Why sustainability has to be a team sport

imagesOne of the great virtues of market capitalism is that power is widely dispersed–among consumers, corporate executives, investors and regulators. Lots of people get lots of votes that collectively shape business, and that’s good. But decentralization creates a daunting problem for anyone who cares about corporate sustainability: It’s hard to get things done.

In conversations today at the GreenBiz Forum in New York, people who could be described as powerful—executives with big titles (vice chairman, vice president, CEO) at big institutions (NASDAQ, McDonald’s and Ingram Barge, America’s biggest barge company)–all lamented the limits on their influence over what their companies do, let along how industries can change.

This is why sustainability has to be a team sport. Very few people–or companies–can do much on their own.

Take Bob Langert, vice president for corporate responsibility at McDonald’s, who is one of the most respected sustainability executives in the US. He’s got credibility inside the company and with NGO partners. But to get anything done, he’s got to win over thousands of owner-operators of McDonald’s stores, as well as a a diverse set of suppliers and, in some instances, the tens of millions of people who eat at Mickey D’s every day.

“We are the world’s largest small business,” Langert said. The overwhelming majority of McDonald’s outlets are “owned and operated by independent business people. They have a lot of power in our system. That means we can’t dictate from on high. I challenge people to show me a company that’s more democratic than McDonald’s.” [click to continue…]

Peak sustainability? Thankfully, not….

Dave Stangis and Tod Arbogast at the GreenBiz Forum

Dave Stangis and Tod Arbogast at the GreenBiz Forum

Have we reached “peak sustainability”? It’s an intriguing, and a worrisome idea, the notion that the much-hyped green business wave of the late 2000s has come and gone. But a day spent at the GreenBiz Forum in New York, where the idea of peak sustainability was bruited about, leads me to believe — and to hope — that we are nowhere near a peak.

Peak sustainability is a term coined by John Davies, a vice president and senior analyst at GreenBiz, who works with dozens of big companies. As part of the excellent  State of Green Business 2013 report, John has tracked the hiring of sustainability professionals by big companies and found that it has leveled off in recent years. He wrote:

It appears the wave of major companies hiring their first full-time sustainability executives crested long ago….If hiring a senior executive to champion and coordinate sustainability efforts full-time is a leading indicator of future efforts, there’s a case to be made that such efforts may have plateaued…. Could it be that pretty much everyone who’s coming to this party has already arrived?

sportsillustratedMeantime, marketing and media devoted to corporate sustainability, as well as to all things green, appears to be slipping. The high profile greening initiatives at GE, IBM and Walmart are lower profile lately. Remember the cover story on global warming in, of all places, Sports Illustrated? That ran way back in 2007. If SI has returned to the topic, I missed it. Its parent company, Time Inc., laid off its sustainability team as the magazine business slumped.

But as the GreenBiz Forum unfolded, an array of speakers, including both senior executives from big companies and idealistic young entrepreneurs, described how they are moving sustainability initiatives forward inside their organizations. Not fast enough, surely not boldly enough, but often in innovative ways that are likely to spread. Some examples: [click to continue…]

Turning JP Morgan green from the inside out

Matthew Arnold

Matthew Arnold

Can Wall Street become a friend of the earth? For nearly a decade now, most of the big investment and commercial banks have had chief sustainability officers, but it’s never been clear to me what they can and cannot do.

To find out, I spoke recently with Matt Arnold, the head of environmental affairs for JP Morgan Chase, who I’ve known for years. Matt, a lifelong environmentalist, was refreshingly honest.

In my latest column for the Guardian Sustainable Business website, I report on what I learned. Here’s how the story begins:

Deep inside the belly of the beast known as JPMorgan Chase toils a lifelong environmentalist and former Eagle Scout named Matthew Arnold who is trying to help turn the bank, if not green, well, a bit greener. It’s a daunting job.

Arnold, 51, joined the company in autumn 2011 as head of the office of environmental affairs because, he says, of the sheer scale of the opportunity; last year, the bank booked $99.9bn (£64bn) in revenue and $21.3bn (£14bn) in profits, providing credit and raising capital of more than $1.8tn, for everything from home mortgages to credit cards to corporate bonds and IPOs. The bank manages another $1.4bn in assets (as of September 2012) for clients. If Arnold can help steer even a slice of that towards more sustainable ventures – for example, towards wind and solar energy and away from coal – he will be doing his part to make Wall Street a friend of the earth. But can he?

“The position I’m in now has the greatest potential for impact of anything I’ve done,” Arnold says. “Yet there’s no manual for this. There’s not a clear roadmap.”

You can read the rest of the column here.

On Wednesday, by coincidence, at the GreenBiz Forum in New York, I’ll be interviewing Matt and Erika Karp, who is head of global sector research at UBS, to talk about the role of Wall Street in promoting sustainability. Matt and Erika will also be joining us this spring at Fortune Brainstorm Green.