Elkington: Whispering radical ideas to CEOs

300px-John_Elkington_06“The time has come to tear down the old order and begin to create the new.”

John Elkington sounds like a Wall Street occupier, or a Bolshevik. He is neither. He is, instead, a 63-year-old consultant who has advised executives of global corporations, including Ford, Shell, BP, Toyota, HP, Nike, Nestle and Bayer, over the course of a long career at the crossroads of business and the environment. Along with such thinkers as Paul Hawken and Amory Lovins, Elkington all but invented the discipline of corporate sustainability. He’s got a new book out, called The Zeronauts, so I paid him a visit a week or so ago when I was in London.

The book’s very good. It celebrates a new breed of innovators, called Zeronauts, who set out to create wealth while driving negative outputs — greenhouse gas emissions, toxics, waste, pollution and poverty — to zero.

The idea of zero is intended to be a wake-up call. It’s a reminder, not that we should need one,  that incremental change won’t get us where we needs to go.

“It helps reframe things,” Elkington told me. “It’s a catalyst.”

Elkington has a knack for coming up with language that gets people’s attention. He called his consultancy SustainAbility in 1987 when the idea of a sustainable business was brand new. He wrote the first book about the “green consumer” in 1986. (My friend Joel Makower co-authored the US edition.) He coined the term “triple bottom line” (profits, people, planet) in 1994. His thinking has always been bold, but he has a gentle sense of humor and low-key manner that allows him to whisper radical ideas into the ears of CEOs without unsettling them. [click to continue…]

Floating islands, inspired by nature

It would not be accurate to call Floating Island International, the business led by Bruce and Anne Kania, a mom-and-pop operation–for one thing, although they are married, Bruce and Anne don’t have children–but that description gives you a sense of the scale of their startup. With fewer than a dozen employees, the Kanias are tucked away in the small town of Shepherd, Montana (population: 208) and the firm’s annual revenues are less than $1 million.

But Floating Island International already lives up to its name: Its man-made islands can be found in New Zealand, China, South Africa and Canada as well as in the U.S. Its customers include U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, American Electric Power and Disney World, which suggests that they may be onto something. And the Kanias’ ambitions seem to know no bounds.

“I’m pretty sure we are going to be one of the most successful businesses of all time,” says Bruce.

Bruce, who is 57, is an inventor and entrepreneur who worked in prosthetics, textiles and sporting goods (he invented a broadhead arrow). Then, about a decade ago, he came up with the idea of turning plastic trash into man-made floating islands that can clean polluted water, spur the growth of fish, provide species habitat and sequester carbon.

Not to mention create beachfront property.

We’re learning how to grow real estate,” he says. [click to continue…]

What business can learn from Sea-Monkeys

If you were one of those kids who looked forward to science class, you probably remember Sea-Monkeys.

I wasn’t into science but, as I recall, you could order Sea Monkeys from the back page of a comic book. According to Wikipedia, Sea Monkeys are the brand name for a

variant of brine shrimp… a species which enters cyptobiosis,  a natural state of suspended animation, allowing their cysts (dormant saclike embryos) to be distributed and sold as a dry powder. When the “eggs” are poured into saltwater, the Sea-Monkeys start to come out of their cysts.

Now, it turns out,  the coating that kept the brine shrimp alive can do more than entertain science geeks on a Saturday night. Its properties have inspired a startup company called Biomatrica, which makes a “room temperature stabilization technology” used to preserve vaccines and other medicines that would otherwise have to be refrigerated. Don’t ask me to explain how the science works — yes, I should have paid more attention back in high school — but I can tell you that this product is potentially a very big deal. Think of how it can help overcome the challenges of delivering medicine to the many places in the world without an electricity grid, where keeping them reliably cold is all but impossible.

Janine Benyus

The story of Biomatrica, one of a number of companies using a practice known as biomimicry to drive innovation and become more sustainable, was recounted yesterday by Janine Benyus, the biologist who dreamed up the idea of  biomimicry. She now leads a consulting firm and a nonprofit to spread its ideas; their website defines biomimicry as” an emerging discipline that studies nature’s best ideas and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems.”

Janine spoke on a panel today at the first GreenBiz Innovation Forum, a two-day event intended to help business rethink their products, processes and business models to make them more sustainable. She was joined by John Warner, the president of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry.

Benyus and Warner are among the most original, creative and inspiring thinkers you’ll find anywhere in the sustainability world. They made a bit of news during the GreenBiz event by disclosing that they will be working together in the future, at least for certain clients. They’re both big thinkers: This is a crude way of putting it, but Benyus and Warner are trying to transform industry to become more like nature and less like, well, industry — by using more benign materials and processes, by becoming more efficient and generating less waste.

John Warner

Green chemistry, Warner explained, “is a science of active pollution prevention.” His institute works in a variety of industries–solar energy, industrial chemicals, pharmaceuticals, personal care and cosmetics–to reduce or eliminate substances that are hazardous to human health or to the planet. His institute says:

Green Chemistry presents industries with incredible opportunity for growth and competitive advantage. This is because there is currently a significant shortage of green technologies: we estimate that only 10% of current technologies are environmentally benign; another 35% could be made benign relatively easily. The remaining 65% have yet to be invented!

The benefits to consumers and to the environment of green chemistry are obvious. Business gains because if hazardous materials are eliminated from products or manufacturing processes, the cost of disposing and handling those materials should disappear as well. “If you render the molecules safe in the first place, you don’t have the expense of exposure controls.” Warner said most major chemical firms are at least dabbling in green chemistry, and some are taking it very seriously. [click to continue…]

“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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Brainstorm Green 2009

Not long ago, Big Business and environmental activists were sworn enemies. No more. Today, companies and NGOs come together to work creatively around a variety of issues—from climate change to recycling to protecting the Amazon, from cleaning up dirty businesses like gold mining and to “greening” professional sports. One place they literally come together is at Brainstorm Green, FORTUNE’s conference about business and the environment, which will be back on Earth Day, 2009.

Helping to create Brainstorm Green was a highlight of my 12 years at FORTUNE, and I’m pleased that I’ll be back this year, co-chairing the event with my colleague Brian Dumaine, FORTUNE’s global editor. The program for this year’s Brainstorm Green is still a work in progress, but a group of us got a draft agenda down on paper last week and I’m confident that it will again be a lively, exciting, information-packed event. The theme, once again, will be: How can business help solve the world’s biggest environmental problems?

We’ll discuss and debate climate change regulation, “clean coal,” nuclear power, electric cars, the smart grid, investing in green, renewable energy, sustainable consumption (if there is such a thing), carbon finance and too many other topics to list here.

What makes Brainstorm Green special is the diversity of the crowd. This year, we’ll again hear from many of America’s most important environmental leaders, including Fred Krupp of Environmental Defense, Glenn Prickett of Conservation International, Mark Tercek of The Nature Conservancy (who was there last year on behalf of Goldman Sachs), David Hawkins of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Mindy Lubber of Ceres and Mike Brune of Rainforest Action Network. At least two dozen CEOs of big and medium-sized companies have agreed to speak, including Shai Agassi of Better Place (the electric car company), Ray Anderson of Interface, Carl Bass of Autodesk, David Crane of NRG Energy, Jeff Hollender of Seventh Generation, Fisk Johnson of S.C. Johnson, Donald Knauss of Clorox, Mike Morris of American Electric Power, Ralph Peterson of CH2M Hill, Jim Rogers of Duke Energy and Tom Werner of SunPower.

Other companies sending speakers include Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Goldman Sachs, Mars, Intel, Boeing, McKinsey, the private-equity firm KKR and architectural firm HOK. That list is sure to grow.

We’ll also be joined by speakers whose ideas are shaping the sustainability debate. I’m looking forward to spending time with Paul Hawken, whose books have shaped much of my own thinking about business and the environment. The dynamic Van Jones, who is profiled in the current issue of The New York by Betsy Kolbert,  will talk about green jobs. The always-inspiring Janine Benyus, who spoke last year, will be back to show us how biomimicry works in practice. My friend Joel Makower, the guru of green business and author of Strategies for the Green Economy, will return as well.

Venture capitalists from some of America’s top firms and entrepreneurs touting exciting startups will round out the group. We’re hoping to attract senior officials from the new Obama administration as well.

You can find a full list of speakers on the Brainstorm Green website. That’s also the best place to propose new speakers or to sign up for the event. (FORTUNE screens all participants.) We’ll meet in a beautiful setting—the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Laguna Niguel, CA, and I’m looking forward to seeing many of you blogreaders there.

Buildings inspired by nature

One of the most fascinating ideas in the world of sustainability is biomimicry—the notion that we can design products, services, systems and processes to look more like nature. In nature, nothing is wasted. Everything is sustainable. And efficiency has been driven by 3.8 billion years of evolution.

Recently, HOK, one of the world’s big architectural firms, formed an alliance with the Biomimicry Guild, a consulting firm led by Janine Benyus, the guru of biomimicry. They’ll work together to explore the question of how nature can help us better design buildings, neighborhoods and cities. Their work is the topic of today’s Sustainability column.

Here’s how the column begins:

What if the outside of a building worked more like a leaf?

About 30 years ago, a German botanist named Wilhelm Barthlott noticed the bumpy structure of the leaves of the lotus plant, which clean themselves by forcing rainwater to bead, collect dirt and wash it away. He patented what is now called the “Lotus-Effect” and licensed it to manufacturers of self-cleaning paints, glass and roofing tiles, which are used in thousands of buildings in Europe.

This is an example of biomimicry, an emerging discipline that draws inspiration from nature to design new products, systems, and buildings – even cities and towns.

The term was coined by science writer Janine Benyus in a 1997 book, Biomimicry, and lately it has become a hot topic in corporate America. General Electric, General Mills and Kraft Foods have all turned to the Biomimicry Guild, a consulting firm led by Benyus, for help as they design new products. Now she has struck a deal with HOK, one of the world’s biggest and most influential architectural firms, to see what biomimicry can do for buildings.

Janine Benyus spoke about biomimicry last April at FORTUNE’s Brainstorm: Green conference about business and the environment, and she was a big hit. I’m hoping to organize a panel for the 2009 edition of Brainstorm: Green about products inspired by nature, like the Speedo bathing suit influenced by shark skin and worn by Michael Phelps, below.

You can read the rest of the column here.