U.S. companies feel heat of global warming awareness

Reuters
By Mary Milliken

McDonald’s Corp. is blogging on the
environment, Starbucks Corp. has designed a green-themed online game,
and Hilton Hotels Corp. aims to link manager pay to making its hotels
greener.

While all of them say they have been working for
years or even decades on pro-environment strategies, these corporate
behemoths acknowledge that growing awareness of global warming among
U.S. consumers is changing the way they work.

But they operate with caution because no one
wants to be accused of "greenwashing" — or what Mark Spellun, founder
of eco-lifestyle magazine Plenty, calls "putting a green halo over themselves when it is completely undeserved."

Weather disasters like Hurricane Katrina, Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth
and President George W. Bush’s push for fuel alternatives to oil have
all heightened concern over climate change in the last year.

Experts warn that failure to address that shift in opinion could hurt the bottom lines of companies selling to consumers.

More than 60% of U.S. consumers hold government
and big business directly accountable for global warming, according to
a recent study by market research firm MindClick Group.

"Business needs to be aware of this and much
more proactive in getting out in front … because it will very quickly
impact consumers’ decisions when they are reaching for their
pocketbooks," MindClick Chief Executive JoAnna Abrams said.

Using less energy, producing less waste,
recycling and teaching customers to reduce heat-trapping carbon
emissions are just some of the ways companies show they care about the
planet.

"Because people are becoming more educated and
aware, we are always going to be responsive," said Bob Langert, vice
president for corporate social responsibility at McDonald’s.

McDonald’s took steps 15 years ago to reduce its
packaging and more recently began keeping environmental scorecards for
its vast stable of suppliers.

The world’s largest restaurant company is now
working on informing consumers of its green strategy, exploring digital
routes via podcasts and blogs on its website, Langert said.

The world’s top coffee shop chain, Starbucks,
has also chosen a digital platform to interact with customers on the
environment. On April 3, it will launch the Planet Green Game

WARY OF ‘GREENWASHING’

"There is a lot of great awareness on the
climate issues but there aren’t a lot of solutions being provided,"
said Ben Packard, director of environmental affairs at Starbucks.

"We decided to take a shot at a serious game as
a way to really engage younger people who are spending time online …
connecting them with tangible things they can do in real life."

Environmental activists note companies are more
committed to fighting global warming than the U.S. government. While
Bush wants to reduce dependence on oil, he does not want to adopt
mandatory greenhouse gas emission cuts under the Kyoto treaty for fear
they would hurt the economy.

"We have not been leaders on global warming in
the United States, so without leadership on the political front, you
see companies stepping up to the plate," said Elizabeth Sturcken, who
heads corporate partnerships at Environmental Defense.

But at her organization, the emphasis is on
making sure companies offer real solutions for the environment rather
than just greenwashing with eco-friendly claims.

Athletic footwear and apparel giant Nike Inc.
says it treads carefully, wanting to make sure its environmental
strategies really work before publicizing them.

"People need to be cautious about any appearance
of ‘jumping on bandwagons’ or making big statements they can’t back up
with facts," said Hannah Jones, vice president of corporate
responsibility at Nike.

Matthew Hart, chief operating officer at Hilton,
is also wary of marketing green initiatives, such as its move to give
hotel managers an environmental scorecard that affects their pay.

"I think it is more about doing the right thing than using it as a marketing tool," Hart said.

Contributing: Additional reporting by Nichola Groom, Alexandria Sage and Gina Keating.

Copyright 2007 Reuters Limited.

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