Adam Werbach: Take small steps to go “blue”

person_14272ab1_mediumTo attack big environmental problems, start with small steps.

So says Adam Werbach—activist, author, advertising man and one of the more interesting people working in the sustainability movement today.

Werbach is the former president of the Sierra Club, the author of Strategy for Sustainability: A Business Manifesto and the chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi S, a sustainability consulting firm that’s part of the global communications giant Publicis. He’s worked for Wal-Mart, Procter & Gamble and Frito Lay, among others.

He’s behind a Saatchi project called DOT – do one thing – that is inspired by the PSPs – personal sustainability projects – that he helped bring to Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart encouraged its 1.3 million employees to integrate sustainable practices into their lives by making small changes to their everyday habits. Many thousands have stopped smoking, lost weight, recycled more, or biked or walked to work.

Is this the way to curb climate change, stop the loss of biodiversity, save tropical forests and the like? Or do people screw in a CFL bulb and then figure they’ve done their part?

Werbach argues that small steps lead to big things. “Change begets change,” he says. “Recycling and energy conservation—once you start remembering to do that, you’re remember to do other things.”

Werbach spoke the other day at the Net Impact conference at Cornell University, and he drew a big crowd. Net Impact is a  group of business students and young professionals who want to use the power of business to make the world better. [Disclosure: I’m a new member of the Net Impact board.] The conference attracted more than 2,400 people to Ithaca, N.Y., in November in the midst of a recession–no small accomplishment.

The crowd may have showed up because Werbach is a controversial. His green friends went after him when he joined forces with Wal-Mart. He appeared on the cover of Fast Company in 2007 beside the headline “He Sold His Soul to Wal-Mart.” (Fortunately, the story was kinder.) But even now, he begins his talk by explaining why he gave a speech in 2004 called “Is Environmentalism Dead? [PDF], left the Sierra Club and opted to work in the corporate world.

“My quitting environmentalism was about embracing something different,” he says. “We were not moving far enough, fast enough.”

Now, rather than green,  he talks about consumers and citizens who exhibit shades of “blue” — an idea that encompasses social, cultural and economic values, as well as environmentalism. Saatchi & Saatchi’s research shows that a growing number of Americans fit into the “blue” category. As best I as can understand it –and the idea needs to be better articulated, I think — being “blue” means people are making choices in their lives, at work and as consumers that are  better for them and for the broader world.

“They’re shifting, day by day, when they see a better alternative,” he says. “Sustainability is fast becoming mainstream.”

pepsi1So, for example, he cites a Wal-Mart worker who walked into a break room one day and wondered why the Pepsi vending machine had a light inside. Knowing that the company was committed to becoming more energy-efficient and sustainable, the worker removed the bulb. Word spread. Eventually, Wal-Mart’s CFO decried that all the unneeded lights be taking out of all the vending machines in the stores. “That one simple effort saved about $1 million in energy costs,” Werbach says. Just as important, Wal-Mart’s PSPs have helped working-class people in the middle of the country to environmentalism–something that I doubt the Sierra Club has been able to do.

tide-coldwaterAnother Saatchi client, Procter & Gamble, did a lifecycle analysis of the energy usage and carbon footprint of its product, from manufacture through use. The company found that its single biggest impact was the hot water needed to wash clothes with Tide. In response, P&G developed Tide Coldwater, which has become a big hit, Werbach said. “There are lots of climate change benefits,” he says. “But consumers don’t care about that. They care about saving money.”

He also described how McDonald’s, under pressure from Greenpeace in the UK, was able to persuade its biggest suppliers, including Cargill, to change their growing practices in Brazil. Working with local and global environmental groups, Cargill and other agricultural businesses, McDonald’s persuaded soy growers to agree to a two-year moratorium on the purchase of soy from newly deforested areas. “It is by far the single most important act in recent years to protect the Amazon,” says Werbach.

These corporate initiatives, and many others, are being driven by enlightened consumers, by activist groups and by the desire of companies to attract and engage workers. They are also driven by internal activists–the kind of people who belong to Net Impact. (Net Impact and eBay published a report earlier this year called Making Your Impact at Work: A Practical Guide to Changing the World from Inside Any Company.) There’s no question that they are important–big companies have enormous leverage to make change, as Werbach argues.

But we also need to remember that there are limits to what companies can do, given that their mission is (almost always) to sell more stuff. There are limits, too, to what people can do as workers and consumers. Werbach says his ultimate goal is to help 1 billion people make changes in their lives to become more sustainable. That’s great, and I’d be the first to say that what he is doing matters. But so does politics. Private behavior won’t solve the climate crisis. To get where we need to go, people will have to do more than act “green” or “blue.” They’ll also have to act as citizens.

Comments

  1. Marc —

    Great to be with you at Net Impact. What an inspiring group — not the Board, albeit they are a great group — but the Net Impact members, MBA/s and professinals.

    It was also so fun to sit next to you and watch you at work! You are a wonderful writer and journalist. I only wish I had a fraction of your talent.

    Please stay in touch and know i am always open to helping you and collaborating with you.

  2. Thanks, Carol, I so enjoyed the conference and I’m grateful to you for helping me to join the Net Impact “team.” best, Marc

Trackbacks

  1. [...] “So, for example, Adam Werbach cites a Wal-Mart worker who walked into a break room one day and wondered why the Pepsi vending machine had a light inside. Knowing that the company was committed to becoming more energy-efficient and sustainable, the worker removed the bulb. Word spread. Eventually, Wal-Mart’s CFO decried that all the unneeded lights be taking out of all the vending machines in the stores. “That one simple effort saved about $1 million in energy costs,” Werbach says. Just as important, Wal-Mart’s PSPs have helped working-class people in the middle of the country to environmentalism–something that I doubt the Sierra Club has been able to do.”–find this quote here [...]

Speak Your Mind

*