From the August 2008 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

August 1, 2008

Who Knows?

Doing the right thing environmentally is harder than it sounds

Going green is in some ways like planning for retirement. In our heads, and in our hearts, we--including many of your clients, I'd wager---all agree it's the right thing to do. But what exactly does that mean? When it comes to acting in a responsible manner toward the planet, as in investing for the future, there are a lot of choices to make and, if you're serious about it, a lot of information to sift through. Moreover, it's one thing to make decisions for ourselves, it's another to recommend courses of action for others to follow, such as corporations in which your individual or institutional clients may have invested and to which you may want to recommend adoption of certain environmentally friendly procedures.

That's where it starts to get difficult.

For years my wife and I had bought Marcal paper products because, as the packaging proudly proclaimed, they were "paper from paper, not from trees." They were comparable in quality, and in some ways preferable, to the megabrands they shared the supermarket shelves with. The products were made from 100% recycled material, with a minimum of 30% post consumer recycled content (PCW), and many products had significantly higher PCW content.

The company claimed to recycle more than 200,000 tons of paper each year. To top it all off, it was a family-owned company in an industrial area of my home state that had seen more prosperous times. What's not to like?

Then last fall I discovered to my dismay that the EPA wanted Marcal to pay $946 million to help clean up a stretch of the Passaic River that was polluted with dioxins and PCBs, which federal officials claimed came from their plant.

Marcal was not the only company responsible for the deplorable state of the Passaic River and ultimately agreed to pay $3 million to settle the claim, while, as is so often the case, not admitting any wrongdoing.

While I love the idea of making paper from paper, finding out that "good" was made possible by doing something "bad," was disheartening to say the least.

Dealing With "Green Noise"

I know I'm not alone in wrestling with this question, having seen articles on the subject recently in a number of publications including The New York Times and Wired.

Writing in the Times's Sunday fashion and style section, Alex Williams outlined the problems with "green noise" that give us a lot of information, but much of which is contradictory. For example, most people really don't know whether it's better for the environment if they choose paper or plastic. It turns out, according to a number of writers on www.grist.org (an environmental news and information Web site), that unless you bring your own bags from home, it's pretty much of a toss up. Who knew?

The cover story in the June issue of Wired may not clarify much, but it will certainly add to the debate. I won't go into all the details, but the authors make a good case that much of the conventional wisdom we have about going green is based on erroneous or incomplete information. Among the points made are that air conditioning is not bad (heating a home in New England produces considerably more CO2 than cooling a similar home in Phoenix); organic food is not the answer (organically raised chicken and beef produce significantly more greenhouse emissions than their conventionally raised counterparts and much organic produce is shipped many, many miles to reach local markets); and it turns out that Ronald Reagan was right--trees do produce air pollution. That's because a tree absorbs roughly 1,500 pounds of CO2 in its first 55 years, after which its growth slows; left untouched it eventually rots or burns and all that CO2 it absorbed in its lifetime is released into the atmosphere. I could go on about carbon trading, China, nuclear power, hybrid cars, and more, but I think you get the idea.

The ultimate conclusion of the Wired article though, is that if we're really serious about saving the planet, we have to do more than just cut carbon emissions. We have to move to address our various inter-related problems simultaneously. Sounds good. Now if I can only figure out how to do it.


Managing Editor Robert F. Keane can be reached at bkeane@investmentadvisor.com.

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