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…]

B the change you want to see

Is shareholder capitalism broken?

Few would argue that it’s working well. Business as usual has us on a path to climate catastrophe. The housing/banking industry collapse threw the world into recession. We’ve seen Fukushima, the BP oil spill, the Massey coal mine deaths. Growing income inequality has become a persistent worry.

The conventional response to all that – indeed, the one that I share – is that smarter (though not more) regulation is needed. But a growing number of business people say the problems go deeper. They say a new kind of corporate legal structure is needed to require companies to operate for the  good of society, not just for their shareholders. These new corporations—they’re called B Corporations—are growing in number, and their structure has been enshrined into law in four states—Vermont, Maryland, New Jersey and Virginia.

Here’s what B Lab, the nonprofit behind B Corp, says on its website:

Our vision is simple yet ambitious: to create a new sector of the economy which uses the power of business to solve social and environmental problems. This sector will be comprised of a new type of corporation – the B Corporation – that meets rigorous and independent standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.

And in its annual report:

After the latest round of economic and environmental crises, it’s clear we need systemic solutions to the systemic problem that places the interests of shareholders over the interests of workers, community and the environment.

Interesting, no? A couple of months ago, I heard Jay Coen Gilbert, a founder of B Lab along with Bart Houlahan and Andrew Kassoy,  talk about B Corp (it stands for Benefit Corp.) at a GreenBiz conference; afterwards, we caught up by phone to talk some more. [click to continue…]

Big business’s big innovation problem

To create a new green economy, industrial capitalism must destroy itself. Disruptive, radical, breakthrough innovation is needed, on a mass scale. Government isn’t delivering the change we need. Can business step up to the challenge?

Innovation is on my mind because I’m just back from the GreenBiz Innovation Forum, a two-day event devoted to “sustainable innovation.” The San Francisco confab brought together smart and dedicated business people who engaged in lots of stimulating conversation and did some fun stuff—like trying to build a tower out of uncooked spaghetti, tape and a marshmallow. There’s video, photo and print coverage here.

I came away wondering whether the emerging orthodoxy of green business – one that is willing to settle for incremental changes by big companies, and clever but insubstantial breakthroughs by small ones—is going to get us where we need to go.

Two examples:

Procter & Gamble sets “carbon intensity” targets, meaning that it will produce its products (Tide, Bounty, Cascade, Crest, etc) with less energy. But because of the company’s growth imperative, it will pollute more, not less, in absolutely terms. [See P&G: A bold green vision but…]

Stonyfield Farm devises a corn-based yogurt cup, which gets us closer to a zero-waste, cradle-to-cradle consumption model. But the bigger challenge is to get  petroleum out of cars, trucks and planes, not yogurt cups.

These initiatives deserve applause, and their stories are worth sharing. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that they are the kinds of innovations that will deliver the environmental change we need.

Tim O'Reilly

The GreenBiz event was a reminder that big, multibillion dollar corporations aren’t good at disruptive innovation, even when they try. They don’t attract the right people; inventors and creative thinkers are repelled by cultures with lots of meetings, process, politics, budgets  and bureaucracies. Big companies are slow to move. They aren’t about having fun—and as Internet mogul Tim O’Reilly noted in a lively and provocative talk at GreenBiz breakthroughs are often driven by people  (the Wright brothers, the hackers who started the computer revolution, the Google guys) who want to have fun or make something cool.

Even when facing existential threats, big companies don’t cannibalize themselves, as Clayton Christensen has written. Newspapers didn’t invent Craiglist, which destroyed their classified business. The record industry tried to fright iTunes. My cool new “barefoot” running shoes (below), which challenge the business of conventional running shoes,  come from Vibram, an upstart, not from Nike or Adidas. Ford and GM didn’t invent Zipcar, and BP ain’t going beyond petroleum. [click to continue…]

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.

Revolution in the laundry room

I’ve joined the laundry-detergent revolution. Well, revolution may be stretching it  — but changes unfolding (sorry!) in laundry rooms across America show how innovation can move us closer to a sustainable economy.

The revolution metaphor is useful because it’s a reminder that real innovation is more likely to be driven by upstarts, insurgents and rebels–like Method, one of my favorite companies–than by powerful incumbents who want to preserve the status quo.

Take a look:

Over the last several years, big, wasteful jugs of  laundry detergent like this one from Procter & Gamble’s Tide  have all but disappeared from grocery store shelves. These jugs were good for marketing people who plastered messages on the package but they weren’t good for anyone else.Tide

Today, the new normal is concentrated 2x (meaning half the liquid in every load) detergents like Unilever’s Small and Mighty All, which use less packaging and water, saving money on shipping costs and waste. Tide sells lots of 2x as well.. The 2x packages are convenient, easy to store and pour. all+small+mighty

But the greenest, smartest and most innovative detergent is an 8x concentrate from Method, which uses less water in a smaller package and should save consumers money. This is good for everyone except news P&G or Unilever, which have profited from the  overdosing of laundry, as we’ll explain. new-method-laundry-detergent1-538x1024

Method is a privately-held company that was started in 2000 by Adam Lowry, a former climate scientist, and his friend Eric Ryan in their San Francisco bachelor pad. [click to continue…]

America’s 10 greenest brands?

What are the “greenest” brands in the U.S.? Until we can define “green,” there’s no meaningful way to answer that question. Of course, that doesn’t stop people from having, and expressing, opinions.

Last summer, a group of agencies owned by the giant marketing and communications company WPP – the PR firm Cohn & Wolfe, branding experts Landor Associates and pollster-consultants Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates (PSB) – joined with Esty Environmental Partners, a consulting firm run by Yale prof and author Dan Esty, to survey about 5,000 consumers around the world about green products, companies and brands. This Friday,  the agencies will host a lunch in New York where I’ll moderate a panel (see below) to talk about the survey, called Green Brands, Global Insights.

The survey produced all sorts of interesting results—would you believe that 38 percent of consumers in Brazil are willing to spent 30 percent or more for green products?—but what jumped out at me was the list of the U.S.’s greenest brands. Here goes.gw_logo

images-11. Clorox Green Works

2. Burt’s Bees

3. Tom’s of Maine

4. SC Johnson

5. Toyota

6. P&G

7. Wal-Martimages

8. Ikea

9. Disney

10.  Dove

To which I can only say: I would never, ever have predicted that list. [click to continue…]

The evolution of laundry detergent

“People are very entrenched in the way they do their laundry,” says Adam Lowry, the co-founder and chief “greenskeeper” at Method. And that’s a problem, as we’ll explain in a moment.

Method is an eight-year-old company that makes “environmentally-friendly cleaning products that are safe for every home and every body.” Started in a San Francisco bachelor pad by Lowry—a former climate scientist!—and his friend Eric Ryan, privately-held Method now has more than $100 million in annual revenues, about 100 employees and a good deal of buzz for its style as well as its green products. Although Method was the first company certified as a Cradle to Cradle company in the U.S., it’s probably better known for its packaging aesthetic than for its commitment to sustainability.


“If your brand position is, hey, we’re the green alternative to the toxic stuff, and everyone else offers green products, you’re no longer differentiated,” Lowry says. “It’s also not very interesting.”

“We’re trying to create broad appeal, way beyond the green consumer, for products that have ‘green’ as one of their qualities,” he says. “There have been far to many green things that have been designed to be green, and they suck.”

Lowry spoke today at the Greener By Design conference in San Francisco, hosted by my friend Joel Makower and run by Greener World Media. (I’m a senior writer at Greenbiz.com, a GWM media property.) He’s an interesting guy—34, with a chemical engineering degree from Stanford, who worked for the Carnegie Institution before starting Method.

Method is at the forefront of changes sweeping the home cleaning business. (No pun intended.) Premium brands like Method, Seventh Generation and Restore are growing. The big players in the industry, meanwhile, are introducing green brands, like Clorox’s Greenworks and SC Johnson’s Nature’s Source. All tend to talk about themselves as plant-based, biodegradable, natural, non-toxic, chlorine-free and the like. I confess, I can’t even begin to sort out the competing green claims.

Method, though, was the first cleaning company to introduce a triple-concentrated laundry detergent back in 2004. That was a simple and very good idea—it reduced packaging, appealed to retailers because it saved shelf space and shipping costs and was easier for consumers to shlep home. At first consumers balked—they weren’t sure they were getting enough detergent for their money—but with a big push from Unilever, which introduced a product called Small & Mighty All, and an even bigger push from Wal-Mart, the idea caught on. Now most laundry detergents are compacted.

“We thrive by making the market change and getting our competitors to follow our innovations,” Lowry says. “You now can’t buy at Wal-Mart or Target a non-concentrated laundry detergent.”

Even so, there’s lots of waste in the laundry biz. Most customers fill the cap on the bottle to the brim. More is better, they figure. Lowry says Method would like to find a way to get people to use only the detergent they need, and to deliver it with less packaging.

“We have a quandary.” Lowry says. “We make a lot of plastic bottles. I’d rather make a refill system.”

If consumers were willing to bring their empty containers back to the store and refill them, they could eliminate the packaging associated with each purchase and, presumably, save money. Restore is trying out a refill system for its products in cooperation with Whole Foods Markets in the Midwest. (Here’s a link to the Restore website that explains how it works.)

The problem is, it’s inconvenient. “If you don’t bring consumers along with you, the most wonderful innovation is useless,” Lowry says. Plus have you ever seen how much coffee is spilled on the floor in supermarkets where people grind the beans themselves? The aisles could get pretty sticky once people start dispensing laundry detergent.

Method is working on the next big idea in laundry detergent, Lowry tells me, but he won’t say much more than that. “It will bring fundamental change to the category,” he says. He will say that when he thinks about the future of laundry detergent – and it’s a good thing someone is – he sees an evolution from plastic bottles to a refill model to a subscription model to a service model.

“We want to get paid for cleaning people’s clothes, not for selling liquid. The business model has to change,” he said.

No, I don’t know what he’s talking about either, but one can envision a smart washing machine that would dispense exactly the right amount of detergent and no more, then clean your clothes, separate the rinse water from the detergent and the dirt, and then  recycle the water and detergent and do it all over again. A closed-loop system, if you will.

“When I think about Method in the future,” Lowry sats, “I want to be able to revolutionize every product category in which we compete.” Continuous improvement is the name of the game. Method is worth watching. And it’s clearly about a lot more than pretty bottles.