see regulations giving way to voluntary standards. But I would like to see a move away from the ‘command and control’ style that our regulations in the US tend to follow. I would like to see something along the lines of quality standards that each company is required to meet, but the how is left up to them individually. That way, companies large and small can evaluate their own operations, and come up with a targeted compliance strategy that makes good business sense, rather than having to follow a ‘one-size-fits-all’ regulation.

    It will be interesting to see how things change over the next few years. The regulatory horizon is looming with greenhouse gas legislation almost a certainty now. Unfortunately, I think the status quo of regulatory structure in the US will continue, and I fear that is going to place incredible burden on industry.

    All too often, it seems that the latest regulatory hot topic is less about the environment, and more about politics. Personally, I believe that addressing our individual, unsustainable lifestyles in the US would be a better use of our government dollars, but since that encroaches on individual choice, it is politically taboo. While industry bears the brunt of the regulatory burden, we each have to understand how we contribute to the current environmental problems that we face. Buying gas-guzzling vehicles, living on frozen and prepared foods with their redundant packaging, tossing recyclables into the garbage . . . the list goes on. It’s comfortable and easy to point a finger at big industry and say they’re the bad guys, but sometime, we are going to have to look in the mirror and each accept our individual culpability the degradation of our environment.

  3. Melody Evans

    September 14, 2009

    Our greed for more and more means that we will have less and less until we all have absolutely nothing at all. Companies have been driven by projects that need a 12 month payback. Nothing in environmental has that type of payback. So nothing got done. We need to access Lincoln’s “better angels of our natures”.

  4. Martin Bugeja

    September 15, 2009

    There always has to be a certain amount of regulation to keep the “bad guys” in check. I can’t help being reminded of President Obama’s speech to those bankers yesterday in which he bemoaned the fact that despite the global fiscal damage that many of them were responsible for, they appear to be going back to their old ways. The love of money is just too intoxicating for some people. And in times of recession, it’s always the Environment that suffers. Let’s hope and pray that December’s Climate Change Summit will bear fruit.

  5. Michael Sklar

    September 15, 2009

    I think business did ‘blow it.’ Not only did a number of companies cheat, but industry after industry appears unwilling or unable to police itself. Few if any companies were willing to call out bad actors in their industry or in other industries.

    Voluntary measures will never be sufficient, because companies have an incentive to externalize whatever costs they can. If Company A embarks on voluntary EHS measures and Company B does not (except for those that yield clear bottom-line savings), which company will deliver better near-term financial performance?

    If company-by-company self-regulation won’t work, and if industry-wide self-regulation won’t work, then the only recourses open to the broader society to achieve its EHS goals are litigation or regulation. Litigation is not a feasible response in many cases and is not a very efficient control mechanism in the best of circumstances. That leaves government regulation as the inevitable choice.

    One final comment about ‘command and control’ regulation: most environmental regulations are performance-based, and where they are not, the fault lies in the laws passed by Congress. For example, emissions regulations on automobiles, trucks, and power plants set an allowable emissions rate and let business determine which technologies and methods to adopt to meet those standards.

  6. Rick Ramirez

    September 16, 2009

    Many financial institutions were driven by greed, lack of a sound regulatory framework, lack of legislative oversight, excessive risk-taking and Wall Street’s (and our)desire for ever-increasing unsustainable quarterly returns. The system got out-of-control. Legislative and Executive branches of government share the blame with Executive Committees and lack of Board oversight. We were all too blind with inflated 401k statements and increasing home values to see the catastrophe ahead.

    Enterprises that may have seen an “opportunity” to “do less” or even step out-of bounds in times of less regulatory enforcement or deregulation have not matured enough to see the value of EHS and Sustainability performance beyond the short term nor have these organizations integrated EHS/Sustainability into their business process or corporate strategy.

    I support voluntary initiatives and public/private partnerships that provide value, are credible and require transparency and accountability. Third party certifications, assessments, attestations are another way of assuring credibility and transparency.

    Those who just “spin” should be called out by their stakeholders. Those that stay on a path of continual improvement and leadership will be rewarded by their stakeholders. Clear-headed and ethical executives steer away from the “quick fix” and destroying their (and their company) good reputations for short-term gains.

  7. John Grosskopf

    September 20, 2009

    Thanks Stephen for weighing in as you have. “Our” seasoned voices need be heard amongst the chaos, chatter and confusion going on everywhere today. Your message was right on.

    My return to CA has found it correcting the past decade+ of relative (for them) inactivity where it was rightfully known for its long history of environmental proactivity. As a close observer of what other region’s and countries are doing with respect to climate change, the environment and sustainability, I assert that EU and other parts of the world have eclipsed CA, badly in some areas, especially with respect to sustainability and climate change.

    Legislation/Regulation is back in CA and is aimed primarily at the transportation and community sectors (IE development, VMT, GHG emissions). CA’s AB 32 (Global Warming Solutions Act), and SB 375 which is aimed at VMT and associated GHG reductions are just two of the “re-avalanche” of laws/regs all Californians are now beginning to face.

    And few heeded my call for the biggest driver I’ve yet seen. CA DTSC’s green chemistry initiative. They intend through it to green products and services down to the molecular level. It serve’s as an extension of Prop 65 and emulates many of the EU’s principles and practices contained in the ROHS and WEEE and appears to engage the precautionary principle too.

    Few have embraced the concept that “Business as Usual” is no longer a viable option.

    Trusted experts in Climate Change, endangered species and others I know think we’ve got 20-30 years – AT BEST – to get ‘this’ right, or we are headed for some planetary changes that will have future generations rather angry, and poorer for what has been done the last 100 years and accelerated in the last 20.

    Sorry for going to the bully pulpit – unusual for me as you know, but it is way past time for the rhetoric to be turned into action. Our work and that of others at the bleeding edge of where business meets the environment must be formalized, standardized (to a degree anyway) and become part of everyday practice – for us all. As we discovered in the heady days in aerospace in the 80’s and 90’s, good business and the environment not only co-exist, they are mutually self-reinforcing and for those that have experienced it, one in the same.

    John W. Grosskopf P.E., BCEE
    V.P. Strategic Initiatives and Sustainability, TRC Companies, Inc.

    Member, Executive EHS Council of the Conference Board

    Steering Committee; Urban Land Institute, Orange County Chapter Sustainable Communities Council

    Co-Founder, San Diego Regional Sustainability Partnership

  8. Norm

    September 23, 2009

    I disagree. If business had pushed hard for X, Y, or Z, the regulatory zealots would be pushing for more regulation to go beyond the sensible no matter what. When you have EHS regulations that do not match the real-life constraints or are just there to push us to state-of-the-art gee-we-can-detect X to Y parts-per-gazillion or a non-issue like BisA or a continent adopting a pre-cautionary principle, then you have business fighting back to survive and to protect us in addition to their businesses.

    So even if you say the era lacked oversight or enforcement, why are things almost universally better across the board?

    So, if you make regulations preverse and encourage, almost require, that folks take unnecessary risks and effectively transfer away the responsibility, you get what you got. We ought to be working hard to streamline the regulations and properly assign risks and ensure that the bad actors don’t take my good money and blow it again and then be eligible for more hands-outs.

    Good business worry little about good regulations, especially in the EHS arena. Good businesses are so far ahead of the regulators in making safe, environmental-responsible choices they can only be bogged down by the onslaught of bad regulations that has been threatened.

    On the other hand, WJC promised a lot and delivered little, so maybe the storm can be weathered for a few more years.

    I don’t have a good answer for the shortened horizon that seems to have invaded all areas of all ways of life. If you do not deliver in a year, you are likely to be gone, so folks react rationally and plan for firework projects that make a lot of noise and creat a lot of smoke and disipate just after bonuses are handed out and golden parachutes are deployed.

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