Guiding U.S. corporations to the greener side


Elizabeth Sturcken could easily have passed for a hotshot IT executive, dressed for the part in a business suit and low heels. Instead, the 37-year-old resident of San Francisco is a major player in the drive for environmental change.

As a project manager at the U.S. nonprofit organization Environmental Defense, Sturcken has just spent two months in Japan exploring the relationship between business and the environment on a Public Policy Fellowship from the Japan Society of New York. When I asked her last month to explain her work in 25 words, she replied, “My elevator speech? I manage voluntary partnerships with companies where we, as a nonprofit organization, work together with a company to create environmental change that is also good for business.”

Not bad: 27 words and she’s an environmentalist — eat your heart out, corporate America.

After studying political science and communications at university, Sturcken joined a computer company — but quickly realized she wanted more out of life. “I could see my career future and I could see I was going to make good money, but I realized I didn’t care about that. I wanted to be passionate about my work and I really wanted to do something that made a difference,” she explained.

To redirect her life, Sturcken entered Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government to study environment and natural resources policy. Soon after graduating, she joined Environmental Defense, where she works on the Alliance for Environmental Innovation, a joint project with the Pew Charitable Trust. The AEI, which began seven years ago, focuses on corporate partnerships, and is modeled on a cooperative relationship between ED and McDonald’s that began more than 10 years ago.

“The work with McDonald’s was really the first time an environmental group had worked in collaboration with a company,” Sturcken explained. “McDonald’s was being picketed for their wasteful practices and their clamshell polystyrene containers that used CFCs, so they were really under attack. The president of ED, Fred Krupp, decided to work collaboratively to find some solutions.”

Krupp’s decision was extremely risky, given the fast-food firm’s low standing among greens. It was also visionary. ED became the first large environmental group to work directly with a multinational environmental offender, and both sides benefited. McDonald’s cut millions of dollars in costs, while dramatically reducing waste and CFC usage in what was a win-win situation for the company and the environment.

ED has since taken the same approach with other industries. “The idea is to work with market-leading companies on projects where there is an environmental win and a business win. We find only one partner, a visible, market-leading company, and we expect that the ripples in the marketplace will carry the change throughout the industry,” Sturcken said. ED has other alliances with Starbucks, UPS, BP and Citigroup.

What ED calls “environmental innovation,” though, other NGOs might call “selling out to corporate America.” For this reason, ED refuses to take corporate donations. It receives all of its funding from foundations, benefactors and annual memberships — in roughly equal parts. “We don’t take money from companies for a very specific reason: To maintain our independence and credibility as an environmental group. Then, when we say a company is doing good things for the environment, it’s credible,” Sturcken explained.

However, Sturcken admits that corporate partnerships cannot be used in every situation, and she believes direct action, education and environmental regulations all have roles to play in bringing about environmental change. “Working in partnership with companies is just one strategy, but it is also one that can be highly effective,” she said. “The marketplace can be very powerful.”

Despite all the malfeasance that’s been coming to light in corporate America over the last few years, Sturcken is still optimistic about change. “I really do believe that the companies that are going to survive and thrive over the long term are going to be those that look at the big picture, take care of the environment, take care of their people, are good corporate citizens — and focus on making a profit within that larger environment. If I didn’t believe that, I couldn’t do what I’m doing,” she added.

These days, Sturcken is spearheading a project with Federal Express to develop a new generation of delivery trucks. Their goal is to develop one with 90 percent lower emissions, 50 percent better fuel economy, the same or better functionality, and cost-competitiveness over the vehicle’s life.

When ED and FedEx issued a Request for Proposals, more than 20 manufacturers from around the world responded. Eventually a prototype from Eaton Corp. was chosen — a diesel-hybrid engine. Next year, 20 trucks will be tested in four U.S. cities and, if all goes well, ED expects production to begin in 2005. “The prototype did really well on tests. On particulates they will go beyond the 90 percent reduction, on NOX they’ll achieve about 75 percent, and we expect the trucks will meet the 50 percent increase in fuel economy,” Sturcken said.

Sturcken sees potential for similar NPO-business alliances in Japan, but she is particularly intrigued by the extremes of high- and low-tech environmentalism in this country. “Some of the products here are light years ahead of anywhere else in energy efficiency. And the fashion toilets, where the water comes through a faucet before it fills the tank so you can wash your hands — how simple and brilliant,” she said with genuine delight, fully aware how very difficult simple innovation can be.