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An Auspicious Moment: Looking for the “Win-Win” Solution

Madeline Gottlieb

Twenty years ago Michael Porter, now the Bishop William Lawrence University Professor at Harvard, published a one-page essay in Scientific American, entitled “America’s Green Strategy,” in which he argued that stricter environmental regulations could encourage innovation, increase efficiency, and enhance business performance. This concept has heavily influenced business and environmental regulatory theory ever since and is now known as the Porter Hypothesis.

The hypothesis challenges traditional command-and-control policies that mandate specific technologies and instead opts for outcome-based regulations, which give firms the flexibility to elect least-cost options and spur innovation. The right kind of regulations can result in a process that not only pollutes less but lowers costs or improves quality by:


  • stressing pollution prevention rather than merely abatement or cleanup,
  • not constraining technology,
  • being sensitive to the costs involved, and
  • using market incentives.


To acknowledge this milestone, Porter was invited to give the annual Hans Landsberg Memorial Lecture at RFF this past January, where he discussed how his hypothesis has evolved to be particularly germane to environmental regulation in the current economic climate. The lecture was followed by a lively panel discussion.

“I think this whole question of American competitiveness and the role of regulation in American competitiveness has really risen again to the top … of the radar screen in the debate in this country,” Porter said in his opening remarks. “There’s a tremendous angst and even tension between business and government—the private sector and the public sector—and how those two parties can either work collaboratively or competitively in addressing some of the most important challenges facing America and our society.”

Asked by an audience member about the regulatory “train wreck” at EPA regarding pending Clean Air Act regulations that will be imposed on power plants, Porter describe new research that he has done with Daniel Esty, Hillhouse Professor of Environmental Law and Policy at Yale and a member of the RFF Board of Directors, on climate change legislation. In their view, it has been unsuccessful thus far because the proposed bill created a complex cap-andtrade system without a clear link motivating companies to invest in innovation.

Moreover, there was a lot of uncertainty in the legislation about the value of innovation and allowance credits over time. According to Porter and Esty, the “simplest, cleanest approach to climate change policy is actually what we call an emissions charge—a carbon tax.”

The fundamental idea is that “if an entity can be given a platform and a set of rules and an expectation about the set of rules in the future, there will be both an incentive and a necessity” for innovation, Porter said. Therefore, impending EPA greenhouse gas regulations could potentially impact our global competitiveness for the better.

RFF researchers have published broadly on the impacts of environmental regulation on productivity, innovation, and competitiveness. Several have written on the Porter Hypothesis, including a recent publication by RFF Vice President for Research and Senior Fellow Mark Cohen and several colleagues, looking at the body of research that has stemmed from the original Porter Hypothesis to determine policy implications and areas of future research. (See the box for more on this topic).

Strategies with a Social Dimension

One concept that Porter introduced in his talk was that of “creating profitable business models to actually address very profound social issues,”or creating shared value (CSV). Not the buzz term that has been recently infiltrating business language, corporate shared responsibility (CSR), CSV encourages businesses to reevaluate their business models to focus on meeting the community’s needs as a strategic priority for meeting the company’s needs. As opposed to CSR, which is treated as an added burden or expenditure, CSV should be treated as a fundamental part of becoming more productive and more competitive. As Porter put it, “The best strategies have a social dimension.”

Chad Holliday, chairman of the board of Bank of America and former chairman and CEO of DuPont, agreed that understanding the community in which you work is crucial to success. He believes the most successful companies have a vision of where they’re going, have some early wins to motivate employees, receive money to invest, and provide extensive training. Esty concurred, saying, “If we’re going to make progress on the environment, it helps a great deal to harness the commitment to economic growth, prosperity, and competitiveness.”

Close analysis of the Porter Hypothesis prompts the question, are we at a disadvantage if we do not regulate carbon dioxide? If, as Esty said, “environmental progress is fundamentally a function of technology development and broader innovation,” then we do risk falling behind countries such as China, which is rapidly creating a monopoly in environmental technologies, if we do not invigorate our research and development.

Today, society’s values “have moved dramatically pro-environment,” said Porter. Esty observed that over the past 20 years, there has been a substantial paradigm shift, such that companies of all sizes are now positioning themselves as “solutions providers.” In place of the antiquated “what’s good for business is good for everyone” mindset, the Porter Hypothesis has instigated movement toward a shared-value mindset that “what’s good for the community and for citizens is good for business.” Porter’s main takeaway point is that “we need to look for the ‘win-win’ solution, where we can improve environmental performance and at the same time make the company more productive, more innovative, improve the value of its products, and make it more competitive.”

Futher Reading:

The Porter Hypothesis at 20

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