Carl Bass: Environmentalist, craftsman, CEO

This bench, fashioned from a single piece of black granite, was inspired by an African headrest and designed by Carl Bass. An accomplished and dedicated woodworker, Carl has lately been making thins out of  stone and metal, too.

In his day job, Carl is the CEO of Autodesk, which makes 3D design software that helps shape the world we live in. With just under $2 billion in revenues, Autodesk, which is based in San Rafael, CA,  sells to the architecture, building, construction, manufacturing and entertainment industries.

I traveled to San Francisco this week to interview Carl at an Autodesk sustainability summit. We met at the Autodesk Gallery at One Market Street, a cool space that showcases some of the cutting-edge sustainability projects designed using the company’s software–the ongoing renovation of the San Francisco Bay bridge, the Tesla electric car, Masdar’s headquarters building which is supposed to generate more energy than it uses.

Autodesk has a slew of sustainability initiatives, including working partnerships with the US Green Building Council, the Biomimicry Institute, the Cleantech Open and Granta Design. It gives away millions of dollars of software every year to clean tech startups and entrepreneurs in 29 countries.

As you’d expect, Carl uses Autodesk’s software — Inventor,  in the case of the bench — to test out his designs. This is known in the business world as eating your own dog food. I began our conversation by asking him about his latest creation, a bowl (below) made of metal, stainless steel and bronze that he produced, believe it or not, on a 3D printer. What follows are edited excerpts from our talk. [click to continue…]

Why green business is like teen sex

Corporate sustainability is like teen sex.

Everybody talks about it.

Nobody does it very much.

And when they do it, they don’t do it very well.

My friend and colleague Joel Makower likes to tell that joke, and it’s as good a way as any to introduce Greenbiz.com’s third annual State of Green Business report. The wide-ranging report was unveiled today in San Francisco at a conference hosted by 100203-sobg1-wJoel. I won’t try to summarize it;  it’s available free for download here, and well worth a read. Among other things, Joel and his colleagues identify 10 green business trends–they include radical transparency, green fleets, toxics as strategy, and the rethinking of packaging–and they measure progress (or the lack thereof)  around 20 different metrics, including carbon transparency, carbon reporting, clean-tech investments and green power use.

The teen sex joke is fitting because the ratio of of talk to action in the green business arena remains high. Particularly when it comes to climate change–now and most likely forever the No. 1 environmental issue for business, and for everyone else–progress has been halting because of the absence of consistent government policy, at the national or global level. Only 34% of the S&P500 companies have promised to [click to continue…]

Next steps: Climate action and green business

Under the category of shameless promotion of self and friends, I want to call your attention to three upcoming events where I’ll be asking questions of some very smart people.

Tomorrow (Tuesday, January 26), I will be moderating a webinar for my colleagues at The Energy Collective called Is Global Action on Climate Change a Pipe Dream? Breaking Down What Was (Or Wasn’t) Achieved at COP15.

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Next Thursday, February 4, I’ll be in San Francisco to join my colleagues at Greenbiz.com, led by executive editor Joel Makower, at their annual State of Green Business Forum at the PG&E Auditorium.

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The following Tuesday, February 9, Joel and I and the Greenbiz crew will reconvene for a State of Green Business Forum at the Chicago Mart Plaza.

Here are some details:

We’ve got a great panel for The Energy Collective webinar, which is free of charge. Robert Stavins, the Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government at the Kennedy School at Harvard, as well as director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program. Prior to Harvard, Stavins was a staff economist at the Environmental Defense Fund. You can read one of his thoughtful blogposts about Copenhagen here. Aimée Christensen is an activist and consultant who’s worked in government, business, law and the nonprofit world on climate, human rights and development issues. She’s now got her own company, Christensen Global Strategies, which advises corporate, governmental,  and non-profit clients seeking to address the global challenges of climate change, ecosystem degradation, and resource scarcity. Her clients have included the Clinton Global Initiative,  Swiss Re, the United Nations Development Program, Virgin United, and Wolfensohn + Co.  Our third panelist will be Dirk Forrister, managing director at Natsource, a leading carbon finance company. Dirk previously worked for the Clinton White House and the Department of Energy, so he knows the Washington scene.  We’ll begin our conversation at 1 p.m. ET, and allow plenty of time for questions from the audience. You can register for the event here.

In San Francisco and Chicago, after Joel Makower and Greenbiz release their annual State of Green Business report, we’ll spend the day talking about where green business is going with an impressive array of business leaders. In San Francisco, they will include Carl Bass, the president and CEO of Autodesk, Rob Bernard, chief environmental strategist for Microsoft, entrepreneur and MacArthur fellow Saul Griffith, Rich Lechner, v.p. of energy and environment at IBM,  Rick Rommel, who leaders emerging businesses for Best Buy and Kevin Surace, CEO of Serious Materials. (Van Jones, the former White House green jobs czar, is also on the SF agenda, but he will be appearing by telepresence from Washington, D.C.) In Chicago, we will be joined by David Baum, president of the Baum Realty Group, Jim Davis, executive director for sustainability at SAP, Donna Ducharme of the Delta Institute, Rich Lechner, Sonia Medina, U.S. country director for EcoSecurities, C. David Myers, president for building efficiency at Johnson Controls, and Richard L. Sandor, chairman and founder of the Chicago Climate Exchange, among others. To register for either event, or obtain further info, visit the State of Green Business website. We’ll be talking about these topics:

Carbon Management After Copenhagen: How are companies considering carbon now that the Copenhagen summit is behind us? Hear how companies are viewing carbon as a strategic issue, implementing sophisticated new accounting schemes, realigning their products and processes, and preparing to compete in a low-carbon economy.

Green Marketing in the Age of Radical Transparency: In a world in which vast amounts of information are available about companies and products, the rules of green marketing have changed. Today, companies must respond to green ratings and rankings from websites, media companies, nonprofit organizations, and big players like Walmart. In a world where consumers have unparalleled access to data about products and companies, how does a company truly be seen as green?

Can IT Solve the World’s Problems? The information technology sector is responsible for 2% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, but its impact on the other 98% is growing rapidly. Hardware, software, and service providers are creating new products and services that are enabling large and small companies to better measure and manage their environmental impacts.

When Green Business Meets Cleantech: It used to be that green business and clean technology were separate realms. No longer. Today, the two are converging, as global companies and start-ups alike are harnessing clean technology as the foundation for a new generation of green business opportunities. The result are some unlikely corporate players and alliances.

On a personal note, it’s been about a year since I began working with The Energy Collective and Greenbiz. Robin Carey at TEC and Joel Makower and Pete May at Greenbiz are great partners, and their support for my writing makes this blog possible. So, thanks guys!

“I’m a slut for change”

That’s how author and sustainability guru Paul Hawken responded when I asked him during FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green why a small-is-beautiful guy agreed to work for huge companies like Wal-Mart and Ford. And I like to think that’s why nearly 300 business executives, NGO leaders, activists and government types came to our conference on business and the environment earlier this week. They were a diverse and occasionally disputatious group, which is exactly what we want: We had speakers from Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network, as well as Big Oil , the nuclear industry and American Electric Power, the nation’s No. 1 emitter of global warming pollution. But while there was disagreement over what path to take, there was broad consensus that business needs to find ways to become more sustainable.

Here are some of my takeaways from the event. One caveat—the quotes below were taken down on the run and may not be word-for-word perfect but they are close.

Bill Clinton doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty. Where do you find the former president these days? Occasionally, mucking around in the waste of cities like Lima, Mexico City and Lagos. “Whenever I think of an urban landfill, I see it not just as an eyesore and a contributor to global warming but a source of great wealth,” Clinton said, during the closing plenary. His Clinton Global Initiative on climate change, he explained, is training scavengers in Lima to be recycling workers, given them a salary and health care and encouraging them to become part of a “new industry in glass and metals.”

Clinton’s speech was a state-of-the-union style laundry list, long on details/solutions. He got all charged up about energy efficiency (hard to do) as he talked about retrofitting the Empire State Building, described extensive efforts to get cities to curb their carbon emissions and explained how he is helping to  make college campuses more efficient. “The most important thing you can do if you are not a member of the U.S. Congress,” he told the crowd, “is to show that the change we are all seeking is good economics.” He had a couple of odd ideas, suggesting that the states of Nevada and Arizona or maybe a Caribbean nation become “energy independent” to show the world that it’s possible. Clinton looked good, by the way—he wore a pair of Texas cowboy boots and hustled out of the hotel after his speech and a photo session to squeeze in a round of golf.

Some big problems, corporate America can’t solve. Fisk Johnson of SC Johnson, Jeff Hollender of Seventh Generation, Bill Valentine of HOK (big architecture firm) and Carl Bass of Autodesk (design company) joined me for a panel called Re-Imagining Consumption. The question put before them was simple but important: How can companies grow their revenues and profits while shrinking their environmental footprint? I thought we’d get into a conversation about cradle-to-cradle products that companies sell, or new business models like ZipCar. But we veered into a discussion of overconsumption after someone mentioned he oft-cited fact that Americans make up roughly 5% of the world’s population and consume 25% of its resources. That’s obviously a problem, and since companies are invented to solve problems, I ask them if there is a business opportunity there. They couldn’t see one although Bill Valentine said HOK often asks its clients whether they really need a new building, Carl Bass said  Autodesk is incorporating sustainability questions into its software, and Fisk and Jeff both talking about “greening” their products and packaging.  The truth us, it’s hard to imagine even progressive companies (except for recycling firms) coming up with products, services or new business models around buying less stuff. This tough job is probably best left to parents or religious leaders.

Environmentalists should reconsider nuclear power. I’m told there was a long and animated dinner conversation one night during which two leading thinkers of the sustainability movement—Janine Benyus of biomimicry fame and Ray Anderson of Interface–peppered Alan Hanson, an executive from Areva, the big French nuclear power company, with probing questions about nuclear power. I was pleased to hear that because I’ve thought for some time that environmentalists need to rethink their almost-religious opposition to nuclear power. (I’m going to write about this in more detail next week.)

If the problem of climate change threatens the very existence of human life on this planet (and it does), shouldn’t we reconsider nukes? Of course we should. We’re going to need baseload power and while a combination of efficiency, renewables and battery storage might get us where we need to go under a best-case scenario, I don’t want to bet the planet’s future on a best-case scenario. It’s likely we’ll face a choice between nuclear and so-called cleaner coal. I’m not sure where I come down on that.

During a panel on nuclear power (read David Whitford’s account here) that focused on its costs, I learned that Steven Chu, the energy secretary, is an advocate for nuclear while Carol Browner, the climate czar, is an opponent. President Obama has punted on the issue—he hasn’t said much of anything, at least according to our panelists. While Browner’s the more powerful figure in D.C., Chu is a brilliant and impressive guy, not to mention the only cabinet member with a Nobel Prize. I’d love to be a fly on the wall when they and Obama get together to talk about nukes.

I’m still not convinced about green jobs. Van Jones, the White House green jobs czar, spoke at Brainstorm Green and he managed to be both inspiring and utterly charming. But he couldn’t come up with a clear-cut definition of a green job. That’s not surprising. Consider the farmer who grows corn for popcorn. He’s a mere farmer. His buddy up the road who grows corn for ethanol? Green job, I presume.

Clinton, too, has hopped on the green jobs bandwagon: “I’ve always believed that work is the best social program,” he said. “Saving the planet from the threat of climate change will create more jobs, more ideas, more interdependence than anything else we can do.”

Hmm. Fred Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund said the best economic studies about the impact of a cap-and-trade program to regulate greenhouse gases project that the long-term impact on GDP will be very, very slight. But if GHG regulation has even a slight negative effect on GDP, how can it create more jobs?

It’s time to stop feeling guilty about business travel. Brainstorm Green was held at the Ritz Carlton in Laguna Niguel, California—a spectacular place overlooking the Pacific. We had some fabulous meals—prepared by organic chefs—and I got up early to run (a little) each day. At night, I opened the door to my hotel room and fell asleep to the sounds of the waves and an ocean breeze.

As it happens, we were at ground zero for the crisis in business travel. Next door was a St. Regisl where AIG held a meeting last fall that made national news and led to the cancellations of hundreds of business meetings. Luxury hotels and their working-class employees are suffering. What’s good about that?

More important, there was value in getting 300 people together in a relaxing place for a couple of days to talk about things that matter. We learned. We met new people. We built relationships. We showcased leading thinkers and doers, perhaps inspiring others. Maybe a startup that needed money raised some. We may live in an always-connected, everything-linked world, but you can’t do those things very well on email or over the phone or in a video conference.
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