It is an article of faith these days that any company worth its public relations budget must proclaim loudly and frequently its good green intentions. So it was rather refreshing to hear one of Richard Branson’s top lieutenants – Will Whitehorn, chief of Virgin Galactic – cast his company’s enviro-friendly initiatives as strictly business.
“We’re not doing this to be environmentally kosher,” declares Whitehorn, referring to Virgin’s efforts to develop greenhouse-gas free biofuels for its jets and forthcoming spaceship, “we’re doing this to ensure our company’s survival.”
The occasion for Whitehorn’s remarks was one of those “green salons” that have become popular in San Francisco of late. You know, gather a group of so-called thought-leaders – executives, environmentalists, venture capitalists, journalists – in a chi-chi restaurant and let the ideas and sauvignon blanc flow. Easy enough to skewer, particularly when the well-compensated are dining on ahi tuna skewers, but you never know where the conversation will go, and in this case it strayed interestingly off-topic. The subject du jour was a white paper on corporate greenwashing from Bite Communications, the public relations firm that organized the recent lunch. Among those on hand were Whitehorn and execs from Chinese solar panel maker Suntech (STP), fuel-cell maker Bloom Energy, utility PG&E (PCG), and VantagePoint Venture Partners, investor in electric car startup Tesla Motors and solar power plant builder BrightSource Energy.
Whitehorn held center court, tracing Virgin’s trip down the green path a decade ago when the company forecast a dramatic rise in oil prices and tried to gauge the impact on its airline and new railway business. As a result, he says, Virgin spent big bucks on energy-efficient locomotives to hedge against future fuel cost spikes.
“This is not really a question of being green,” says Whitehorn, who expresses annoyance that Branson’s pledge last year to invest $3 billion in biofuels research and development was portrayed in the media as a charitable deed. “We’re doing this to make money and we’re creating a more sustainable economy in the process.”
“We’ve got to get away from this idea of doing these things as good works,” he adds. “We’re doing what we’re doing to create a profitable business for the future.”
It’s a meme increasingly being advanced by some environmentalists, most notably by the black sheep of the movement, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, whose 2004 essay, “The Death of Environmentalism” riled the green elite. The Berkeley duo’s new book, Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, calls for reframing global warming from a doom-and-gloom scenario to an opportunity for unbridled economic prosperity by investing in green technologies. Their central argument: only when people and societies achieve a certain level of material wellbeing do they have the luxury of supporting environmental preservation. In other words, greed is green.
Whitehorn also took aim at companies that proclaim themselves carbon neutral, scorning the notion that corporate greenhouse gas emissions can be offset by merely buying carbon credits. “We’re not going to be carbon neutral – it’s impossible,” he says of Virgin. “You need to get out and do something other than buy someone else’s carbon problem.”
Still, Kristina Skierka, director of Bite’s clean-tech practice, wanted to know just how green Virgin Galactic can be, given its business model of ferrying the rich into outer space for a couple of hundred grand a pop. “If we use biofuels we will get the emissions down to near zero,” Whitehorn claims. “This is about a new type of launch system; the carbon impacts will be negligible.
He says space tourism is just the launching pad, as it were, for a host of space-based ventures. “If you look at space as an industrial place to conduct human activities, it has huge advantages.”
Virgin’s next frontier is the deep blue sea. According to Whitehorn, the company recently created a skunk works to develop a “radical” new submarine technology for a startup to be called, what else, Virgin Oceanic.