For big emissions reductions, focus on the folks who buy vehicles by the thousands
By Dashka Slater
Microsoft, the world's largest software company, operates one of the world's largest private shuttle bus networks. Called the Connector, it is part of the company's remarkably successful effort to get employees out of their cars. A full 40 percent of the 55,000 people who work at Microsoft's main campus in Redmond, Washington, commute to work without resorting to driving alone—a startling figure even in the ecotopian Northwest. Lynn Frosch, until recently Microsoft's Puget Sound commuter services manager, considers that to be a decent start. "Now we have to set a goal of 50 percent," she says.
Forty percent of Microsoft's Redmond, Washington, employees commute to work without driving alone. "Now we have to set a goal of 50 percent," says former commuter services manager Lynn Frosch.
Microsoft employees have plenty of options for getting to work. Want to take public transit? There's a free transit pass. How about carpooling? Carpoolers get priority parking. Prefer a van pool? Microsoft will subsidize the cost. Thinking of riding a bike? The company provides badge-access cages to lock them; tool stations to repair them; and locker rooms so that employees can change out of their sweaty Lycra—plus it offers a subsidy for both buying a bike and tuning it up. "We try to make it easy," Frosch says.
For ease, though, it's hard to compete with the Connector. The free service started out in 2007 with 13 buses; it now has 74 traveling 22 routes through metropolitan Seattle. Designed to transport clusters of employees who aren't well served by existing transit routes (several of which Microsoft also subsidizes) and outfitted with tech-friendly perks like onboard wi-fi and power outlets, it has proved to be a hit among Softies and has resulted in a 4 percent reduction in the percentage of people driving alone. Each year, the shuttle prevents some 5,000 tons of CO2 emissions, Microsoft reports.
As important as these programs are for Microsoft's sustainability goals, they have business benefits as well. Microsoft has long had a place on Fortune's list of best companies to work for, and the transportation programs are seen as a potent perk. "They're a fantastic recruitment and retention tool for us," explains Josh Henretig, the company's director of environmental sustainability. "It's a very important symbolic gesture as well. Showcasing our commuter programs goes a long way toward creating goodwill and showing our value in the Puget Sound area." Instead of cursing Softies for clogging the roads, Seattle residents end up wishing they could climb aboard their comfy buses.
All oil is dirty, but oil derived from Canadian tar sands generates up to 20 percent more carbon emissions than other oil sold or distributed in the United States. Extracting it chews up ancient forests, poisons communities, and generates vast amounts of toxic waste and greenhouse gases. Once the oil arrives at U.S. refineries, it carries no label to warn consumers of its origin.
500 million METRIC tons
Amount of carbon dioxide produced by the U.S. freight system each year.
ForestEthics would like to change all that, and for three years has been asking U.S. companies to swear off tar sands oil wherever they can. Since corporations are the nation's biggest domestic fuel users, activists reasoned, they're in the best position to make tar sands oil an economic liability for refineries. Companies have the clout to impose guidelines in their fuel bids, forcing distributors to avoid purchasing from the 50 or so U.S. refineries that process tar sands.
"Like it or not, this economy runs on relatively few huge corporate brands," says ForestEthics' Aaron Sanger. "So when a major brand in the U.S. speaks, the whole market listens."
So far, 19 companies have said they will try to keep the dirty stuff from powering their fleets, among them Seventh Generation, Whole Foods, eBay, Avon, Columbia Sportswear, and Walgreens. These public commitments led to swift attacks from Alberta, where some politicians called for reverse boycotts of the companies that have pledged to avoid Canadian oil. On balance, however, Sanger thinks that U.S. companies worry more about being associated with environmental destruction than they worry about irking Canadian nationalists.
Still, eliminating tar sands from your tank is no easy task. Just ask Seventh Generation, the cleaning products company with deep green credentials.
"Our stuff comes from plants and not from petroleum," explains Reed Doyle, Seventh Generation's director of corporate consciousness. "Unfortunately, the transportation of our products is entrenched in petroleum."
Because Seventh Generation doesn't have its own fleet of trucks, it has to rely on logistics providers—the companies that transport Second Generation products from place to place—to report on whether the fuel they use comes from refineries that use tar sands. So last year it asked the logistics providers to query their fuel vendors.
The reply? "We've gotten limited responses," Doyle admits. "This is one of the frustrations we have to deal with." Part of the problem is that while Seventh Generation is growing at a remarkable clip, it's still a small ($140 million revenue) company without the market-shaking clout of an industry giant. "If only we were a multibillion-dollar company and could just say, 'Here's what you need to do, and if you don't, we're going to drop our contract,'" Doyle says.
While Seventh Generation is still committed to getting tar sands oil out of its transportation footprint, in the short term it has been cutting back on oil use in general. To do that, it has decentralized, moving from three distribution centers in 2007 to six today. This redesigned network has cut the number of miles products are shipped by 14 percent—even as sales have grown by 50 percent—and since 2008 has resulted in a 36 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions per metric ton of product shipped. Seventh Generation is looking to trim that figure even more by combining shipments to major stores with those of other brands so that every truck is full when it leaves its distribution point.
In the end, Doyle feels that the best way to get tar sands oil out of the transportation chain is to team up with other companies. If enough brands refuse to use dirty oil, refineries will be less willing to process and sell it. But the simplest way to reduce carbon emissions is to use less fuel, period. Some companies are doing that. Now it's time for others to stop idling and start motoring.
Dashka Slater is a frequent Sierra contributor.
This article was funded by the Sierra Club's Beyond Oil campaign.
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