Alisa Gravitz

Growing a Green Business

While other environmental organizations may attempt to play political hardball, Co-op America believes lasting environmental change will come through the economy—and through the everyday decisions of individual companies and consumers. Since becoming its executive director in 1983, Alisa Gravitz has seen the network grow 400 percent to include more than 2,000 socially responsible businesses. Also vice president of the Social Investment Forum, Gravitz serves on the board of directors of the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (CERES), Friends of the Earth and the Social Ventures Network.

E: Has business gone through an evolution since you’ve been with Co-op America?

Gravitz: People today actually understand the idea of a green, or environmentally and socially responsible business. When Co-op America was first starting in the early 1980s, during the “me generation” and the advent of the Reagan-Bush years, the reason to be an American was to make money. In those days when you said “socially responsible business,” you got one of two responses: either people’s eyes glazed over because business was boring or people would say, “There’s no such thing.” But every business has a social and environmental impact, and therefore, a social and environmental responsibility. More and more businesses can and do accept this as part of their business initiatives.

The idea seems to marry two interests from opposite sides of the table.

It can actually be a win-win situation; it’s not an either-or. First, companies that care about the environment can avoid some terrible risks, disasters like the Exxon Valdez or Bhopal. Second, they get enormous bottom line efficiency benefits: through energy efficiency, water conservation, reducing waste. Third, not only have businesses, but individuals realized they have a responsibility through the products and services they choose. All other things being equal, consumers will actually go out of their way to pick something that’s socially or environmentally responsible, and that company will have the advantage. Fourth, when your company learns how to integrate environmental concerns across all levels, that gives you advantages not only in the environmental arena, but in every other arena you can think of as well—marketing, manufacturing, customer service. It can actually help you be a better company.

It seems green business in many ways is just plain good business. But do these benefits manifest themselves in more than just the bottom line?

Absolutely. Conventional business is all about maximizing profits, and everything else be damned. In a socially responsible business, the owners have a stake, but so do the workers, the consumers, the community in which the company is located and Mother Nature herself. What you now have is a company that has all of its stakeholders at the table. We all know from ecology that biodiverse ecosystems are the healthiest. It’s the same in business—a diversity of stakeholders that really care about a company and help it to make good decisions, will be a better company.

Do many consumer barriers still exist for green products?

I think that consumers have some real concerns about cost and convenience and value, but just like businesses have to learn, all of us as individuals have to learn. While an environmentally friendly product or service might cost a little more, it will save you money in the long run. Energy-efficient products, like compact fluorescent lightbulbs, are a great example. The same is true for convenience; maybe it’s not as easy as running to the local mall, but once you find the source, it can be just as convenient as everything else.

Is it fair to say that consumers and companies seem to be outpacing legislation that compels them to be green?

One of the exciting stories about these economic strategies is that they have outpaced legislation. There’s been a long, long list of events that show things can happen much more quickly in the marketplace. Can you imagine trying to get a bill through Congress that would have mandated Home Depot to stop using lumber from old-growth forests? It’s the same with dolphin-safe tuna, fast food companies dropping styrofoam containers, or CD manufacturers cutting back on packaging. While I firmly believe we absolutely have to have these business and economic strategies, they’re in addition to, not instead of, other strategies. We still need our legislation, our litigation and our community action.