By Carol Pierson Holding
About 10 years ago, I wrote an article about the role brands could play in driving social responsibility. My argument was that social change was needed on a massive scale, but that the institutions that had addressed societal ills in the past — government, religion, education, even the family — were no longer trusted. Therefore, brands were the only forces capable of changing human behavior.
The example I gave was BP, now unfortunately an exemplar of failed social responsibility (though still rated well above its industry average on environmental issues). Then-CEO Sir John Browne was the first to publicly commit the oil giant to alternative energy sources. Browne used both promotion — a name change from “British Petroleum” to “Beyond Petroleum” — and action, moving into solar power in a major and public way to solidify the company’s commitment.
Then BP put its mighty brand to work to convince home-owners to switch from fossil-fuel heat to solar. The company partnered with local utilities to sell and install its solar panels and ran consumer ads that focused on cost savings. This action, made believable to consumers because the company made profits from solar business, convinced consumers of the validity of solar power and moved them to install solar panels in droves. BP added giants like Costco, Home Depot and WalMart to its solar solution distributors and made BP Solar the third largest producer of solar panels in the world.
When I heard that Bill Gates, who has notoriously distanced his foundation from environmental issues, would speak at the Climate Solutions fundraiser last week, I was thrilled. The idea was so enticing: Gates was joining corporate leaders like Jeffery Immelt of GE, Walmart’s Mike Duke, and Bill Ford of Ford Motor, all of whom are creating awareness of climate change by promoting environmental fixes from their own companies. After all, the Microsoft story is just as powerful as GE’s Ecomagination, Walmart’s “Green Power Broker” and Ford’s electric car business.
In fact, Microsoft is pretty far down the curve on its energy conservation technology. Working with local utilities, Microsoft’s Hohm service provides automated feeds to let consumers analyze their energy consumption and track their improvements over time, a proven method of getting consumers to be green. Hohm also manages charging electric cars. It’s exciting stuff, though Microsoft has not really promoted it and consumers have not been quick to adopt.
As I listened to Gates talk, I realized he would continue to distance himself from Microsoft, even though he chairs the company and owns about 8% of the stock. And indeed, he never mentioned it. Instead, he talked about his investments in huge scale energy breakthroughs such as TerraPower, whose reactors promise to run on nuclear waste.
Though I loved what he said, it was sad to watch Gates waste a huge piece of his potential influence by not building awareness for Hohm. It’s not a heroic effort like TerraPower, but it is one that is designed to get citizens to change their behavior vis-à-vis energy use. And once behavior changes, our consumerist values could change too. Even if we don’t stop buying stuff just for kicks, the outcomes are significant: Our cars and homes make up over 50% of the energy used in this country.
That seems like an improved outcome of pretty heroic proportions.
Carol Pierson Holding is a writer and an environmentalist; her articles on CSR can be found on her website.