Business blues? So go green

Companies that think ecologically now will have the edge in the future, says new energy lawyer Tessa Laws

By Candice Krieger, February 18, 2009

Recession-speak aside, it’s going green that businesses across the globe are all talking about.

A new crop of eco-entrepreneurs appears to be emerging from the wreckage of the financial crisis, and even large companies such as Wal-Mart/Asda, Tesco, Intercontinental Hotels, Goldman Sachs and Marks & Spencer are pushing towards more carbon-neutral, sustainable practices.

Helping them commit to the cause is corporate lawyer Tessa Laws. Ms Laws, a partner at London firm Rosenblatt Solicitors, where she heads their new energy department, has facilitated more than £1 billion-worth of new energy deals over the past two years. She says: “There remains huge commitment to renewable energy in the UK and elsewhere, but there is a feeling that we could do much better. For a country at the forefront of the industrial revolution, we really seem to be letting ourselves down in terms of green incentives and innovation.

“New energy is something that needs to be taken very seriously. I think there are now obligations, particularly for publicly-listed companies, to report on their green policies. We can’t just keep putting our head in the sand about everything. Haven’t we done that enough? Companies have a social responsibility.”

She adds: “As Jews, I think you’re brought up with that — a duty to your fellow man. It’s too easy to say: ‘Well it won’t be in my lifetime,’ but you have to think about the legacy.”

Ms Laws, 43, argues that going green is a smart business move. She has advised on the flotation of a number of new energy firms on the London Stock Exchange. At the end of last year, she successfully negotiated the sale and ongoing development of a 300 MW wind farm project in Cyprus. “This leveraged our reputation and, on the back of that, we got many other renewable deals in.”

She says: “As finding alternative energy becomes a necessity, the new energy sector is going to be more important than the dotcom boom was.”

Moreover, the current economic climate means that many firms are seeking ways to reduce their energy bills and address carbon footprint issues, while promoting a green image to their customers. Gordon Brown has put the creation of thousands of “green-collar” jobs at the centre of his plans for an economic recovery and President Obama has pledged to invest $150 billion over the next 10 years to support efforts to build renewable energy products.

A report by Ernst & Young, Comparative Advantage and Green Business, indicated that there were green opportunities in most sectors of the economy, notably pharmaceuticals, electronics and aircraft manufacture.

Yet the collapse of key energy projects in Britain has cast doubt over the government’s commitment to cut UK greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and triggered concern over the viability of green energy businesses.

“All the deals we have been working on are still being funded but people would be naïve to think that new energy is not going to be hit like every other sector. The banks haven’t yet been kick-started into investing,” she says. “The debt market is horrendous. There is no debt to buy. You have to have a very convincing case.”

Last week, the government unveiled its “Heat and Energy Efficiency Strategy”, a plan to cut carbon emissions and roll out low-carbon technology to millions of homes by 2020.

But the proposal has provoked a harsh reaction from critics, who warn it will result in an increase in heating bills at a time of rising unemployment, falling incomes and economic uncertainty.

“I think there is general alarm at the green energy ‘tax’, particularly at a time when a lot of people are struggling to keep their jobs,” says Ms Laws.

So, can going green really help us save money? Not imminently. “The new energy market is not a quick in-and-out. It’s about long-term gains. There aren’t going to be that many cost benefits until everybody starts doing it, but it’s about investing in the future.”

She adds: “Despite what’s going on in the markets, I think we have an obligation to act responsibly to our children and to our world. I think there is an element of greed out there. That’s why we are in this mess. Banks and investors may have to look to reducing their internal rate of return and doing something more altruistic perhaps.”

Next week, companies will be rewarded for their green practices at the Rosenblatt New Energy Awards — founded last year by Ms Laws to recognise firms and individuals in the renewable energy sector. Millionaire environmentalist Zac Goldsmith is the keynote speaker. Nominations include John Lewis, The Body Shop, Liberty, Wal-Mart/Asda, KPMG and Morgan Stanley.

A mother-of-three, Ms Laws, who was widowed four years ago, became a lawyer in 1995. She had previously run a frozen yoghurts business. She was made a partner at Rosenblatt in 2001.

“New energy is something we felt very committed to. We saw it as something that was necessary as well as being a business opportunity.”

Away from the office, Ms Laws is, as she puts it, “more khaki than green”. She drives an electric car which she charges every night by running an extension cable through the front door of her house in Maida Vale, London.

“I reckon I have saved an awful lot of money by investing in that electric car three years ago. I pay 42 pence a day to charge the car. I have no petrol or road tax. Now that’s economical.” She has been on an allotment waiting list for the past two years and is a member of the Slow Food movement, which promotes the protection of locally produced foods and regional cooking.

The Rosenblatt New Energy Awards takes place at the Natural History Museum on Wednesday February 25

Last updated: 2:10pm, March 11 2009