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More CEOs Should Tell Anti-Environment Shareholders to Buzz Off

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Apple CEO Tim Cook recently said something to a shareholder that you very rarely hear: Take a hike. I'm paraphrasing, but only slightly.

At the company's latest shareholder meeting, a think tank, NCPPR, pushed Apple to stop pursuing environmental initiatives like investing in renewable energy. Cook went on a tirade -- or at least what passes for one from the very cool and collected CEO. He made it clear that he makes choices for reasons beyond just the profit motive. As he put it, "If you only want me to make decisions that have a clear ROI, then you should get out of the stock."

Cook's gut reaction to defend actions that don't have a clear ROI is admirable -- and he has the legal right to make strategic decisions and investments, as does every CEO. But he missed an important opportunity because much of what he was talking about -- particularly investing in renewable energy -- does in fact have strong ROI benefits, just not ones we can always measure.

For the sake of argument, let's put aside the easy environmental wins that pencil out in any ROI calculation: energy efficiency and the increasingly common no-money-down renewables options (using "power purchasing agreements" to lease your roof and pay the solar provider the same, or less, than you currently pay per kilowatt-hour).

That leaves at least three other deep benefits to investing in green power on your own facilities in ways that may take longer to pay back in traditional terms. First, making significant amounts of your own power at zero variable cost is more than nice; it's a hedge against volatility and smooths out expenses, which makes business planning easier.

Second, generating power, and possibly building "microgrids" to create energy independence for your facilities, offers some serious resilience benefits. Consider Walmart's significant commitments to energy efficiency and renewables. At one of the company's sustainability "milestone meetings" in 2013, one senior exec said the initiatives would "help us keep our stores up and running no matter how bad the weather is or who else might be down."

Third, the brand value of walking the talk is significant. Employees, especially the younger ones, increasingly want to see the companies taking these measures -- I have one large CPG client making a significant, visible move to renewables at its facilities for precisely this reason. In addition, the story you tell customers can affect sales. One of the largest hotel chains in the world showed me the questions it got from big corporate customers -- the ones deciding where to buy hundreds of rooms for big events. The list included multiple questions about whether the hotel chain purchased or used renewable energy.

By creating an energy-price hedge, building resilience, and driving brand value, deep green investments create significant value and thus do have a strong ROI. The problem then is not with the value creation, but with the tool of ROI and how we define it. None of the benefits I mention show up in a traditional ROI calculation, but operating while your grid-based competitors can't, for example, is a very nice "R" on your "I." Most importantly, none of these benefits are directly about tackling what NCPPR calls "so-called" climate change. They create direct (and indirect) value for the company aside from the shared benefit of a stable climate.

So ill-informed (or biased) shareholder activists, by demanding that companies like Apple avoid green investments, are actually working against shareholders' interests (if you believe shareholders are those who want a more valuable company, not those traders flipping stocks in fractions of a second).

Don't get me wrong about Cook's statements. I'm thrilled. This was an important moment in business and for CEOs. Pushing back on relentless pressure to do only what seems right in the quarter is critical for success in a volatile world. And he was right in the larger sense that ROI should not drive all decisions. Companies need to invest in innovation and resilience, which may require projects that pay back over longer periods of time or in ways that are not easily measured.

In this way, Tim Cook is onto something important. He is perhaps taking his company down a road to a big pivot, moving away from focusing on short-term earnings only and building longer-term, sustainable value. And he's building a more resilient company -- an idea I explore in more depth in my cover story for the April issue of Harvard Business Review magazine.

The argument I wish brave execs like Cook would make, however, is not just that they can do things that have a public good element. He should say in no uncertain terms that these renewable and green investments are flat out good for business. Full stop.

This post first appeared on the Harvard Business Review blog network.

 
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