Pay-As-You-Go Pays for the Environment

December 23, 2010

Pay-as-you-go (PAYG) is emerging as a winning consumption model for the environment. It does so in two ways. First, by charging for incremental use, PAYG discourages overconsumption often associated with flat rate pricing. Second, it incentivizes shared use of resources during peak periods in order to avoid excess investments in capacity that would otherwise be underutilized for much of the time.

In recent years, several PAYG models have emerged that are having a positive impact on the environment. For example, smart grid initiatives provide consumers with tiered pricing models that incentivize them to reduce or shift energy use during peak periods. Additionally, PAYG models in cloud computing allow consumers the flexibility to add computing capacity in real-time, while avoiding the need to overinvest in server capacity utilized only during peak periods.

This month, another consumption model got a big boost when the California Insurance Commission approved the launch of PAYG car insurance in the country’s largest car market. Beginning in February, 2011, California residents will be able to purchase insurance from State Farm and the Automobile Club of Southern California and pay based on how much – and how safely – they drive. The less they drive, the less they pay.

Such a model is enabled through the tracking of personal driving data. Consumers self-report miles driven (and validate periodically through inspection) or do so automatically through an active OnStar system or small telematics device that plugs into a diagnostic port under the dashboard. Insurance companies then effectively create personalized rates based on actual car use.

Potential benefits for the environment from PAYG are significant: The State of California estimates that subscribers may reduce miles driven by 10% or more, saving consumers money while reducing accidents, congestion and air pollution.

A wide variety of companies are now in a position to consider testing PAYG models with their customers, especially those that are price sensitive, tend to use a product less than the average or demand additional services during peak periods. While consumers may focus on saving money, the real benefits may be saved for the environment.


Managing Environmental Risk by Looking through the Rear-view Mirror

June 1, 2008

A recent survey by The Economist Intelligence Unit identified both the top influencers of – and benefits derived from – corporate environmental risk management (CERM) programs.  Two things are curious about these survey results.  First, customers and investors rank relatively low in influence (fourth and seventh, respectively) despite the fact that “better corporate reputation” among these groups ranks as the primary benefit for launching CERM in the first place. 

 

Second, “regulators” and “government” exert significant influence – second only to “executive management” – on companies to initiate CERM programs; in terms of benefits, however, “improved relations with regulators” ranks only eighth.

 

Risk Manager Responses from Recent Survey by                    The Economist Intelligence Unit

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The high level influence of regulators and government suggests that corporations consider regulatory compliance as the primary measure of CERM success.  This focus is understandable given the stiff fines imposed for non-compliance.

 

Moreover, it also suggests that corporations believe that regulatory compliance is the way to improve its reputation with customers and investors.  Yet, while compliance is arguably important with customers and investors, it is simply the place to start.

 

When it comes to customer and investor groups, focusing solely on regulatory compliance is like driving a car by looking through the rear-view mirror.  Quite simply, regulations do not necessarily reflect current consumer and investor expectations regarding corporate actions toward the environment; instead, they reflect those held in the past when the regulations were passed.

 

This is an important distinction because consumer and investor expectations regarding corporate environmental responsibility continuously evolve.  As such, it is likely that current expectations have far surpassed current regulations in place today.  Take climate change, for example.  There is a growing consensus that carbon must be regulated, yet no binding limits yet exist in the US.  

 

There are other cases where customers or investors actively challenge management’s environmental policies.  For example, led by members of the Rockefeller family, ExxonMobil shareholders have made it clear that they believe that when it comes to climate change, compliance with existing regulations is not enough for this oil giant.

 

As such, corporations that primarily focus on regulatory compliance are likely falling short when it comes to improving their reputation with consumers and investors.  Instead, management should try to better understand current customer and investor expectations toward the environment, and how these sentiments evolve with time.  This will require corporations to take action that go beyond current regulatory mandates.  It will also require recognition that customers and investors hold greater “influence” on CERM decisions than what is commonly realized today.


Investing in Green Innovation

January 2, 2008

As companies plan their green investment strategies for 2008 and beyond, they should take into account that caps on carbon emissions are all but inevitable in the future.  In fact, it is highly likely that caps will be in place in the US within the next few years.  The 187 nations that attended the UN climate conference last month in Bali (including the US) agreed to negotiate a successor agreement to Kyoto by the end of 2009.  Perhaps more importantly, Congress already has several climate bills under consideration.

How aggressive will carbon reduction targets be?  A recent Human Development Report by the United Nations Development Programme concluded that developed nations needed to reduce carbon emissions by greater than 80% from 1990 levels by mid-century in order to advert the worst impact of climate change.  Under any implementation scenario, carbon caps will likely be imposed over many years, if not decades, providing a window of opportunity for companies to adapt to and compete in this new world order.

In many ways, the imposition of carbon caps will reset the current competitive landscape.  Those businesses able or willing to adapt more quickly to this changing landscape will likely secure a competitive advantage by differentiating their brand or products, or by improving their cost basis. 

Despite the arguments for moving quickly, many companies will likely delay investment in green as long as they can, and do so for seemingly good reasons.  First, exact targets are uncertain.  Second, the timeline for implementation may take years, if not decades. 

Finally, the misuse of financial practices may preclude smart green investment.  A recent Harvard Business Review article, Christensen et. al., suggests that there are three ways that incorrect financial practices suppress investment in innovation.  Marketing Green believes that as green investments are largely investments in innovation, it is very likely that the misapplication of financial practices that impede innovation may also hinder prudent investments in green.  (Clayton Christensen, Stephen Kaufman and Willy Shih, “Innovation Killers: How Financial Tools Destroy Your Capacity to Do New Things”, Leadership & Strategy for the Twenty-First Century, Harvard Business Review, January 2008).  Here is how:

Cash flow modeling: Companies often do not fairly compare the projected discounted cash flow from a new investment with that generated from current operations because they assume that current cash flow will remain constant in perpetuity. 

In fact, as Christensen et. al., explain, this may not be the case: in the absence of continuous “innovation investment”, the more likely outcome is a “decline in performance” in existing operations.  Without this downward adjustment, however, financial analysis creates a “systematic bias” against innovation in new products or processes – green or otherwise.  

Asset lifetime: Financial managers may mistakenly assume that that an asset’s usable lifetime should be based simply by its depreciation period, rather than its “competitive lifetime”.  Said differently, even though the continued use of an existing asset generates a more attractive return in the near-term (typically because capital equipment costs are already sunk and therefore not included in the calculation) than an investment in a new asset, it may not be the best decision for a company if it wants to maintain its competitiveness (and cash flow) longer-term. 

A famous example cited by Christensen et. al., is the case of Nucor and US Steel.  Nucor invested in new minimills that yielded a low average cost of production. Instead of following suit, US Steel stuck with its existing mills because the marginal cost of producing incremental steel was lower than investing in minimills (because it was simply putting excess capacity to use) and therefore more financially attractive in the short term.  

In this case, US Steel relied on marginal cost analysis to inform near-term production decisions that was insufficient for making longer term investment decisions.  As Christensen et. al., point out, “When creating new capabilities is the issue, the relevent marginal costs is actually the full cost of creating the new.”  As a result, US Steel’s average production cost remained much higher than Nucor’s and Nucor was able to out compete US Steel longer term.  

Applied to the green space, many companies may decide to defer investment in greener technologies given the upfront capital requirement to do so.  This decision may extend the life of less efficient technologies, manufacturing processes or products in the market.  Yet, it may prove disadvantageous longer term as other competitors or new entrants make more aggressive investments that generate a more sustainable competitive advantage when carbon caps become more restrictive longer term. 

Quarterly earnings: Companies that focus on quarterly earnings may systematically under invest in innovation as they are not rewarded by the market for doing so.  Given that the time horizon for green may take years to pay off, green initiatives may likely be underfunded relative to initiatives that are able to contribute sooner to earnings. 

Marketers need to think strategically about their investment in green.  Caps on carbon emissions will reset the competitive playing field, though they may be imposed gradually over years, if not decades.  Early movers  may enjoy a competitive advantage in the market based on their brand, products or cost position.   

There is a good chance companies will underinvest in green due to regulatory uncertainty and the misuse of financial practices that may favor investments that yield near-term benefits at the expense of long term competitiveness.  

Marketers must understand and compensate for bias that leads to underinvestment in green.  Formulate a strategic vision for green, properly balance the risks and rewards and invest for the long haul.  Your shareholders will thank you.


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