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.
“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.
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.