They said it at Brainstorm Green

Who says environmentalists are all gloom and doom? In terms of sheer fun, the 2011 edition of Brainstorm Green, FORTUNE’s conference about business and the environment, topped them all.

Chuck Leavell at Brainstorm Green

Along with  earnest talk about climate policy, nuclear power, investing in green and electric cars, there were early morning surfing lessons from Laird Hamilton, spectacular images from National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen, fabulous sustainable food from star chefs (including Rick Moonen of rmSeafood and Michel Nischan of Wholesome Wave) and even dancing to the music of a band put together by Chuck Leavell, the keyboardist for the Rolling Stones, tree farmer extraordinaire, author of a new book (Growing a Better America) and all-around good guy.

What we all learned can’t be condensed into one blog post, but here are a few of my notes and quotes from our jam-packed 48 hours in Laguna Beach:

The future of coal: Lively debate here, with Michael Morris, the straight-talking CEO of coal-burning utility American Electric Power saying that without new government policy, coal will continue to be burned in massive quantities, not just in the U.S. but around the world.

“China, India, Indonesia, Australia, Russia, they’re all building coal plants. And they will continue to build coal plants,” Morris said.

As for the long-planned efforts to capture and store CO2 from coal plants to make them cleaner, much of it funded with your tax dollars, Morris said: “The capture works. The storage works. But it’s not inexpensive.” So absent a price on carbon emissions, why would anyone do it, he was asked. “They won’t,” he replied.

Alan Salzman, ceo of Vantage Point  Venture Partners, took a more optimistic view. His firm invested in Brightsource Energy, which is building a massive solar thermal power plant in the Mojave Desert.

“It’s as big as any power plant, coal, nuclear or anything else,” he said.

The cost of renewable energy will drop faster than most people think, Salzman said: “People tend to look backward and take a static view.” Plasma TVs cost $12,000 not long ago, he noted, and now they are on sale at Costco.

Meanwhile, opposition to coal plants will only grow.

“Coal,” Salzman declared, sounding like the Sierra club’s Mike Brune, “is the new tobacco.”

Walmart’s culture change: Walmart’s ambitious sustainability efforts have paid off in many ways, some unexpected, said Leslie Dach, the company’s executive vp.  They’ve helped the company save lots of money. They’ve driven sales of environmentally-preferable products, like CFL bulbs. They’ve dramatically improved Walmart’s reputation, making it easier for the company to enter new markets and attract employees.

Leslie Dach

Maybe most important, though, is the fact that the sustainability work has changed the way Walmart thinks about itself.  “It’s really been transformative inside in helping us take a broader look at our role in the world,” Dach said. Before, he said,  “we weren’t meeting the world’s expectations of us.” Now, the company takes an expansive view of its impact and responsibility on a range of issues—from climate change to health care to agriculture to working conditions in China. It’s far from perfect but, as Dach put it, “that’s a different corporate culture than the company ever had.”

Facebook, Twitter and radical transparency:  News, information and opinion spread faster than ever, secrets are fewer, cameras are everywhere and all of that creates risks and opportunities for business, said Aron Cramer, the president and ceo of BSR and author of Sustainable Excellence.

To be sure, businesses have had to communicate and react to what’s being said about them since the muckracker days but the pace of activity has quickened, to say the least. “Yes, we had revolutions before we had social media, but we had travel before we had airplanes,” Aron said. “These changes have huge impact for business.”

Smart companies see ways to turn transparency to their advantage. Ben Packard, the vice president for global responsibility at Starbucks, talked about how the company had crowdsourced its approach to a thorny problem—how to make a recyclable hot cup. Starbucks admitted it didn’t have a solution, and invited suppliers, competitors,  recycling experts and government officials to help devise one. It seems to be working, Ben said.

AT&T has an all-but-uncensored Facebook page, filled on many days with complaints. “The telecom industry is one of the most talked-about industries in social media, and it’s not all unicorns and rainbows,” said Charlene Lake, senior vice president of public affairs and chief sustainability officer.

But rapid, unfiltered access to what customers are saying is valuable. Executives get early warnings of problems that may arise. The company has an opportunity to resolve complaints, and correct misinformation. Nearly 40 people work on AT&T’s  Facebook page, Charlene said, and she checks in regularly, for better or worse.

“It’s painful when the negative posts are wrong,” she said. “And it’s painful when they are right.”

Brainstorm Green 2012: The powers that be at FORTUNE tell me that we’re going to stage the conference again next year. I’m delighted. It was great to see so many old friends and meet some ones. I had an email today from a friend who wrote: “It feels more like a gathering or ‘family reunion’ than just a conference.” I can’t think of a better compliment, and  I look forward to joining many of you again a year from now.

Comments

  1. Mark Ald says:

    We’ve heard of Climate change denial, now we have our nuclear danger denial camp and Mark Gunther is one of these. I am writing in reaction to an article written by Mark Gunther here where he is STILL justifying the use of nuclear. This is an incredibly irresponsible standpoint to take. Nuclear is NOT CLEAN ENERGY by ANY means.
    The nuclear disaster in Japan is not an “Opportunity to be siezed on by anti-nuclear activists” as Gunther implies, it is a STARK reminder of the utter and total danger that nuclear power presents to the ENTIRE WORLD that could effect us all. If there is any point to be seized on about the nuclear disaster in Japan that is that we are all connected. Radiation is reaching Europe from Japan now.
    The ENTIRE POINT of solving the problems of climate change is so humans won’t be forced to suffer and perish because of the problems global warming will cause. Yet, Gunther seems to overlook the fact a radioactive environment will destroy human life FAR FASTER than any global warming will, and the point is with half lives of 60,000+ years that some of the radionucleides have there is NO REVERSING of the damage from nuclear fallout. None whatsoever. As far as we are concerned radiation is there for ever. Ask the people of the Marshall Islands. Radioactive fallout makes global warming look like a garden party. It is just far far more toxic than ANY emissions that are released in any other power production.
    There is all this focus on “natural disasters” being a threat to nuclear plants and nuclear weapons. Has it occurred to anyone the fact that WAR and TERRORISM also present a problem? France for example, is not too far from Libya. What do you think could happen if one of Gaddafi’s jets were to bomb one of France’s nuclear facilities. You think Fukushima is hard to clean up, think about a plant that has just been exploded by several bombs. All those people that say, “It could never happen.” That’s what we heard about the Japanese plants remember? The world’s political paradigm can turn on a dime. These nuclear plants will still be presenting a danger in 50 years to come and the political landscape could be entirely different. That’s the whole point of the unforeseeable, it can not be foreseen.
    Besides all the dangers of nuclear power, the costs of it just do not make it worth it. It costs FAR MORE than the alternatives that can be built quicker, cheaper and produce just as much power. WE HAVE THE TECHNOLOGY ALREADY, and scientists like Amory Lovins has PROVEN IT. It takes 9 months to build a wind farm of equal generating capacity as a nuclear facility that requires 10 years to plan and build (nirs.org) The nuclear industry has been a been a boondoggle with cost overruns, government subsidies and tax payer dollars since its inception. Electricity customers have had to pay for the decommissioning of failed nuclear plants that could have been disasters. In our community we still pay for it out of our electricity bill. Why should we pay for the irresponsibility and mistakes of rich corporations? The only reason why this relic of the cold war is still being used is because of the fantasies of wealthy industrialists.
    I am sure some of you recall the nuclear disaster at Sellafield. That plant is now being decommissioned. It is going to take 110 years of clean up, including paid salaries and processing the waste from just the structures of the plant to clean it up.
    What’s more is the WASTE CAN NOT BE DISPOSED OF. What part of this do people still not understand? For years now there has been opposition to storing spend nuclear fuel at the Yucca Mountain facility outside of Las Vegas, Nevada. People simply do not want the possibility of having radioactive waste within their watershed that could possibly someday leak and contaminate a whole region. The irresponsibilities of nuclear energy are just mindboggling.
    To put things plainly. If a bomb or a tornado hits a wind farm it knocks out power for an entire region, if a bomb or a tornado hits a nuclear plant, it knocks out the entire region and possibly several surrounding regions.
    Nuclear Danger denial has to end now, just like the fools who are in denial about climate change.

  2. Leslie Dach -@Walmart -^KL-Install my electric generators behind the stores, I’ll supply 100% Renewable Energy -24hrs/day -7days/wk -365days/yr – 0 Coal

    Any other companies are Welcome as well…..

    LPE.Antal

  3. Danny Betancourt says:

    This sounds like such a cool conference to attend. It must be so interesting to sit there and actually see the exchange occur between representatives from industry and environmentalists as they discuss these topics in person. It sounds like there were a lot of straight talking people too from some pretty big name companies. How many year’s has Fortune hosted this event? We need more opportunities like this where representatives from both sides can sit down and discuss these issues and actually listen.

    I found your post after reading Adam Lashinsky’s summary on the event and I loved how he said “They seemed to be suggesting that the time for merely lecturing (think: An Inconvenient Truth; my analogy, not theirs) is past and that now it is time for true dialogue” and it sounds like you also took that away from the conference. I also love how social media and technology weaved its way into the event. You referenced a great quote from Charlene Lake – ““It’s painful when the negative posts are wrong,” she said. “And it’s painful when they are right.”

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