Beyond Green: Adam Werbach and BLUE, Sustainability or Self Help?

hello-my-name-is-blue.jpgAfter four years of heads down work to find answers where it appeared that only questions existed, Adam Werbach followed up his highly controversial 2004 speech, “Is Environmentalism Dead?” just over a week ago at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. The speech, titled “The Birth of Blue,” was frustratingly brilliant, asserting that the answer to the change we all seek is in incremental shifts in consumer behavior, trading Twinkies for carrots, then organic, locally-produced carrots, in search of a greater sense of health, both personal and environmental. Without really putting the finger of his eloquent voice on it, I believe Werbach stumbled on the inspired answer the audience had waited four years to hear.
For those who don’t know Werbach, some of his most notable accomplishments include becoming elected the youngest president of the Sierra Club, America’s oldest, largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization at the age of 23. He’s since become the poster child of the green movement, founding Act Now Productions (acquired by Saatchi and Saatchi this year) to work with corporate titans like Wal-Mart to incorporate the principles of sustainability derived from an all-talk environmental activism movement that he swore off four years ago.
Werbach’s speech entertained and inspired the audience of sustainability consultants, LEED developers, non-profit staffers, and greater Bay Area public. He reflected on his 2004 eulogy for environmentalism and the many attacks that followed, including a recent one titled “Adam Werbach makes me puke.” The full text of the speech is available on Grist.

Then, he introduced BLUE. Just as green has hit the covers of Newsweek, Time and Vanity Fair, those of us who have been talking about sustainability are getting bored of the very word and complain of “green fatigue.” Green, a word rendered futile by its lack of clear definition, will now be superseded by BLUE, the next color along the spectrum. Werbach offers his definition of BLUE on Grist:

People who are part of the BLUE movement aspire to make a difference through the people and products that touch their lives. It encompasses green issues like protecting our last wild places and reducing our output of CO2, but it also includes personal concerns like saving money, losing weight, and spending time with friends and family.

adam_werbach.jpgBLUE is differentiated from green (other than its requirement to be typed in ALL CAPS) by keeping the “parts of green that have brought us change and innovation, but let[ting] go of the narrowness. BLUE builds on the foundation that green has laid, but lets go of its baggage.”
Woven in his plans to expand his Personal Sustainability Plan (PSP) movement beyond Wal-Mart’s two million employee community to a billion people, Werbach offers the real definition of BLUE. BLUE is a lifestyle movement. The brilliance in BLUE lies in its communication, relating a larger vision for sustainability to our own lifestyles, health, and well-being. Individually, we cannot slow climate change, but we can break out of our routines to realize our dreams of happier, healthier, and more sustainable lifestyles. BLUE is a cultural awakening, if we can forgive the name. BLUE and Werbach are bringing hope. (Sound familiar?)
Sustainability is not a chicken or egg problem. To be honest, I left the Commonwealth Club last week wanting to criticize Werbach. His definition of BLUE only answers the demand side of the sustainability equation – what consumers buy or want to buy. Companies just supply what consumers demand, and Americans demand oil, Hummers on 24s, and junk food, right? Wrong. There’s lots of demand for heroin, yet the last time I checked, it’s pretty hard to get a hold of. I’m not saying that our arguably conflicted government should intervene through policy, but that the increasing trend in measuring and rewarding social and environmental performance of companies is changing the way businesses succeed and even extending the very definition of success to incorporate more than profit. As Muhammad Yunus says, there is more to the human condition than making money. Since, in a perfect market, supply follows demand – and Werbach knows that we don’t have time to wait for either one to move first – he is addressing both. He does this through his work directly with companies like Wal-Mart, and his influence on consumers, which may be limited to his legion of fans in the sustainability community and those reached by the marketing campaigns of the companies with which his firm works.
Werbach’s “consumer revolution” probably isn’t the ideal vehicle for change. As an entrepreneur, not an activist, I believe that business can and should be used as a mechanism for positive social and environmental impact. Yet, I find it a little difficult to swallow that the average American female spends an hour a day shopping, placing it high on the charts of recreational activities that consume her time.
In his new book, In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan shares a brilliantly concise piece of advice: “Eat Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants.” In the spirit of his poetic contribution to influencing the way we eat, I think that we consumers could probably use an equally powerful mantra. Perhaps:

Buy what you need, probably less than you think, think about where it will end up.

I’m eager to hear wordsmithed suggestions in the comments. The hour a day during which an American woman shops is certainly a convenient opportunity to influence her, but if she actually ends up shopping less, spending more time doing activities that bring her a longer lasting state of happiness, doesn’t the communication mechanism for BLUE start to sound like holding AA meetings at happy hour?
BLUE is a few simple words, “Change your life.” To me, BLUE is the journey I began not too long ago in which I traded the traditional professional fast track journey for the choppy beginnings of a one in social entrepreneurship. BLUE was giving up fast food, running a marathon, losing forty pounds, and encouraging three friends to join in the challenge. BLUE is changing one’s lifestyle to reflect a greater commitment to health and well-being, as well as that of those around him or her.
Join me in hijacking the BLUE movement. It belongs to you. What does BLUE mean to you?
This is Ryan Mickle’s first post on Triple Pundit. Ryan works with many of the consumer brands you know to advance their social responsibility through engaging stakeholders online (we’re not talking CSR reports, either). He lives in San Francisco and can be reached at hey at

Ryan Mickle is one of the partners and pundits behind 3p. He is a consultant, speaker, and passionate advocate for transparency, values-driven business, and empowering "consumers" to become evangelists in our new, decentralized media landscape. Ryan holds a BA in Economics from Berkeley, and he loves traveling, running marathons (love may be too strong a word), yoga, and contributing to the gross national happiness (GNH) in business and otherwise.