Opinion: How consumer choices can drive environmental change

AMSTERDAM, The Netherlands — Tempo Doeloe in Amsterdam is one of the city’s best known Indonesian restaurants. Waiters navigate sprays of tropical flowers and tightly-packed tables. The menu offers chicken skewers, chili beef, goat cooked in coconut cream, tamarind tarts, leafy greens in peanut sauce, pan-fried sole, jumbo shrimp and much more. What it doesn’t offer is tap water.

“Do I have to explain myself?” said the restaurant’s owner when I asked why I couldn’t top off my meal with a glass filled from his faucet.

“We’re here to make some money,” he said. “I don’t make money off of tap water.”

He was gone before I had a chance to ask his name — or explain why I would prefer tap water, which has many environmental benefits, such as using less packaging and energy, and putting pressure on governments to keep water sources clean.

Too bad for him. His restaurant risks missing an important trend. After years of booming growth, sales of bottled water are starting to drop. This summer, Nestle — the company that dominates the industry — announced that sales fell 3.7 percent. In cities like London, New York and Los Angeles, environmentally conscious diners have begun to ask that their water come straight from the tap.

As the health of the planet climbs our global list of priorities, consumers have begun to vote with their wallets. And the smart businessmen are taking note.

For example, take the airline industry. It seems it’s easier to imagine carbon emissions jetting from a plane engine than sparking from your wall socket or bleeding from your hamburger. Almost nobody thinks of buying carbon offsets when they fill up their tanks, but websites offering to negate the impact of a plane trip have done a brisk trade.

It was clear early on that customers were concerned. And industry officials were alarmed. When it comes to cutting emissions, finding a substitution for jet fuel was pegged as one of the most intractable challenges.

“You can run a car on electricity,” quipped Alan Epstein, vice president of technology and environment for the engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney. “With an airplane it’s more difficult because the cords get tangled.”

Still, earlier this decade it was clear the pressure was mounting. Emissions from air travel comprised only a small portion of global emissions, but projections for the industry’s growth alarmed climate campaigners. In London, for instance, protesters set up camp on the proposed site for a new airport runway

So, the industry set out to find a solution, to develop biofuels that could be mixed into their jet engines — potentially cutting the net amount of carbon being put into the atmosphere. They soon had a working prototype. The first commercial airline to try a test flight was Virgin, which at the beginning of last year flew a 747 jumbo jet with a mixture of conventional and biofuels in one engine. Now others have made similar sorties.

Pratt & Whitney predicts that by 2011, commercial planes will be technically ready to fly on biofuels. “Now the question is, how fast can I ramp it up,” Epstein said.

Of course, the problem is only half solved. There aren’t enough biofuels in production to meet more than a fraction of the current demand, and there are environmental and economic hurdles to clear before production can rise.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that the airline industry is aware of the challenge it faces. “I have a job that didn’t exist two years ago,” said Pratt & Whitney’s environmental vice president Epstein. “The environment will shape the industry.”

It isn’t the only company that has noticed. In recent weeks, companies have begun fleeing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce after an official said the organization planned to stage a climate-change version of the Scopes trial, a 1925 court case in which prosecutors attacked the science behind theory of evolution.

Three utility companies, including California’s PG&E and Excelon, the country’s largest power company, have quit the chamber. On Oct. 5, Apple followed suit. Nike has resigned from the board of directors, but continues to sit as a member.

“We would prefer that the Chamber take a more progressive stance on this critical issue,” Catherine Novelli, vice president for worldwide government affairs wrote in a letter to the organization.

In his film "An Inconvenient Truth," Al Gore serves up a depressing quote by Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

Happily, it turns out that the opposite is also true. It’s much easier to get someone to understand something when his salary depends that he does.

My dinner at Tempo Doeloe cost about $60, including the mojito I ordered while waiting for my table. I won’t be back.