Brainstorm Green: What’s next?

Bill Clinton at Brainstorm Green in 2009
Bill Clinton at Brainstorm Green in 2009

In 2007, Andy Serwer, the managing editor of FORTUNE, where I was then a senior writer, asked me to work with the magazine’s conference division to create a conference about business and the environment. His timing was excellent. Presidential candidates Obama and McCain had promised to act to curb climate change. A global climate agreement seemed possible. A wave of clean technology startups were attracting attention and investment in Silicon Valley. And big companies like General Electric and Walmart had put sustainability squarely on their corporate agendas.

On Earth Day in 2008, the inaugural Fortune Brainstorm Green was held at the Ritz Carlton Huntington hotel in Pasadena. Speakers included Michael Dell, Doug McMillon (who’s now the CEO of Walmart), venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, David Crane of NRG Energy, Gov. Jerry Brown (then the attorney general of California), Dave Steiner of Waste Management, Stewart Brand, Mark Tercek (then at Goldman, now head of The Nature Conservancy), Gary Hirshberg, Janine Benyus,  J. Craig Venter, Andy Karsner, Hugh Grant of Monsanto, Ursula Burns of Xerox, Fisk Johnson of SC Johnson, and Shai Agassi, the founder of electric-car company Better Place. Some of America’s most important environmental leaders–Fred Krupp, Frances Beinecke, Peter Seligmann, Mike Brune, Mindy Lubber and John Passacandanto–spoke. Chuck Leavell played keyboards and Shawn Colvin sang. It was too much fun to be called work.

In 2009, Brainstorm Green moved to the Ritz Carlton in Laguna Niguel, CA, where it has remained. The theme of the event never changed: How can business profitably solve the world’s most important environmental problems? I’ve been co-chair of Brainstorm Green for these past seven years, and it has been, for the most part, a rewarding experience.

About a year ago, I decided that I no longer wanted to co-chair Brainstorm Green, for a variety of reasons. I liked programming the conference and I enjoyed moderating interviews and panels, but the process of recruiting speakers year after year, which requires the patient massaging of corporate egos, had become tiresome. What’s more, a good deal of the excitement that had gathered around corporate sustainability during the event’s early years has since faded. Unhappily, the politics of environmentalism turned bitterly partisan, dooming Obama’s cap-and-trade plan. The financial crisis dampened corporate enthusiasm for all things green. Clean tech slumped, and Better Place flamed out.

Last fall, Fortune rebranded Brainstorm Green as Brainstorm E: Where Energy, Technology and Sustainability Meet.  It will be held on September 28 and 29 in Austin, Texas. The powers-that-be at the magazine decided that selling a “green” event to corporate sponsors had become too difficult. Perhaps they’re right.

The best thing about Brainstorm Green, I daresay, were the relationships forged there. A deal or two came out of the event — one year, Bill Ford met Zipcar chief executive Scott Griffith, and later Ford Motor bought a stake in Zipcar — and I know a couple of people landed new jobs there. That’s typical of conferences. But, at least for me, Brainstorm Green felt like more than just another “networking” event. For a few days every spring, a community of sorts formed around a shared belief that business could do good. Collectively, we were trying to make that happen. I’m going to miss many of the Brainstorm Green regulars (yes, that means you, Dhiraj Malkani) as well as the Fortune colleagues with whom I worked so closely over the years, particularly the incomparable Tony Hansen.

These days, I’m spending most of my time writing for Guardian Sustainable Business. But stepping away from Brainstorm Green will give me time for other pursuits. I’ve got a new project in mind (watch this space) and I’m also hoping to moderate at other conferences and corporate events. To that end, I’ve put together these excerpts from my moderating work.

Mosaic: Solar power, people power

Solar panels on the roof of the Wildwoods Convention Center
Solar panels on the roof of the Wildwoods Convention Center

I’ve never been to Wildwood, New Jersey. Most likely, I’ll never go. But with a click or two on my laptop, I just invested $100 in a 487 kw solar project on the roof of the Wildwoods Convention Center in Wildwood, on the Jersey shore, thanks to Mosaic.

Like Kickstarter, which enables ordinary people to support a variety of projects that grab their attention, Mosaic is an Internet crowdfunding platform.  But Mosaic for now focuses exclusively on solar energy and, unlike Kickstarter, it promises its investors a return–in my case, a 4.5 percent annual yield over the next 110 months.  That’s a lot better than 10-year US Treasury bonds that currently return just 1.66 percent a year, and a whole lot better than my money market fund at Vanguard which current returns 0.01 percent. [Of course, investing in solar is also more risky than buying a money market fund–see the addendum below.]

What’s more, I get to support solar power–which won’t work on the roof of my own home in Bethesda, Md., because it is surrounded by tall trees.

I’ve been keeping an eye on Mosaic since last September when I met one of its founders, Billy Parish, in Washington, D.C.  Billy subsequently came to Fortune Brainstorm Green this month, and we caught up the other day by phone. Since Mosaic began offering solar investments to a broad public in January, the company has raised about $2.1 million from about 1,500 investors. That’s impressive.

“The idea is that people should be able to invest in, and own clean energy,” Billy told me. “We need trillions of dollars in the coming decades to invest in clean energy. We just substitute the crowd for the bank.”

Think about it–Mosaic is financing distributed energy, using distributed funders, collected over the Internet, the ultimate distributed platform. This is decentralized power at its best. [click to continue…]

What’s for breakfast? Time to get Beyond Eggs.

Next time you dig into a breakfast of fried eggs, or enjoy a cupcake from your favorite bakery, or boil some egg noodles, don’t stop and think about the chicken that laid those eggs. You may lose your appetite.

According to the Animal Welfare Institute:

More than 95% of the approximately 280 million egg-laying hens in the United States are confined to barren battery cages where they are crowded and deprived of the ability to perform natural behaviors such as exploring, nesting, perching, dust bathing, or simply stretching their wings. Birds endure painful beak trimming, stand on wire floors that cripple their legs, breathe toxic air, and live their entire lives under unnatural, dim lighting.

A chicken lives its life on a footprint no bigger than an iPad. Imagine living the rest of your life just where you are sitting right now, crowded on every side by other humans, unable to move. You’d go insane, as Bruce Friedrich of Farm Sanctuary argues in this excellent essay. He calls eggs from caged hens “the cruelest of all factory farm products.

If you’re indifferent to the suffering of animals, consider that factory-farmed chickens have a big environmental footprint, albeit not as big as beef or pork. I couldn’t find any peer-reviewed life cycle analyses of eggs but, according to Slate, egg-laying hens are fed lots of grain, they’re pumped with antibiotics and they generate a lot of waste.

(And, if you want to get really grossed-out, read this long story that the Washington Post published just last week about the use of toxic chemicals to kill bacteria in plants that process chickens for meat.)

Josh Tetrick
Josh Tetrick

Josh Tetrick, the CEO and founder of Hampton Creek Foods, is convinced that there’s a better way. He wants to take America Beyond Eggs.

Beyond Eggs, according to Josh, is a healthier, safer, environmentally-friendly, plant-based ingredient for egg-based food products. And unlike the pricey, all natural, organic, free range eggs on sale at Whole Foods, Hampton Creek’s egg substitutes cost less than most of the eggs on the supermarket shelf. [click to continue…]

Guess who’s coming to Brainstorm Green?

FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green conference is more than just talk.

Ann Hand, the ceo of green-building startup Project Frog, recently told me that she met venture capitalist Chuck McDermott at the first Brainstorm Green in 2008. That helped lead to her current job. [See my blogpost, Project Frog’s Ann Hand: Disrupting construction ]

At Brainstorm Green 2010, Bill Ford, the chairman of Ford Motor, got to talking with Scott Griffith, the ceo of Zipcar. That helped bring about a Ford partnership with Zipcar to get Ford cars onto college campuses.

Later, Ford and Zipcar together invested in Wheelz, a car-sharing startup whose ceo, Jeff Miller, spoke last year at Brainstorm Green. [See my blogpost, Car sharing, revving up]

Brainstorm Green is about making the connections that help drive market solutions to environmental problems. The people and the issues have changed over the years but the theme has remained constant: How can corporate America help solve the world’s biggest environmental problems?

With some interesting tweaks to our format, a new and improved Brainstorm Green will be back in 2013. Dates are April 29-May 1, and we’ll be back at the spectacular Ritz Carlton Hotel in Laguna Niguel, CA. Our programming partners will be Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, The Nature Conservancy and Conservation International.

We’ve been recruiting CEO-level speakers for a couple of months now, and have generated an enthusiastic response. Ted Turner, the legendary enterpreneur, environmentalist and philanthropist, has agreed to join us, and if you’ve never heard Ted speak, you’re in for a treat. [See my blogpost: Ted Turner: Telling it like it is] Ted is always entertaining but, more important, he’s nearly always right, whether the topic is global warming, nuclear disarmament or raising bison for his Ted’sMontana Grill restaurant chain.

Another headliner will be the big-thinking, green-minded (pun intended)  investor Jeremy Grantham, whose GMO asset management firm manages about $100 billion. “Global warming will be the most important investment issue for the foreseeable future,” Grantham wrote in a letter to his investors a couple of years ago. If you don’t know much about him, read this excellent profile from The New York Times Magazine. He’s a fascinating guy who, like Ted, has been ahead of the curve more often than not. [click to continue…]

They said it at Brainstorm Green

Here are some highlights of FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green conference, which wrapped up yesterday. I’m co-chair of the event, which brought about 300 corporate leaders, environmentalists, investors and academics to Laguna Niguel, CA, for three whirlwind days of talk about how business can help solve the world’s big environmental problems:

Alan Mulally at FORTUNE Brainstorm Green

The trouble with electric cars:  Batteries remain heavy and very expensive, adding about $12,000 to $15,000 to the cost of a Ford Focus that would otherwise be priced at about $22,000, said Ford’s CEO, Alan Mulally. During a q-and-a with the audience, he said:

…a battery for a hybrid vehicle is around a 2 kilowatt hour battery, weighs around 100 pounds, maybe around $2,000.  And as you move to a plug-in hybrid size, say around 8 to 10 kilowatt hours, then that weight moves up to around 300 pounds and the cost is around $7,000 to $8,000.  And then when you move into an all-electric vehicle the battery size moves up to around 23 kilowatt hours, it weighs around 600 to 700 pounds — some people actually are taking our seats to be able to carry the battery around, not us — and also they’re around $12,000 to $15,000….So, you can see why the economics are what they are.

Of course, drivers who pay $39,200 for a Focus EV will save a lot of money on fuel during the life of the car, depending on gas prices and how much they drive. That’s a reminder of another dilemma facing potential electric-car buyers.  Ford says its Focus can go up to 76 miles on a full charge, so it’s ideal for people (like me) who don’t drive much. But the less you drive, the longer it takes to recover the higher up-front costs of the car in the form of lower operating costs.

Even so, sales of hybrids and electrics were the fastest-growing segment in the U.S. auto market in the first quarter. They accounted for less than 5% of vehicles sold but Mulally said their share will grow as battery prices come down.

“We see this as continually growing,” he said. “This is a long-term journey.” [click to continue…]

Car sharing, revving up

Who would have thought that Bill Ford, the executive chairman of the Ford Motor Co., and GM Ventures, the venture capital arm of General Motors, would invest in peer-to-peer car sharing companies?

The big automakers historically craved market share, which means selling as many new cars as they can. If Americans decide that they don’t need a car–or maybe that they only need one, instead of two or three–the car companies could be hurt.

But Bill Ford’s Fontanalis Partners, a firm that invests in “the future of mobility,”  invested last month in a campus-based car sharing startup called Wheelz, and GM Ventures is backing RelayRides, another startup that announced today that it is rolling out its service nationally.

Maybe the peer-to-peer car sharing biz is going to be a big deal. Certainly it’s revving up.

To learn a little about car sharing, I arranged to speak last week with Jeff Miller, the co-founder and CEO of Wheelz. Next week, I’ll interview Shelby Clark, the founder and chief community officer of RelayRides, at VERGE DC, a conference organized by GreenBiz, where I’m a senior writer. (Please join us a VERGE DC if you can.)  I’ll also be interviewing Steve Case at VERGE; he’s been an advocate for the sharing economy as an investor in Zipcar and in a vacation home-sharing company. [For more, see How Steve Case and his company are driving the sharing economy in The Atlantic and my own blogpost, The sharing economy and me.] [click to continue…]

Ted Roosevelt is lonely

I was headed out for a run one morning in April during FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green conference in Laguna Niguel, CA, when I spotted Theodore Roosevelt IV jogging on the beach. Having a good run? I asked him. Yes, he told me, and he’d been swimming, too, in the big waves that crash onto the beach and draw hordes of surfers every day.

Legacy matters, I guess. Ted Roosevelt, as he’s known, is the great-grandson of our 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt, who was famous for his love of what he called “the strenuous life“—he boxed, rode horses, fought in the Spanish-American war, went big-game hunting and explored the Amazon. Ted Roosevelt, who is 68, played football at Groton, played ice hockey and rugby and rowed on the lightweight crew at Harvard; after graduation, he served two tours of duty as a Navy SEAL in Vietnam.

Like TR, Ted is a Republican, a conservationist and an independent thinker–which makes him part of a dying breed of moderate WASPy Republicans who are fiscally conservative and socially progressive.

Ted argues that environmental protection is good for America’s economic growth and strength. He describes climate change is “this century’s greatest challenge.” He believes that nature is worth preserving, not just because of its usefulness to humans but for its own sake. [click to continue…]

Bumble Bee CEO: The end of cheap tuna?

Bumble Bee Foods is a survivor. Founded in 1899, Bumble Bee, which is headquartered in San Diego,  owns two of the last three canned tuna factories in the U.S. (in southern California and Puerto Rico) and one of the last two canned clams plants (in Cape May, N.J.). The company went bankrupt in the late 1990s but it has emerged stronger, and it’s now North America’s largest branded shelf-stable seafood company.

But Bumble Bee’s tuna business, which accounts for more than half of its revenues of close to $1 billion, has a new worry: If the world’s fisherman can’t agree to  intelligently manage capacity, tuna stocks could well be threatened.

Chris Lischewski

“We’re at maximum sustainable yield,” says Chris Lischewski, Bumble Bee’s president and CEO.

Bumble Bee itself doesn’t own fishing boats–it’s a processor and marketer of  seafood–but its future obviously depends on a reliable supply of fish.

I met Chris a week ago at FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green conference, where I led a panel on sustainable seafood. (Tomorrow, I’ll blog about Josh Goldman of Australis, who also spoke.) A former management consultant who has run Bumble Bee since 1999, Chris told me that he didn’t worry much about fish supplies until the mid-2000s when it became apparent to him that global efforts to regulate tuna fishing weren’t working.

In response, Bumble Bee with the World Wildlife Fund and industry rivals, including Starkist (a unit of Korean fishing conglomerate Dongwon) and Chicken of the Sea (now owned by a Thai parent), created the nonprofit International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF) in 2009. Chris now chairs its board, and he has had to become an expert in fisheries management. [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…]

Will American consumers ever go “green”?

It’s been another action-packed day at FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green conference on business and the environment. Lively conversation about the future of coal (it’s not going away), sustainable seafood (about which more another day), geoengineering and marketing to the green consumer.

The “green consumer” panel featured SC Johnson’s CEO H. Fisk Johnson, Steve Wenc of UL Environment and marketing guru Suzanne Shelton. It was moderated by my friend and colleague Joel Makower, the founder and editor-in-chief of GreenBiz. They all agreed that much of corporate America has moved ahead of its customers when it comes to embracing green products.

Wait, it gets worse: Joel and Suzanne argued that consumers fool themselves about their green behavior. They buy a CFL bulb or green cleaning product or perhaps a Prius and then decide they’ve done their part for the planet. They tell pollsters that they consider sustainability factors in their purchasing decisions and describe themselves as “conscious consumers” but the reality is quite different. They’re greenwashing their own behavior, Joel noted.

Is this bottle necessary?

Fisk told a story that illustrates this sometimes-depressing reality. [click to continue…]