While sweating through my workout at a local gym recently, something caught my eye. There, outside in the parking lot, stood a varied collection of compact cars. It struck me that just a year ago, I'd glanced out the same window at rows crammed with big SUVs. Ours is a middle-income New Hampshire community, and I had wondered then how the owners of those rolling Parthenons of Excess were coping with rising fuel costs. Now, on this particular morning, I saw only one lonely SUV sticking out like a white elephant among the herd of VW Jettas, Toyota Corollas, and at least five or six hybrid Priuses.
"What had brought about this heartening turn to green?" I wondered. Had all of my neighbors been won over after hearing Al Gore lay out the frightening facts of climate change in his film An Inconvenient Truth? Had our local churches persuaded their parishioners that saving the planet was covered under the divine directives written on Moses' stone tablets? Or, perhaps, had a wave of guilt, morality, or newfound virtue washed over my fellow townsfolk?
In truth, the explanation is far less dramatic--and one you may already have guessed since it is affecting every city, town, and village in America. This seemingly sudden turnabout has less to do with a moral awakening than with a spike in gasoline prices.
My hunch about the prime reason my neighbors had changed their car preferences was borne out in a June 2007 poll by the Associated Press, in which 46 percent of Americans said soaring gasoline prices would cause them "serious hardship"; 66 percent said they planned to reduce their driving; and 47 percent said they were planning to buy a new fuel-efficient car.
These numbers represent the kind of ecologically pleasing conversion the Sierra Club could only dream of in times past. And it's all because the flow of greenbacks out of consumers' pockets has brought the notion of going "green" back into vogue. The speed and effectiveness of this little revolution have been both breathtaking and absolute.
And it will only continue. America paid $26 per barrel for oil the year George W. Bush took office. Today, it is nearly four times more expensive. It is very easy to project where this is going - we will be spending $150-200 per barrel by the time the next president's term concludes. This figure will cause nothing less than an earthquake in our economy and society, as literally every facet of our lives will be profoundly impacted by this inflation.
Our planet will not be saved by preaching principles and exerting moral suasion. After more than three decades spent working in the environmental movement, I am convinced that economic self-interest--whether it is achieved by saving, earning, or both--is the most powerful, if not the only, force capable of bringing about the future we need in time to make a difference to the well-being of Mother Earth.
Saving the planet can prove profitable in both a fiscally narrow sense and in a much broader context of job creation and greatly expanded economic development. Addressing climate and environmental challenges will give 21st-century businesspeople and ordinary citizens the chance to grasp possibilities that may exceed anything humankind has ever seen before.
Lest you dismiss my enthusiasm as nothing more than the delusional rants of a child of the sixties, I hasten to remind you that I am a passionate capitalist who has created thousands of jobs and millions of dollars of capital appreciation for hundreds of investors in Stonyfield Farm. I measure progress with hard numbers and productive assets listed on balance sheets. I have little patience for big talk and no do.
Nor is my perspective an outgrowth of my political leanings. Rather, it is a practical economic stance honed by several decades of trial and error in my hard-fought journey from windmill builder and anti-nuclear protester to CEO of a profitable company.
At Stonyfield Farm, we have grown to a $320 million company, paying back our investors and building shareholder value, while keeping our commitment to the world around us. When I sat down to write my book -- "Stirring It Up: How To Make Money And Save The World" -- I looked at what we had achieved, and I started to look at the success of other companies that I admire, companies like Timberland and Patagonia.
What I saw beyond Stonyfield Farm inspired me even more that clearly, going green just makes good sense. Never mind all the feel-good, environmentally responsible reasons. Green business is just smart business, and it's time has come. From my experience, I can testify that it's long overdue for businesses far larger than mine to get on board - and that's simply for all the many ways it can save and make money. The best thing is - and this gets back to where I started -- the saving-the- world part just naturally follows.
Gary Hirshberg's "Stirring It Up: How To Make Money and Save The World" (Hyperion, 2008) is available for sale online and through local booksellers everywhere. For more information, visit http://www.stonyfield.com/stirringitup/