BSR’s Aron Cramer: Leaders need to listen to weak signals

Aron Cramer

Today, I’m pleased to publish the second in a series of guest posts about redefining leadership from Aron Cramer, the president and CEO of BSR. BSR (formerly Business for Social Responsibility) works with its 250 member companies to promote a more just and sustainable world, through research, consulting and industry collaborations. Aron, who’s a longtime colleague and friend, has worked all over the world on business issues ranging from labor rights in global supply chains to Internet freedoms in China to the meaning of “sustainable consumption.” Here, he writes about the importance of listening to and learning from voices at the margins.

When I was researching my book Sustainable Excellence, Nike CEO Mark Parker told me that he manages by the principle that “there are a lot of smart people in the world, and most of them don’t work for me.” And while Parker is duly proud of the people he does have at Nike, he points to a central truth: Valuable insight and knowledge is now held in more hands than at any other time in human history.

As we consider how leadership is changing, it is clear that today’s most effective leaders have the ability—and willingness—to listen to weak voices they would have considered irrelevant to their business a generation ago. Indeed, these leaders are able to see across multiple disciplines, perspectives, and geographies.

Historically, leadership used to be exercised by people (usually men) who  had a corner on information, and who would speak with unshakeable authority. They were expected to have all the answers. Today, those who lead do so through their ability to find  all the answers. As Stewart Brand famously said, “information wants to be free.” In a world which is drowning in data, no own can monopolize knowledge; but smart leaders can win by listening to voices that others ignore and by mining the data  for fresh insights. [click to continue…]

Aron Cramer: Business needs to step up

Aron Cramer

Today, I’m pleased to publish the first in a series of guest posts from Aron Cramer, the president and CEO of BSR. BSR (formerly Business for Social Responsibility) works with its 250 member companies to promote a more just and sustainable world, through research, consulting and industry collaborations. Aron, who’s a longtime colleague and friend, has worked all over the world on business issues ranging from labor rights in global supply chains to Internet freedoms in China to the meaning of “sustainable consumption.” Here, looking ahead to BSR’s 2011 conference in San Francisco, he writes about the need for business leaders to step outside the boundaries of their companies to re-energize the sustainability agenda.

Most years, people are reluctant to see summer fade into fall. But the summer of 2011 was a bit of a bummer, bringing hurricanes and earthquakes in the American Northeast; ongoing political stagnation in the United States, Europe, and Japan; and signs that the world’s mature economies are stuck in neutral—and may remain that way for some time. Leaving this summer behind feels like a relief.

It’s up to business to turn things around. That’s why BSR has made redefining leadership as the theme of the BSR Conference 2011.

We view this opportunity as having four dimensions, which we outlined in our most recent annual report. In this series of blog posts, I want to elaborate on each one, beginning with the need for business leaders to invest in the infrastructure required for sustainability. [click to continue…]

They said it at Brainstorm Green

Who says environmentalists are all gloom and doom? In terms of sheer fun, the 2011 edition of Brainstorm Green, FORTUNE’s conference about business and the environment, topped them all.

Chuck Leavell at Brainstorm Green

Along with  earnest talk about climate policy, nuclear power, investing in green and electric cars, there were early morning surfing lessons from Laird Hamilton, spectacular images from National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen, fabulous sustainable food from star chefs (including Rick Moonen of rmSeafood and Michel Nischan of Wholesome Wave) and even dancing to the music of a band put together by Chuck Leavell, the keyboardist for the Rolling Stones, tree farmer extraordinaire, author of a new book (Growing a Better America) and all-around good guy.

What we all learned can’t be condensed into one blog post, but here are a few of my notes and quotes from our jam-packed 48 hours in Laguna Beach:

The future of coal: Lively debate here, with Michael Morris, the straight-talking CEO of coal-burning utility American Electric Power saying that without new government policy, coal will continue to be burned in massive quantities, not just in the U.S. but around the world. [click to continue…]

Sustainable Excellence: Is it enough?

Last week was a terrific week for corporate sustainability. Unilever unveiled a bold plan to reduce its environmental impact and Chevrolet — Chevrolet! — announced $40 million of carbon reduction projects. Forestry giant Georgia Pacific–owned by the Koch brothers, of all people–signed an agreement to protect endangered forests in the southern U.S., winning praise from the Dogwood Alliance and NRDC. Greenbuild, the world’s largest convention on environmentally-friendly buildings, attracted 1,000 exhibitors and 27,000 people to Chicago. Wow.

None of this will surprise readers of  Sustainable Excellence: The Future of Business in a Fast-Changing World (Rodale, $25.99) by Aron Cramer and Zachary Karabell, a smart, readable and provocative book that argues that business success in the long run will be earned by companies that “integrate consideration of society and the environment into their DNA.”  As CEO of Business for Social Responsibility since 2004, Aron has had a front-row seat (actually, a place on the field) from which to track changes in how business is being done, while Zachary is an accomplished journalist and scholar who also did a stint as a Wall Street money manager. Together, they have provided a map of the ever-evolving  business landscape, along with valuable guidance to executives who must deal with a range of sometimes competing pressures on companies to do good and to do well.

What’s the business case for sustainable excellence? They write:

What has made sustainable excellence necessary is the simple imperative of maintaining profitability in a world altered by a trio of interlocking challenges: the financial crisis that hobbled the economy, the rise of the emerging world and the increased urgency to decouple economic growth from natural resource consumption.

In short, the drive to integrate sustainability into business is a function of thousands of companies recognizing that now and in the future, this is the only viable path forward.

Aron and Zachary tell stories about GE, Google, DuPont, Shell, Levi-Strauss, BP, PepsiCo, Starbucks and Coca-Cola, among others–companies that, to varying degrees, are redefining themselves to deal with the long-term trends they’ve identified, and to meet the rising expectations of business that come from their employees, their customers, communities and NGOs. [click to continue…]

Can one person change a company? Discuss…

I’m giving a speech to the grocery and food manufacturing industry–and I’d like your help.

I’ll be the closing keynote speaker at a Sustainability Summit in December in Arlington, Va., organized by the Food Marketing Institute, a trade association of grocery retailers and wholesalers (Ahold, Kroger, Price Chopper, Publix, Wegman’s, Winn-Dixie,  etc.) and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade association made up of the companies that produce much of what we eat (Campbell Soup, Coca-Cola, Dannon, DelMonte, General Mills, Kraft, H.J. Heinz, Kellogg, Kraft, Nestle, PepsiCo, Unilever and many more).

These folks, needless to say, can have a huge impact on the environment and on our health. So it’s a great opportunity for me.

Because I’ll be the last speaker that people hear before they go home, my plan is to give a talk called “The Power of One.” It’s about how one person can change the world–not by himself or herself, of course. But by mustering the right arguments, and enlisting the right allies, one person can change a company, an industry and eventually change the world. I’ve seen it happen, more than once. In my 2004 book, Faith and Fortune, I devoted a chapter called  “Can One Person Change a Company?” to a woman named Barbara Waugh and her impact on Hewlett Packard which was, then and now, an enormous global company.

Where do you come in? Well, I have some stories in mind of people who have had an impact on corporate America, but I’m eager to hear more. If you know of someone who, with their passion and commitment and smarts and strategic thinking, helped make a company, big or small, more sustainable, please let me know. (Post in the comments below or send an mail to I’m going to write  about some of those people for this blog and tell their stories in the speech. They need not work in sustainability or corporate social responsibility–in fact, I’m interested in individuals or small groups of people  who broke through silos or made things happen without having institutional responsibility.

And, if you work in the grocery or food business, by all means come to the summit. Ken Powell, the chairman and CEO of General Mills, will give the opening talk–it’s always an encouraging sign when a CEO is willing to give a speech on sustainability. Other speakers include Matt Arnold of Pricewaterhouse Coopers, Gwen Ruta of Environmental Defense, Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund, Jon Johnson from the University of Arkansas (who is leading the Sustainability Consortium), writer Andrew Winston, Dave Stangis of Campbell Soup, chef Barton Seaver, Aron Cramer of Business for Social Responsibility–and those are just people I’ve met or interviewed. I’m looking forward to reconnecting with then, as well as meeting new people. As my friend Joel Makower likes to say, networking is great–and not just because it’s only one letter away from being not working!

How to innovate…sustainably

So I have a confession to make: I’m kind of bored by eco-efficiency.

Yes, I know that this week’s announcement of new government standards for refrigerators and the super-insulated double-hung windows in the Empire State building and Yahoo’s new ‘chicken coop’ data center in upstate New York are all important ways to conserve energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and save the planet.

But what really gets me jazzed is innovation that gets us closer to a sustainable world, not incrementally, but by leaps and bounds: innovative business models like Zipcar and RecycleBank, innovative products like P&G’s Tide coldwater or Method’s 8x laundry concentrate, and innovative ways of thinking about business like Waste Management’s Green Squad, which helps companies reduce waste before it’s created.

That’s why I’m excited about the first Greenbiz Innovation Forum this month (October 19-20) in San Francisco. It’s about “models, methods and mindsets for transforming business” to make it more sustainable. My friends and colleagues at Greenbiz, led by Joel Makower, have put together a terrific group of speakers, as well as hands-on opportunities for all of us to learn how to think more creatively.

I’m looking forward to reconnecting with Janine Benyus of the Biomimicry Guild,  architect and designer Bill McDonough of cradle-to-cradle fame and Aron Cramer, author of a new book called Sustainable Excellence. (They’ve all spoken at FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green conference.)  I’m eager to meet author Hunter Lovins of Natural Capitalism Solutions, John Warner, a pioneer of the green chemistry movement and Tim Brown, the CEO of Ideo, among others.

Corporate executives who will talk about how they foster innovation include Stephen Meller and Len Sauers of P&G, Scott Elrod of Xerox PARC, Jim Hall of Waste Management, and Adam Lowry of Method. I’ll be moderating a panel with Adam and Andrew Williamson of Physic Ventures, a venture capital firm that invests in “companies that are developing technologies, products and services to enable consumers to adopt more sustainable lifestyles.”

I hope to see you there–you can request an invitation here.

And if you are in the solar business, I could well see you the week before (October 12-13) in Los Angeles, where I’ll  be moderating a CEO panel at Solar Power International 2010, North America’s largest business-focused solar industry convention. I’ll be speaking with Tony Clifford, the chief executive officer of Standard Solar; Dan Shugar, the chief executive officer, Solaria; Terry Wang, chief financial officer, Trina Solar; and Matthew Baker, commissioner, Colorado Public Utilities Commission. We’ll talk about what’s needed to dramatically speed the growth of the solar business in the U.S., and you can be sure innovation will be a big part of our conversation.

In between, I’ll be at the Society of Environmental Journalists 20th annual conference in Missoula, Montana. I’m a newcomer to SEJ, but I did get to last year’s conference in Wisconsin and it was a great learning opportunity. This year there will be lots of talk about the west–water, wolves, natural parks and such–as well as panels about nuclear power (which isn’t popular with the SEJers I’ve met), the BP oil spill, nanotechnology and and even geoengineering–perhaps the most innovative approach imaginable to the climate crisis.

Sustainable consumption: Opportunity or oxymoron?

Imagine that you’re the chief sustainability officer of a FORTUNE 500 company. During a meeting with your CEO, you say: “We need to talk to consumers about using less.”

Improbable? Sure.

Impossible? Perhaps not.

An important conversation to start? Absolutely.

So, at least, says Aron Cramer, the CEO of Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), a nonprofit association of companies, whose mission is to promote a just and sustainable world.

“The American model of consumption cannot be extended to the entire world, and won’t be, because the planet simply can’t support it,” Aron told me, when we spoke by phone the other day. Yet billions of people around the world want to improve their standard of living. Figuring out how they can enjoy a better life, without destroying the environment, “is the mother of all innovation challenges,” Aron says,

Last month, BSR published a 26-page report called The New Frontier in Sustainability: The Business Opportunity in Tackling Sustainable Consumption [PDF, free download). It’s an attempt to get business leaders to think about what sustainable consumption might look like.

The topic “has been the third rail of sustainability politics,” Aron told me, but he added, with his usual optimism, that “more companies are ready to have this discussion.”

If nothing else, the report makes clear the urgency of the issue. Citing a WWF report [PDF], it says:

By recent estimates, our global footprint now exceeds the world’s capacity to regenerate by about 30 percent, and if our current demands continue, by 2030 we will need the equivalent of two planets to maintain our lifestyles.

And yet:

…countless people have insufficient access to basic needs like food, clean water, and adequate shelter, and they also lack access to the resources they need to improve their lives. In 2006, the 1.2 billion people in the OECD countries had an average annual income per capita of US$30,580, while the 5.4 billion people in the rest of the world earned an average of US$3,130. Of those, 19 percent suffer from hunger, 28 percent are drinking polluted water, and 29 percent are illiterate.7 More than 2 billion people continue to rely on less than US$2 per day to meet their needs.

The question is, what business opportunities, if any,  await companies that figure out how to give poor and middle class people what they want in a sustainable way? [click to continue…]