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…]

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…]

What sustainable consumption looks like

Three “green” products that recently arrived at my house got me thinking about the idea of sustainable consumption.

Which of these three do you think moves us closer to sustainable consumption?

Which takes us farther away?

This is a bottle of dish and hand soap from Method. The package is made from recycled ocean plastic.

This is an LED bulb from IKEA.

And these are SUNNAM solar-powered lamps, also from IKEA.

Two of these products — the dish soap and the bulb — move us in the right direction. The solar lamp? No. And I say that as an admirer of Method and IKEA.

To understand why, let me try to define sustainable consumption: It’s the consumption of a product that leaves the world no worse off–and ideally better off–than if it were never made. But it’s got to be more than that–the product has to be appealing and affordable, too. Very few products meet that test today. But it’s not hard to see what sustainable consumption would look like–products would be made using renewable energy, and they would be made into something else when they are done. A world powered by renewable energy with zero waste would be sustainable, more or less, or at least a lot more sustainable than the polluting, wasteful, throwaway system of production and consumption that we have now. [click to continue…]

The elusive green consumer

I’d like to believe that we can shop our way to be a better world.

It’s unlikely.

If our economy is going to become more just and sustainable, change will have to come from the top down, not from the bottom up.

This roll of toilet paper helps explain why.

Called Moka, this bathroom tissue comes from a company called Cascades, which is headquartered in Montreal. It’s made from 100% recycled paper, and it has a lower carbon footprint than conventional toilet paper. Moka costs less to manufacture than ordinary white toilet paper and uses less bleach. And it works fine. Trust me–the company sent me a sample roll.

“It’s beneficial for us, for consumers and for the environment,” says Isabelle Faivre, US Marketing Director for Cascades.

The trouble is, you can’t buy Moka in a store.

That’s because Moka is being, er, rolled out exclusively in the away-from-home market. That is, it’s being sold to distributors who supply office buildings, schools, colleges, hospitals, restaurants and hotels. “Companies have that need to look green, to make them feel better about themselves,” says Faivre. But consumers aren’t ready to accept off-color bathroom tissue. [click to continue…]

A Carrotmob, not a stick

Have consumers ever been more powerful than they are today?

A Facebook posting led thousands of people to move money out of big banks and into credit unions. When customers revolted, Verizon dropped plans to charge a $2 “convenience fee” to pay bills online. A petition at change.org led to Bank of America back off a scheme to charge customers for using their debit cards.

“It’s a great time to be a citizen,” says Brent Schulkin. “It’s a really bad time to be a failed institution.”

Schulkin, who is 31, is the founder of Carrotmob, a startup that aims to use the power of consumers to do good. Instead of boycotting or protesting companies for missteps (or downright bad behavior),  Carrotmob organizes campaigns in which people offer to spend their money to support a business, and in return the business agrees to take an action that the people care about. It’s the opposite of a boycott, and it’s called Carrotmob (not to be confused with the comedian Carrot Top) because it uses a “carrot” instead of a “stick” to spark change.

Carrotmob in Sydney, Australia

You can think of Carrotmob as another way to drive sustainability by using social media. The idea has been kicking around Schulkin’s head since 2003 when he was an undergrad at Stanford. As it evolves, it is likely to look more like  Groupon (which uses the power of collective purchasing to drive discounts) or Kickstarter (where people can come together to raise money to support a project) while tapping into some of the frustrations that energized OccupyWallStreet. [click to continue…]

Why I love Twitter, and random thoughts on social media and sustainability

Any day now, I’ll attract my 10,000th follower on Twitter. Whoever you are, thanks. Not coincidentally, Twitter has become my favorite social-media platform. So this seems like a good moment to reflect on social media, sustainability and journalism.

Like most of you, I imagine, I’m spending more time lately with social media — Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google + and blogs (obviously) — and less with newspapers, magazines, television, radio and books.  While there’s obviously overlap between digital and traditional media, I’m finding social media to be an increasingly  efficient and effective way for me to gather and absorb information, which is what I do.

This post is not about how social media is transforming corporate sustainability–although clearly it is. Business has fewer secrets. Corporate communication has become a two-way process. Corporate shaming campaigns are more powerful than ever. Greenpeace targeted Kit Kat and Nestle very effectively last year on Facebook and YouTube, gay activists at All Out brought pressure on PayPal to drop its business relationship with hate groups and a petition on change.org helped spark a national conversation about shopping on Thanksgiving. This is powerful stuff.

Today, though, I want to talk about my own experience with social media. These platforms can be immensely valuable but they can also be a time suck. Here’s my thinking, as of now:

Why I love Twitter: I was on a conference call on August 23 when my home office started to shake. My first reaction was that a car or truck had hit the house. Then I checked Twitter, and found a bunch of posts about the earthquake that was making its way up the east coast. (Within a minute, according to Twitter, there were 40,000 earthquake-related Tweets.) Friends in New York read about the quake on Twitter and felt it moments later.

The point is, Twitter is a super-fast way of keeping up with the news. More important, it’s the best way I know of to stay abreast of the news that I need to know — about business, sustainability, energy, climate and corporate social responsibility. That’s because I’ve found people I trust on Twitter who share what they are reading and thinking about. By spending 15 to 30 minutes a day on Twitter (not counting the time reading links), I can stay on top of news and commentary that matters to me. [click to continue…]

On the VERGE of a “green” transformation

Next week brings a global conversation around a big idea being called  VERGE. The notion is that  energy, information, building, and vehicle technologies are converging, in ways that will make the planet radically more sustainable. The coinage comes from my friend and colleague Joel Makower, the chairman and executive editor of GreenBiz Group, the  producer of Greenbiz.com, where I’m a senior writer.

Like the Internet that makes it possible, VERGE will have a “deep and lasting impact,” Joel says. “It will change everything. Or, more accurately, it will focus and accelerate the changes already under way.”

We’ll be talking about VERGE at three high-level VERGE roundtables on June 21 and June 22 — one in San Francisco led by Joel and another in Shanghai led by Rob Watson, a  pioneer in the world of green buildings. I’ll be moderating the conversation in London, joined by executives from such companies as IBM, Cisco, Marks & Spencer, CH2MHill and Autodesk. Sustainability gurus John Elkington and Peter Madden will be there as well. You’ll be able to tune in live to all three events, culminating in a free, six-hour virtual event on June 22.

Here’s how Joel explains the VERGE in a recent story at GreenBiz:

Each of the four VERGE technologies is evolving quickly, with its own market, economic, policy, and technological dynamics.

  • Energy technology is becoming decentralized, cleaner, better managed, and easier to store.
  • Information technology is making every device, building, and vehicle smarter, able to connect into a vast Internet of things that can be addressed, monitored, controlled, and optimized.
  • Buildings are becoming more intelligent and efficient, better able to optimize energy and resource use and enhance human comfort and productivity, with the potential of becoming net-positive, from the standpoint of their environmental footprint.
  • Vehicles are getting smarter, too, able to communicate with their drivers, other vehicles, and their surroundings, becoming safer and more efficient while connecting passengers and fleet managers to a broader transportation and energy grid. [click to continue…]

The State of Green Business 2011

Ok, it’s not quite the state of the union, but the annual State of Green Business (SOGB) report, put together by my friend and colleague Joel Makower, is becoming a big deal in the world of green business, and for good reason. It should be required reading for anyone working at the intersection of business and sustainability.

This year’s report was released today at the first of three State of Green Business forums — we’re in San Francisco this week, Chicago next week and Washington D.C. on Feb. 16-17. It’s useful because it lifts us above the day-to-day news cycle to identify major trends and ask big questions.

“Are we making progress, are we losing ground or are we holding steady?” Joel asked this morning, at SOGB San Francisco.

The answer, not surprisingly, is all of the above. Corporate commitments “are broader and deeper,” Joel said, citing in particular the plans unveiled in the last year by consumer products giants like Unilever and Procter & Gamble. “But progress is incremental. We’re still doing less bad, which is not the same thing as doing good.” We’re seeing more corporate transparency, more “green chemistry,” and progress when it comes to setting standards for companies and products. [click to continue…]

How to innovate…sustainably

So I have a confession to make: I’m kind of bored by eco-efficiency.

Yes, I know that this week’s announcement of new government standards for refrigerators and the super-insulated double-hung windows in the Empire State building and Yahoo’s new ‘chicken coop’ data center in upstate New York are all important ways to conserve energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and save the planet.

But what really gets me jazzed is innovation that gets us closer to a sustainable world, not incrementally, but by leaps and bounds: innovative business models like Zipcar and RecycleBank, innovative products like P&G’s Tide coldwater or Method’s 8x laundry concentrate, and innovative ways of thinking about business like Waste Management’s Green Squad, which helps companies reduce waste before it’s created.

That’s why I’m excited about the first Greenbiz Innovation Forum this month (October 19-20) in San Francisco. It’s about “models, methods and mindsets for transforming business” to make it more sustainable. My friends and colleagues at Greenbiz, led by Joel Makower, have put together a terrific group of speakers, as well as hands-on opportunities for all of us to learn how to think more creatively.

I’m looking forward to reconnecting with Janine Benyus of the Biomimicry Guild,  architect and designer Bill McDonough of cradle-to-cradle fame and Aron Cramer, author of a new book called Sustainable Excellence. (They’ve all spoken at FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green conference.)  I’m eager to meet author Hunter Lovins of Natural Capitalism Solutions, John Warner, a pioneer of the green chemistry movement and Tim Brown, the CEO of Ideo, among others.

Corporate executives who will talk about how they foster innovation include Stephen Meller and Len Sauers of P&G, Scott Elrod of Xerox PARC, Jim Hall of Waste Management, and Adam Lowry of Method. I’ll be moderating a panel with Adam and Andrew Williamson of Physic Ventures, a venture capital firm that invests in “companies that are developing technologies, products and services to enable consumers to adopt more sustainable lifestyles.”

I hope to see you there–you can request an invitation here.

And if you are in the solar business, I could well see you the week before (October 12-13) in Los Angeles, where I’ll  be moderating a CEO panel at Solar Power International 2010, North America’s largest business-focused solar industry convention. I’ll be speaking with Tony Clifford, the chief executive officer of Standard Solar; Dan Shugar, the chief executive officer, Solaria; Terry Wang, chief financial officer, Trina Solar; and Matthew Baker, commissioner, Colorado Public Utilities Commission. We’ll talk about what’s needed to dramatically speed the growth of the solar business in the U.S., and you can be sure innovation will be a big part of our conversation.

In between, I’ll be at the Society of Environmental Journalists 20th annual conference in Missoula, Montana. I’m a newcomer to SEJ, but I did get to last year’s conference in Wisconsin and it was a great learning opportunity. This year there will be lots of talk about the west–water, wolves, natural parks and such–as well as panels about nuclear power (which isn’t popular with the SEJers I’ve met), the BP oil spill, nanotechnology and and even geoengineering–perhaps the most innovative approach imaginable to the climate crisis.

P&G: A bold green vision but…

Procter & Gamble, the world’s largest consumer products company, today unveiled a bold new sustainability vision.

Don’t start the cheering yet.

Yes, the company eventually aims to power of all its operations with 100% renewable energy, to use 100% recyclable or renewable materials in all its products and to have no waste from the manufacturing or use of its products end up in landfills.

The vision is unimpeachable.

But the path to get there is not so clear.

And the reason to withhold applause? In the next decade or so, if P&G continues to grow, its environmental impact is more likely to get worse that it is to get better.

This is a fundamental conundrum for consumer goods companies with traditional business models and even the best of intentions: The more stuff they sell (and of course they want to sell more stuff), the more they pollute.

What P&G does matters, a lot. It’s an $80 billion company (annual revenues, for the year ended June 30). Its brands include Tide, Pampers, Crest, Gillette, Bounty, Cascade, Oral-B, Pepto Bismol, Ivory, etc.  It reaches 4 billion–4 billion!–consumers around the world and aims to reach 5 billion in the next five years. And like General Electric, P&G is an executive training machine; many ex-P&Gers (Meg Whitman, Steve Ballmer, Steve Case, many more) have gone on to do big things.

You can read a straightforward account of the P&G sustainability plan here at Greenbiz and a thoughtful (and favorable) analysis from my friend Joel Makower here. This is the latest iteration of P&G’s sustainability commitment, and the company has some meaningful accomplishments, as Joel reports. Just the past six months, P&G has:

introduced to the U.S. its Future Friendly campaign, born in Europe, a multi-brand and multi-platform effort to raise awareness about greener products and greener practices;

created a high-profile panel of sustainability experts to advise on its Future Friendly efforts;

launched a supplier scorecard to measure their environmental impacts;

reformulated a bestselling shampooto reduce toxins;

announced concentrated versions of powder laundry detergentsthat significantly reduce packaging and energy use; and

introduced sugarcane packaging to three of its shampoo and makeup brands.

Another good sign: P&G’s chairman and chief executive, Bob McDonald, joined a conference call with Len Sauers, P&G’s sustainability chief, to announce the new vision. Having the CEO put his stamp on the message tells everyone at P&G that sustainability matters to the company.

So why not cheer?

First, these are all visionary long-term goals. No target dates are attached to them.

Second, P&G has been slow to develop this vision–which is strikingly similar to the the one laid out by Walmart in 2005. Indeed, while comparisons are inevitably imperfect, my impression is that when you measure P&G against Walmart, the world’s biggest retailer, or GE, the world’s most admired industrial company, or IBM, whose Smart Planet work is path-breaking, P&G is moving more slowly and timidly than any of those iconic FORTUNE 500 firms. It’s also trailing innovative competitors like Method (See Revolution in the laundry room) and Seventh Generation. More evidence that P&G is following, not leading? P&G’s Tide, the market leader, trailed Unilever’s All in the race to shrink laundry detergent packaging.

Third, and most important, P&G is mostly talking about eco-efficiency, as Sauers, to his credit, acknowledges. To pick just one example, P&G’s interim goals for 2020 include a commitment to reduce “packaging by 20 percent per consumer use.” This won’t be easy, I’m sure, and it’s admirable. But….let’s assume that P&G grows by a not-unreasonable 25% over the next 10 years. The company will then be producing more packaging, not less, than it does today.

P&G also tends to measure its reductions of  greenhouse gas emissions and water usage on a per-unit, rather than absolute basis. Strictly from a business standpoint,  this makes sense because as the company buys and sells businesses, it needs a consistent metric against which to define progress. But, as I wrote back in 2008 at Fortune.com with respect to P&G (See Buy Toilet Paper, Save the Planet):

Relative efficiency doesn’t matter to the planet. What matters is how many tons of greenhouse gases are emitted, and most scientists say those numbers need to first stabilize and then go down, dramatically.

Like most companies, P&G is still wrestling with the challenge of how to grow revenues and limit its footprint at the same time.

Given that, let’s hope that P&G’s talent for innovation will be focused on making consumption more sustainable. This page on P&G’s website offers a few examples, some impressive, most not so. If P&G can persuade more consumers to use Tide Coldwater or, in Europe, Ariel Cool Clean, both of which eliminate the need to heat water for laundry, we’ll all be better off. Opportunities around sustainability also lie in emerging markets, from which much of P&G’s growth will come.

As Len Sauers told Joel & Greenbiz:

I have a firm belief that all issues of sustainability will be solved by innovation. And at P&G, one of our core strengths is innovation, so as we go down this path to tackle these issues that the world is facing, I believe it’ll be our innovative solutions that are very helpful there. I see this as business opportunity for the company.
At least P&G understands that eco-efficiency, by itself, will not get us where we need to go.