The happiest place on earth has long suffered criticism as it is also amongst the biggest businesses on earth. As such, it has been accused of the same woes as other big businesses: prioritising short term financial gains at the expense of long-term sustainability. As it turns out, these critics are not founded when it comes to the Magic Kingdom. Indeed those efforts are way more than pixie dust.
Disney’s culture, from the very beginning, was focused on environmental stewardship. Walt Disney himself was a great defender of Nature, already saying in the 1950s that “conservation is not just the business of a few people, it is a matter that concerns all of us”.
Always ahead of his time, Walt imagined and anticipated early on, the increase in humanity’s need for energy. Even more incredible, back in the 1960’s he anticipated the impact of increasing human activity on the planet we call home. To keep Walt’s legacy alive, Disney built E.P.C.O.T., which more than an entertainment park, served as a window into the future. The park preached clean energy and, even more, it practised what it preached: the utility building was powered 100% by solar panels on its roof. Disney built its first completely self-reliant power plant, which produced energy partly through solar panels. Since then, their quest to investigate a bright, vibrant and sustainable future has never ended.
And Disney did not stop at energy production, they also investigated water conservation and waste management. They adopted nature-based solutions, before it was advocated, and at a time when those solutions were seen as less efficient and effective than technology. Sewage, for example, was treated using hyacinth water plants, the roots of which absorb pollutants.
Since then, the Walt Disney Company has maintained its status of frontrunner in environmental stewardship. Even more crucial, the company has maintained a culture built around matters of conservation. Bob Iger himself was quoted in 2018 saying he wanted Disney to be admired “not just for creating incredible content, but for being a responsible citizen of the world”.
Today, the main tool to activate sustainability in the world of business is Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), an instrument designed to encourage companies to be transparent about their actions for sustainability and to implement active strategies to improve their social and environmental performances. However, most companies use this tool to achieve the exact opposite. Indeed, CSR is used as a greenwashing device for companies to showcase environmental performance without proactively doing anything.
However, Disney is the exception. Disney has designed a comprehensive strategy, centred around five axes: water and energy conservation, greenhouse gas emissions reduction, waste minimisation, ecosystem conservation and inspiring action. For each of these axes, tangible and effective actions are performed to achieve the aims that the Walt Disney Company has set out: reducing their carbon footprint by 50% by 2020 (compared to 2012), diverting more than 60% of their waste from landfill and incineration by 2020 and maintaining their water consumption level at 2013 levels. By 2019, the company was on par to achieve these targets as they had reduced their greenhouse gas emissions by 47% compared to 2012, achieved a 57% diversion of operational waste - sending, in fact, less waste to landfill and incineration in 2019 than in 2014 - and had achieved, for the second year in a row, to hold global potable water use flat to the 2013 levels. It should be noted that the 2020 COVID-19 crisis may affect their performance in 2020.
Since the mid-1990’s Disney has also been operating a cruise line. Cruises are notoriously bad for marine ecosystems, regularly dumping sewage, greywater, hazardous wastes and solid waste directly into the open ocean. However, Disney Cruise lines are different. Disney Cruise ships have Environmental Officers, who have prior maritime experience, and as a result rank as some of the most senior people on board the ship. Their responsibility is to monitor the ship's water quality and supply. They also have to train all crew on minimization of waste as well as environmental safety programs. Finally, they oversee all shipboard recycling and sanitation efforts.
The ships all have onboard recycling facilities which recycle around 900 tons of metal, plastic, paper and glass waste a year. All rooms are equipped with sorting bins. Further, the water used in laundry and cleaning facilities is provided by the condensation of the AC units, saving more than 113 litres of water annually. Water is also conserved, and greywater is treated with state of the art water purification systems in order to be reused for cleaning. As a result, Disney Cruise Line is the only cruise line in the world to have received an “A” Rating in Environmental Responsibility by the NGO Friends of the Earth.
More recently, in 2018, Disney has just flipped the switch (on) on a gigantic, Mickey Mouse-shaped, 50-megawatt solar facility, that produces enough energy to power 1000 homes. Now, construction has started on an even bigger solar facility that will produce ten times that amount, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by more than 57 000 tons a year or roughly the equivalent of 9 300 cars. Moreover, the energy will not go directly to the parks, but will rather be integrated into the local power grid, allowing Disney to lead the regional transition of Florida towards renewable energy. And this is not just a one-off action, the Tokyo park already runs its night parade light show on solar energy, and the two Paris parks, along with the Disney hotel on geothermal energy. Disney’s efforts have been applauded on the other side of the pond by the American Council on Renewable Energy, whose president said: “What Disney is doing is an important part of the trend that’s changing the nation’s grid.”
Disney is truly showing its status of a responsible citizen of the world by investing a lot of resources, time and energy into the hidden magic that powers the environmental transition. Now, who better than the man himself, Walt Disney, a man who has shaped the minds of generations with his wishful thinking and creative mind, to give the final word: “If we all use our riches wisely if we will protect our wildlife, these things will last us for generations to come”!
References and Insightful reads:
Arcgis blog Story Map: The Walt Disney Company's Environmental Impact by Kyle Grotenhuis
The Walt Disney Company: Environmental Sustainability
Forbes: Why Disney World is Betting on Clean Energy
The New York Times: The Magic Kingdom Is Going Green
The Walt Disney Company: 2019 Corporate Social Responsibility Update