Answer: He's investing. And like any investor, he expects a return on his dough. Although initially greeted as a philanthropic gesture, Branson's commitment is more properly viewed as enlightened venture capitalism, inspired by both self-interest and an interest in the future of the planet. Nothing wrong with that.
The same mix of profit motive and goodwill may be operating at Wal-Mart, the retailing juggernaut which seems determined to reinvent itself as an eco-aware big box chain. That may sound like oxymoron, but, to listen to Wal-Mart, the company's struggle to forge a new corporate identity appears to be genuine. CEO Lee Scott tells USA Today: "We asked ourselves: If we had known 10 years ago what challenges we would face today, what would we have done different? What struck us was: This world is much more fragile than any of us would have thought years ago."
And so Wal-Mart has publicly set out to cut its fuel use, reduce its solid waste, slash its electricity demands, and buy its seafood from sustainable sources. But, as the paper notes, Wal-Mart isn't pushing sustainability solely out of the goodness of its heart. It has realized that it can make money by selling products that are environmentally friendly. It can make millions selling recycled trash and save hundreds of millions by cutting transportation costs." As an illustration, Matt Kistler, a packaging expert for the company explains that, "A 2% reduction in a package's size is worth millions and millions of dollars. You can get more in a container, more in a boat, more in a truck. The numbers are just amazing."
This is the kind of thing that eco-conscious entrepreneurs like Patagonia's Yvon Chouinard and Interface's Ray Anderson have been saying for years. The difference is that the thinking has now gone to the Big Leagues. Wal-Mart is the world's largest employer and its second most profitable company, behind ExxonMobil. Let's hope the oil giant will be the next one to get the message.