14 Jan 2008  Research & Ideas

Mapping Polluters, Encouraging Protectors

Where are the biggest polluters? And what is your company doing to protect the environment? A new Web site—both a public service and a research tool—posts managers' data in real time, allowing a balanced view of industrial environmental performance. HBS professor Michael W. Toffel and senior research fellow Andrew A. King explain. Key concepts include:

  • The Web project was started to get around an information bottleneck.
  • Users of MapEcos can easily find detailed information on the environmental performance of facilities across the United States.
  • Managers can monitor peer companies' environmental information as well as disclose information about their own facilities.
  • The scholars use the site to examine what industrial facilities do and what the public at large is concerned about.

 

Citizens, industrial polluters, and scholars do not usually see eye to eye—but that may change with a new Web site that monitors corporate environmental performance in the United States.

According to the university professors who created it, MapEcos (mapecos.org) is a breakthrough for visualizing and interpreting data about industrial environment performance because it brings together information about companies' environmental management, provided voluntarily by managers in real time, with companies' pollution data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"MapEcos itself is a public service, because it makes this data, most of which exist in archival databases of the EPA, much more readily accessible," says Michael Toffel, an expert on industry self-regulation and an assistant professor in the Technology and Operations Management unit at Harvard Business School.

You don't need to be "green" to see the value of such an endeavor. What makes MapEcos attractive for managers in any industry is the opportunity to watch peer companies—and in some cases, subsidiaries of their own companies—provide environmental information on the map and easily disclose information themselves.

Besides managers, the site's creators hope MapEcos will grab the attention of members of the public, including environmental activists. Users can track factories' pollution activity over time, compare factories in their community, and compare the pollution of local factories to others in their industry across the country—but just as important, monitor what mitigating steps facility managers are taking.

Toffel and his colleagues also developed MapEcos as a mechanism to support their academic research. "Often public impact conflicts with scholarship and vice versa," says Toffel. "We decided to bridge this impasse by creating the experiment inherent in MapEcos, providing a diverse group of companies the opportunity to disclose their environmental management efforts. The map provides both the stimulus and the public good, and we can remain completely impartial."

Toffel planned and stewards the site with colleagues whose research is similarly devoted to issues surrounding business and the environment: Andrew King, an associate professor at Dartmouth's Tuck School and currently a Marvin Bower Fellow at Harvard Business School, and Michael Lenox, an associate professor at the Fuqua School and faculty director of Duke University's Corporate Sustainability Initiative. They received essential technical expertise from student programmers who were fascinated by environmental issues, technologically talented—and tireless. "It was a huge amount of work," King recalls with a grin. The name MapEcos emphasizes an attempt to integrate information that is relevant to both ecology and economics.

A niche to fill

The observation that led to the site's founding is a common one that vexes businesspeople as well as scholars concerned with markets: information bottlenecks. "On many of the projects that I've been involved in, it seemed that a major flaw was that information wasn't getting to the people who needed to make decisions," says King. "All 3 of us are interested in the concept of voluntary activities that firms do as alternatives to regulation—one of which is the voluntary disclosure of information. That is perhaps the critical issue, I think, for environmental performance.

"We needed a way of getting information about unobserved environmental attributes and getting that information credibly," he continues. "And so a Web project seemed like a great opportunity for us to explore that process."

The researchers decided to join forces in early 2007 while attending the Institutional Foundations for Industry Self-Regulation Conference they organized for researchers and policymakers. By December, the site launched.

Research matters

According to Toffel, 2 research projects are associated with the map: looking at what facilities do, and what the public at large is concerned about.

For the first project, the researchers sent a survey to as many of the facilities on the map as possible based on the availability of e-mail addresses in the EPA database, and asked them to describe their environmental management activities, environmental awards, and the "ecolabels" their products use. (An ecolabel is meant to denote that a product is particularly "green.")

"From a research point of view, we want to get a better understanding of why some firms are more transparent than others about their environmental practices and performance," Toffel explains.

In the second project, the researchers hope that usage patterns on MapEcos will provide insight into the dynamics of stakeholder interest. For instance, which companies and industries attract more attention from stakeholders? Which communities are particularly interested in the environmental performance and activities of local companies?

Taking action

On the site, users, whether company executives or private citizens, can view detailed environmental performance information on facilities across the United States. Each facility on the map is color-coded according to emission level (blue is low, red is high; a green ring indicates that a company disclosed some information about its environmental management activities by responding to the researchers' survey). In their survey responses, managers can outline what their companies are doing about environmental protection and community engagement, and see their responses posted in real time. Companies are aware that by responding their data may be analyzed.

Other stakeholders can view the entire United States, or focus on data about particular geographic regions.

"We want to get a better understanding of why some firms are more transparent than others about their environmental practices and performance." —Michael Toffel

With the entire United States on view, where are the most flagrant polluters? Well, the United States has a lot of red dots. Toffel mentions that power plants and metal mines are the 2 industries with the greatest amount of toxic pollution, and that counties with the largest emissions in the country are in Utah, Ohio, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Texas.

Users can search on variables such as emission level or health hazard level, rated from 0 to 9, with 9 being worst. By typing in 7, 8, or 9, they can see highest polluters indicated all across the map, either by raw sum of pounds of toxic chemical emissions or by pounds weighted by human toxicity. According to King, emissions in the United States are highly skewed: Several make the lion's share of emissions while a great number make relatively few.

"Knowing that some factories have vast emissions really puts the situation in perspective," says King. "It makes you wonder whether all the attention that gets paid to a local dry cleaner is worth it. Now of course, there are other factors that weigh in: for instance, whether a dry cleaner is in a highly populated area."

Geospatial research on business and the environment is still in its infancy, Toffel concurs. From a public health perspective, it would be quite useful to map, for instance, how individuals are exposed to pollutants based on where they live: Living upwind or downwind from a smokestack, at the same distance, can carry dramatically different health implications, and mapping this difference could help easily communicate this to a variety of stakeholders.

A number of countries already require a subset of their regulated community to report information on their own environmental performance. "Wherever such data exists, this map can expand," says King. The MapEcos researchers would like to add Canada and Mexico to the site, and possibly build a portal for countries that do not currently have voluntary reporting by firms. King suggests that for such a non-U.S. site, citizens could report information about the companies in their communities, and the companies themselves could be asked to report information, creating a virtual, transparent mechanism for stakeholder engagement. Such projects would be difficult but worthwhile.

According to the scholars, the array of research possibilities is immense and ever growing. As environment sciences continue to rapidly develop, mapping can bring together specialists in fields as diverse as environmental engineering and graphics. As Toffel concludes, "The notion of how to display environmental information geographically is something that people are getting very excited about, because while the world faces some serious global environmental problems like climate change, a great deal of pollution and many environmental impacts are local."

About the author

Martha Lagace is the senior editor of HBS Working Knowledge.