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 marc.gunther@gmail.com) 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!

Wal-Mart’s BIG problem: climate change

Much as I’m an admirer of Wal-Mart’s ambitious sustainability goals, and its efforts to achieve them, there’s a glaring problem with the company’s “progress” to date that can be seen in the chart below.

When it comes to climate change–the defining environmental issue of of our era—Wal-Mart is moving in the wrong direction.

As Gwen Ruta of the Environmental Defense Fund, a Wal-Mart partner, writes in her frank assessment of the company’s 2009 sustainability report, the problem is that all the good things that Wal-Mart is doing–increasing its use of renewable energy, driving efficiency in individual stores, improving its fleet operations and pushing up its recycling rate–are offset by the fact that the company is adding more stores and selling more stuff.

So although WMT’s greenhouse gas emissions per unit of sales is decreasing (the bars on the right), its overall carbon footprint is growing (the bars in the middle).
060909Wal-MartChart
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The Bills are coming to Brainstorm

No, not the Buffalo Bills. The exciting news is that Bill Clinton and Bill Ford have agreed to speak at FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green conference, about business and the environment, next month.

Former President Clinton will speak on Wednesday, April 22–Earth Day, Wednesday. Bill Ford, the executive chairman of Ford Motor, will be with us on the opening afternoon of the conference, Monday, April 20. We’ll be at the Ritz Carlton in Laguna Beach, CA. Here’s the current agenda—always subject to change.

I’m feeling good about this year’s programs after months of planning. We’ve got some smart CEOs who are in the thick of the upcoming debate in Washington about climate change, people like Mike Morris of American Electric Power, David Crane of NRG Energy (who was terrific last year), Jim Rogers of Duke Energy and Peter Darbee of PG&E (another returnee, and a very forward-thinking exec). We’ll also welcome Fisk Johnson, the CEO of SCJ Johnson, one of the most progressive CEOs in America when it comes to environmental issues, and the pioneering Jeffrey Hollender, founder and CEO of Seventh Generation (and a board member of Greenpeace). Michael Kowalski, the CEO of Tiffany & C0., will describe the company’s pathbreaking effort to try to make the mining industry more responsible—no easy task. CEOs John Brock of Coca Cola Enterprises and Carl Bass of Autodesk will also speak, along with senior execs from GE, IBM, Wal-Mart, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, P&G, and Coca-Cola. We’ll have CEOs oif solar, wind and biofuels companies, too.

On our opening night, I’ll lead a conversation with Paul Hawken, one of my favorite writers on business and the environment. He’s always provocative, and his talk is being called, “Green is the New Business as Usual—and that’s a problem.” From the NGO world, we’ll have Fred Krupp and Gwen Ruta of Environmental Defense, Mark Tercek of The Nature Conservancy, David Hawkins of NRDC, Van Jones of Green for All and many more.

If past Brainstorm events are any indication, though, Clinton will steal the show. He came to a couple of the original Brainstorm events in Aspen after leaving the White House, and he was mesmerizing. Should be fun.

KKR, cutting costs–and pollution

When Casey Stengel managed the woeful ’62 Mets, he’d lament, famously, “Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?” Some days, I ask that question about the people who run corporate America, and I’m not just talking about mortgage brokers and Wall Street risk managers.

The latest data point leading me to wonder whether executives running big companies know what the heck they are doing comes from the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund and the private equity firm KKR, which formed a partnership last spring, and announced today that, after studying the operations at three KKR-owned companies, they had identified about $16 million in cost savings that also produced meaningful environmental benefits. Here’s the press release.

This is welcome news, of course. U.S. Food Service, a big food distributor, saved $8.2 million in fuel costs through better driver training and technologies that turn off trucks when idling or set maximum speeds. Primedia, which publishes magazines and websites for home buyers and tenants, saved $2.9 million in material costs by shrinking paper sizes and putting more content on the Internet. Sealy Corp., the nation’s biggest bedding manufacturer, saved $4 million by recycling the raw materials, like cotton and wood, used to make mattresses. These initiatives all delivered environmental as well as cost benefits, so EDF and KKR have reason to be pleased.

“We were just experimenting, and look what we found,” says Gwen Ruta, EDF’s vice president of corporate partnerships. An EDF news release described the results as “a high note in a low economy.”

Well, sure, but doesn’t it make you wonder why all that money was wasted before a bunch of young and likely underpaid environmentalists came along to kelp KKR and its managers run their companies? I had always thought that what the private equity guys did best was to improve operations (i.e., squeeze costs) at the companies they buy.

When I asked Gwen Ruta about this, she acknowledged that none of the changes ushered in by the EDF-KKR partnership required technology breakthroughs or top-to-bottom reengineering of manufacturing processes. “None of this is rocket science,” she said. “You just need to be more thoughtful about what you are doing.”

U.S. Food Service, for instance, advised the drivers of its trucks not to step too hard on the pedal when starting up after making a full stop. Funny, I recall hearing that in a driver ed class, oh, about 40 years ago.

Ruta further explained that KKR had found the efficiency gains after working with EDF to devise new ways to analyze company operations. U.S. Food Service decided to measure how many gallons of fuel the company burned to move each ton of product. By tracking that metric, they improved efficiency by 4%, a significant gain. Similarly, Primemedia began looking at paper use per dollar of revenue and Sealy began to measure how much scrap it throws away per manufactured bed. There’s an old adage in business that “you can’t manage what you don’t measure,” and so by measuring waste and fuel efficiency, these firms are better able to manage them.

The argument here—and I think it has merit—is that by looking at company operations through the fresh lens of sustainability, managers will discover new opportunities to save money and reduce their environmental impact. If they are smart, they also will unleash the creativity of their workers, who really know how and where money is being wasted. Wal-Mart learned that when it began  rethinking its operations as part of a company-wide sustainability campaign.

KKR and EDF now plan to extend their efforts to other KKR-owned firms in North America and Europe. They will also make their methodology available to anyone who asks; that’s required when companies engage with EDF, which doesn’t take any corporate donations for its advice. I’m very pleased that Gwen Ruta (below), Ken Mehlman, the head of global public affairs at KKR, and Bob Aiken, the CEO of U.S. Food Service, have all agreed to speak in April at FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green conference about business and the environment.

(Disclosure: I’ve got a contract with EDF to write a report about environmental innovations in business.)