Steve Forbes is not a man you'd expect to agree with environmentalists. As the laissez faire economists' laissez faire economist of choice, the CEO of the Forbes media empire is a staunch Republican from the Right's economic old school who has called for the axing of environmental regulations and remains fiercely committed to free trade principles of low tax, low government spending and even lower red tape.
But speaking yesterday after a far reaching keynote at SAS' BetterManagement Live conference in Las Vegas - he lamented the US' slow progress on broadband; marvelled at the innovation of Wal-Mart; called for flat tax rates while citing how Irish tax breaks have delivered the country's economic boom (he failed to mention the role of EU investment based on other countries' taxes, but never mind); and urged action on Iran - Forbes outlined why he believed green business models made increasingly good sense for firms.
Forbes conclusion is driven not by a panic stricken realisation that firms and politicians must act or face environmental disaster (as believed by the man he would have faced for the presidency in 2000 if he'd had his way, Al Gore). But by a belief that global economic growth means environmental considerations are now good for the bottom line.
He argued that economic expansion, even in emerging economies like China and India, means businesses need to consider their environmental impacts if they are to keep customers and look after the bottom line. "I don't think many businesses will go in the opposite direction and say we are polluters, therefore buy our products and stocks," he joked.
According to Forbes the emergence of a middle class in a country - as a direct result of economic growth - will naturally ensure good environmental practices are enforced.
"One of the phenomenons you will find is that as a country becomes more affluent people want a better quality of life," Forbes explained. "In the last 30 to 35 years here in the US the environment has improved immeasurably. 35 years ago the air, for example, was full of lead... that has been virtually removed. On the east coast of the US there are more trees today than there were 80 or 90 years ago."
This trend will be, and indeed already is, being repeated globally, Forbes said. "In China the growing middle class is not going to tolerate breathing bad air," he predicted. "[This trend] is not just a handful of companies saying 'we are environmentally friendly'. I think it is a broader thing of emerging middle classes wanting a better quality of life and if you are in a free country, or even an unfree country, then that pressure will be increasingly brought to bear."
This customer pressure will force firms to do what they do best, according to Forbes, innovate. He cited improvements in emmissions from motor vehicles compared to 30 years ago as a prime example of how companies will almost inevitably develop cleaner and cleaner products over time.
Now, there is no doubt this interpretation is simplistic. It ignores the environmental pressures that the emerging middle classes of developing economies will place on countries with already fragile ecosystems (an issue discussed at length in Jared Diamond's excellent book on sustainability Collapse).
It ignores the fact that developed world economies are far cleaner now because they have outsourced many of their dirtier industries to countries like India and China.
It ignores the fact that sadly some innovations are not cleaner than their predecessors.
And it ignores the fact that Forbes' bete noires - regulations and taxes - may well be needed to get those firms that can't see commercial value in green business models to modify their behaviour.
However, Forbes also makes the valid point that firms can not ignore the environmental concerns of their customers; that those concerns will become more vocal as economic growth continues; and that commercial innovation is the best way of developing greener business models.
And, perhaps most encouragingly for firms making green investments, the fact that thought leaders from the political and economic Right now see these investments as commercially beneficial further confirms that the hard nosed business argument for environmental responsibility has been well and truly won.
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