IKEA plans to charge customers a nickel for plastic shopping bags to reduce waste. Wal-Mart is pushing energy-efficient light bulbs. And Texas' largest energy producer, TXU Corp., will eschew coal for cleaner sources.
It seems that Corporate America is wrapping its arms around global warming, reducing waste or otherwise greening itself and, by default, its customers.
Efforts were once made only by niche companies such as Whole Foods Markets and Starbucks Coffee Co., but others not known for their conservation ethic seem to be jumping on the bandwagon in droves. Activists, the companies and business academics say the environment has become a mainstream cause, even hip. And companies across the country and locally, such as Giant Food and PHH Arval, are discovering it could be financially rewarding.
To be sure, the efforts still are not universal. Supporters acknowledge that some executives will not take action that costs them money or customers. And certainly not all consumers want to be forced into participating or paying more for items, such as bags, that once were free.
"I already heard people complaining while I was waiting in line about having to pay for a plastic bag after they spent money in the store," said Karen Arkenbout, an IKEA customer from Rodgers Forge, who supports the sale. "I'm originally from the Netherlands, where everyone charges for bags. Here, no one is used to it. So some people will complain, even though it's really a small step."
Other companies say they also will pass on costs to consumers, but IKEA's bag sale is among the latest and most directly aimed at pushing them to change their ways. Beginning Thursday, the Swedish home store will charge customers 5 cents for each disposable sack needed to cart away their purchases. Officials initially expect to cut in half the 70 million bags that U.S. customers use in a year.
The revenue from selling bags will go to American Forests to plant trees, which the conservation group says will provide wildlife habitat and absorb carbon dioxide that most scientists believe causes global warming. Some warehouse-style stores do not offer bags, and a number of grocery stores provide recycle bins for used plastic bags. But IKEA's effort is thought to be the first of its kind in the United States.
"We are educating our customers with a gentle nudge," said Mona Liss, an IKEA spokeswoman. "We can all make a difference in plastic bag reduction that is strangling our planet."
Recent mainstream media attention given to global warming and its high-profile spokesman Al Gore might be responsible for motivating companies and their customers, business academics said. Gore's documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth, won an Oscar last month. And a report by the United Nations released in February said human activities are warming the atmosphere and causing more extreme weather and rising sea levels.
But others said there are many reasons that companies have taken action of late: The rising cost of gasoline has pushed some into less volatile renewable fuels. The cost of other supplies has some companies recycling and cutting back. And some multinational corporations now subject to rules or cultural demands elsewhere are implementing changes everywhere.
Some might be trying to fend off mandates from the new Democratic-controlled Congress. Many environmentalists believe that federal caps on emissions are the only way to stave off climate change. But the Bush administration prefers incentives over mandates, such as the international Kyoto agreement on global warming and the planned European Union controls on airplane emissions.
Businesses have already been targeted at the state level, as the Maryland General Assembly and other legislatures seek ways to clean up local air and water. Proposals from Annapolis include tough new emissions standards for cars sold in the state and fees on developers to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.
In some cases, such as TXU's, the public or the courts are forcing change.
The conservation group Environmental Defense agreed to settle a suit against the utility when the private equity firms aiming to buy TXU, Texas Pacific Group and Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co., dropped plans for eight of 11 proposed coal-fired plants. They also agreed to use more renewable energy and take other steps.
Charlie Miller, a spokesman for Environmental Defense, said the TXU deal will keep 78 million tons of climate-warming carbon dioxide out of the air each year.
"It doesn't alleviate the need for federal legislation to start reducing greenhouse gas emissions," he said. "But a lot of companies are trying to do the right thing. It's easy enough for them to do as long as there is no significant conflict with the bottom line."
Other companies, including several dozen Fortune 500 corporations, have responded to overtures from the Environmental Protection Agency during the past several years to help tackle the problem of global warming. The federal agency launched a program to promote use of renewable power in 2001 and said participants now number 671, including businesses, government agencies and nonprofit groups.
Last month a corporation, Wells Fargo & Co., topped the list of biggest users for the first time. DuPont Co., IBM Corp. and Johnson & Johnson Corp. also are on the list.
The EPA, which provides technical support, said renewable energy allows the companies to reduce their environmental impacts, stand out from competitors, generate good will and hedge against volatile energy prices.
Duane Windsor, professor of management at Rice University in Houston, said most companies joining the environmental movement today have mixed motives. Usually, one is saving money or improving their public standing.
Wal-Mart, for example, is using energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs in its stores, a move sure to save the nation's largest retailer on its lighting bill. It's also using its influence on customers, who have been slow to buy the spiral bulbs because they cost more and start off dimmer than conventional light bulbs.
"Wal-Mart is going green, and does anyone care if it's because of convictions or market conditions?" Windsor said. "I wouldn't worry about motive. If they get on the pathway, they can't turn back because it'll become part of their culture. We're seeing a little progress in a lot of places."
Wal-Mart says helping the environment helps its customers. It's trying to sell 100 million bulbs this year that it says can save customers $3 billion on energy bills over time. It also plans to push its suppliers to reduce packaging, saving on waste, emissions and transportation costs. That helps the company keep costs down.
Mary Avery, associate professor and director of the business administration program at Ripon College near Milwaukee, said most big companies are newcomers to the movement. Companies with a long and substantial history of action tend to have founders with a personal commitment.
She cited the New Belgium Brewing Co. of Colorado: It uses wind and solar energy and recycles everything it can.
"The typical Fortune 500 company is a somewhat different story," she said. "Some efforts are sincere, and others, frankly are 'window dressing' for the annual report. ... Separating 'the real deal' from the positive public relations seekers is not an easy task."
Some businesses warn, however, not to discount companies that benefit from their good deeds.
Officials at PHH Arval, a Sparks-based manager of other companies' automobile fleets, said it launched its environmental effort GreenFleets two years ago and has signed four clients so far. They include the auto insurer Infinity Property and Casualty Corp. and the health care company Abbott Laboratories.
As companies replace a portion of their cars each year, PHH finds them more fuel-efficient ones that pollute less, said Karen Healey, director of product management. The gas-sippers save on fuel and upfront expenditures because smaller cars are often cheaper. Companies that want to go a step further can offset their vehicles' carbon emissions by paying for a share of clean energy development elsewhere.
Healey said PHH executives first looked inward and decided to construct an energy-efficient headquarters to reduce their own waste and pollution. Then they set their staff to the job of selling clients on the concept. Infinity, for example, agreed to replace its 400 sport utility vehicles with more fuel-efficient Jeep Compasses. It expects to reduce emissions by 16 percent and improve fuel economy by 25 percent. It also will reduce fleet operating costs by about 10 percent.
"We really wanted to look for ways that our clients could do the right thing for the environment but also have a financial benefit or no financial disincentive," Healey said. "Obviously, companies have a profit motivation. They might make a decision one year because it's the right thing, but the next year if money is tight they may not continue with it. A financial incentive will make them willing year after year."
Landover-based Giant Food said its environmental efforts are helping it save on its lighting and refrigeration bill, which is one of its largest costs. The company has a full-time energy efficiency expert who has helped to open several prototype stores recently that use skylights and other efficient means of lighting and cooling. More stores will be retrofitted over time.
For its eco-conscious shoppers, it began selling reusable 99-cent mesh bags last month, in addition to more expensive ones it has long sold, so customers don't have to use so many disposable sacks. It has no plans, however, to start selling those.
IKEA expects to save money because it will buy fewer bags. The program was launched in the United Kingdom last June, and officials say they have seen a 95 percent drop in use.
Deborah Gangloff, American Forest's executive director, said she thinks other businesses will follow the retailer's lead when they learn about the savings.
"There are those still laboring under the old paradigm that you choose the economy or you choose the environment," Gangloff said. "IKEA and other companies are proving that it's not one or the other."
As for IKEA customers such as Brian Lursey and his wife, Terrisa, of Westminster, they don't think they are being asked to do too much.
They have bought two big, blue reusable bags from IKEA and plan to use them there and at other stores. IKEA plans to reduce the cost of the reusable bags from 99 cents to 59 cents this week to encourage more people to use them.
"We don't need to throw away all those bags," said Brian Lursey. "I think most people today understand that."