Reader faves: Best books about green business

Thanks for your emails and comments to my post last week, Best books in corporate sustainability? Not surprisingly, there was no consensus on what books are best–probably 200 books in were recommended–although many, many people suggested the writings of Paul Hawken and Bill McDonough. I don’t want to overwhelm you by listing all of the books that were recommended by email,  but here are some of my favorites as well as a few selections from last week’s comments, which can be found here.

From sustainability consultant Gil Friend, the ceo of Natural Logic:

My current picks:
> New: Climate Capitalism, Hunter Lovins & Boyd Cohen
> Venerable: Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth – R. Buckminster Fuller
> Practical: The Truth About Green Business – Gil Friend
> Inspiring: Confessions of a Radical Industrialist – Ray Anderson

There are many more good ones, so here’s TriplePundit.com’s [year-old] list of the “must read” sustainability books:
http://www.triplepundit.com/2010/02/sustainable-mba-crash-course/

A classic suggestion came from Keli Rae McMillen of Winter Park, CO, who send me a PDF of essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson, as well as this quote from Emerson’s History:

In old Rome the public roads beginning at the Forum proceeded north, south, east, west, to the centre of every province of the empire, making each market-town of Persia, Spain, and Britain pervious to the soldiers of the capital: so out of the human heart go, as it were, highways to the heart of every object in nature, to reduce it under the dominion of man. A man is a bundle of relations, a knot of roots, whose flower and fruitage is the world. His faculties refer to natures out of him, and predict the world he is to inhabit, as the fins of the fish foreshow that water exists, or the wings of an eagle in the egg presuppose air. He cannot live without a world.
(Coincidentally, I’ll have some news about Emerson later this month but I can’t say more now.)

Steve Schein, a longtime business exec who now teaches sustainability at Southern Oregon University, sent a Top 20 list: [click to continue...]

Best books on corporate sustainability?

Judging by the number of books about business and the environment piling up on my shelves, the corporate sustainability movement is alive and well.

One of the best is Business Lessons from a Radical Industrialist by Ray Anderson, the founder and chairman of the commercial carpet company Interface.

I’ve been provided with two signed copes of the paperback edition to give away. I’m expecting a signed copy of Howard Schultz’s book, which I’m also going to give to a blog reader. More on that, in a moment.

But first, a few thoughts about Ray and his book. Ray is a terrific guy who has had a great influence on business people across America, by tirelessly promoting the idea that a truly sustainable approach to business  is good for business. (See my 2009 interview, Ray Anderson, Radical Industrialist.) “Take nothing from the earth that cannot be replaced by the earth” is how he puts it. [click to continue...]

Wanted: A cultural revolution

pogoplaque“It’s no longer enough to change our light bulbs. We need to change our culture.”

So says Erik Assadourian, senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute and project director of a provocative and timely new book called 2010 State of the World: Transforming Cultures from Consumerism to Sustainability. Its argument is simple: The most important driver of the world’s ecological crises, including climate change, is not venal oil or coal companies or indifferent politicians but western consumer culture–that is, us.

Global consumption has grown dramatically since World War II, reaching $30.5 trillion in 2006, up sixfold since 1960. This is, in part, a very good thing–billions of people have emerged from poverty–but today’s prevailing consumption patterns are, quite simply, unsustainable. The rich (meaning you and me) are the worst offenders but ecologists say that even at income levels that we think of as substandard–say, $5,000 or $6,000 per person per year–people are consuming at rates that will deplete the earth’s resources, cause catastrophic climate change, wipe our species and generally trash the only planet we have.  About a third of the world’s people live above this standard, and the others, presumably, aspire to do the same.

This is not a message that either business or mainstream environmental groups want you to hear, which is why you don’t hear it often. Most businesses, though not all of then, are in the business of persuading people to consume more. They shaped the consumer culture. And enviros have found that telling their members and donors to buy less stuff is a downer, and not an effective fund-raising message, especially among the well-to-do.

But, as Assadourian said during a conference call with reporters, consumer culture is not only causing environmental havoc, it’s often failing to deliver the well-being that it promises.

Most people understand–and psychological studies of happiness confirm–that after we have achieved basic economic security (itself a cultural norm), what really makes us happy are close relationships, meaningful work, connections to community and good health.

You can’t buy those things at the mall.

“Two centuries of intentional cultivation of consumerism  has led to us seeing it as perfectly natural to define ourselves primarily by what and how much we  consume,” he said. Consumerism is so embedded in our culture today that, most of the time, it’s as invisible as the air we breathe. [click to continue...]

Ray Anderson, radical industrialist

“Nature is the goose that lays all the golden eggs. We don’t want to squeeze her to death…If we don’t take care of nature, we won’t have a civilization someday.”

Does that sound like a tree-hugging environmentalist? Well, it is, but it’s also the founder and chairman of a $1-billion a year carpet company. His name is Ray Anderson, he calls himself a “radical industrialist” and he has led his company, Interface, on a remarkable 15-year journey to sustainability. He’s got a lot to teach the rest of us.

One of the best things about my work is that I  get to spend time with people like Ray. He’s got a new book out—it’s called Confessions of a Radical Industrialist—and so we got together last week when he was in Washington.anderson_ray

With his gentle Georgia drawl and genial manner, Ray, who is 75, does not look like a radical—but he believes that business as usual is the principal agent of global destruction, and that only new industrial revolution can [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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