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

| Monday April 21st, 2008 | 9 Comments

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 Green, a word rendered futile by its lack of clear definition, will now be superseded by BLUE, the next color along the spectrum.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 ryanmickle.com.


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  1. April 21, 2008 at 12:45 pm PDT | Ray Taub writes:

    Stellar Post. I think Adam is very much on the right track, though adding another color to the spectrum might confuse people – unless it’s done really smartly! People are already fatigued by “Green”, so adding a replacement for “Green” that’s still positive will help prevent “Anti Green” which is an entirely possible negative reaction to greenwash and all the silliness out there now. BLUE might not be the right name, but it’s a darn good start.

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  2. April 21, 2008 at 13:31 pm PDT | Alex Lavidge writes:

    Thank you Ryan for writing this and reminding us all that we need either to define ourselves or be defined by others. Collaborating in an open-source, wiki-style dialogue about “BLUE” is needed. Is it happening anywhere other than here that you know of? What about a dialogue concerning other colors as well?

    The problem as I see it at large is that we lack a popular integral model of “a complete person” in the public sphere separate of “things” that makes sense. Then there’s a question of how that person fits in to the world at large? People lack a complete picture of how these colors — whether they’re blue, green, or whatever — could all rationally fit together to create a vibrant planet hosting healthy civil societies with empowered individuals. But having that color-coding at least semi-agreed upon would be a huge step in the right direction toward educating and inspiring the public, don’t you think? Or has this proposal already been done before?

    For instance, green already stands for healing the earth, saving humanity and reducing the ecological footprint of the individual. Blue could stand for healing and maintaining the body for optimum health. Yellow could symbolize the pursuit of happiness, self-knowledge, and self-expression. Purple could then stand for the freedom of all individuals on this planet to pursue their fullest human potential regardless of “anything.” Brown could represent the importance of veritable community joined together by a cooperative spirit since, like the ground, it’s the foundation for all development. Pink could continue to stand for gender equality. Red could stand for creating an evolving integrated economic framework like prout.org that seeks to benefit everyone. Red is symbolic as a way of saying that, metaphorically speaking, money, like blood, needs to always be circulating in order for any society to remain hale. Moreover, we still need to inspire others to not buy into the illusion that you can simultaneously suppress, exploit, and manipulate consumers conjunct production and call it wealth. Either white or black could then be the color that brings it all together? Or in your opinion what could the colors be identified with how would they complement each other?

    All of the creative progressives (a.k.a. cultural creatives, etc.) could use something like this coding system as our North Star as we essentially strive to question and redesign everything in the public interest.

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  3. April 21, 2008 at 17:29 pm PDT | Ryan Mickle writes:

    In an email I just received… “isn’t it convenient that blue is the color of both Werbach’s proposed movement and Wal-Mart’s corporate identity?” Well said.

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  4. April 21, 2008 at 20:48 pm PDT | Ryan Mickle writes:

    @ Alex, thanks for the incredibly thoughtful post. I am (always) inspired by your vision for a society and way of living that empowers, heals, and strengthens us all. I agree that it doesn’t stop at BLUE, and it can’t stop at green. The colors or anchors for these concepts do seem to trivialize them, but weaving them together as you describe above certainly reveals their (and our) deeper sense of purpose and vision.
    Keep up all the great work, my friend.

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  5. April 21, 2008 at 23:52 pm PDT | Punit Soni writes:

    As usual, well written and thoughtful. Couldn’t expect better from you my friend. Thanks for informing us about a potential revolution. Had no clue before today that BLUE existed.

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  6. April 28, 2008 at 8:38 am PDT | Brian writes:

    People like to label, to categorize, to be a part of something noble without lifting a finger or straining their brain. Which is why we have green “things” everywhere – click a button, buy this ugly hemp bra, congratulations and welcome to the Green Revolution. zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…

    The fact that he took on the “ugly” mega-retailer is brilliant! He’ll have more impact in changing minds about sustainability and in the end WalMart stockholders (and hopefully associates) will become even wealthier. In simple terms, it’s a two-part battle. One is reinventing business practices (manufacturing, distributing, etc.). Two is getting consumers to break their old habits (the winning of hearts and minds we hear about in military terms these days). We’re set in our ways and as a whole, comfortably lazy – why change something good, right? The single most important change agent concerning this topic (and many other issues) is money. As soon as the average Joe realizes buying a green product is better on his wallet, we’ll see change. But initially, the burden isn’t on the consumer because there really isn’t a viable choice or benefit. However, let’s not forget that a bazillion people (smart and not-so-smart) shop at WalMart everday, 24/7. This is an enormous opportunity to tap into their TV and magazine brains and get them to ease into changing their “environmentally unconscious” minds.

    The word GREEN as it is associated with environmental consciousness is an agent of marketing, nothing more. It’s a really poor choice of word to describe a more dynamic concept. First of all, green is a color and people respond very emotionally to color. (Red for stop, white for hero, black for villain, etc). Sustainability and/or the degradation of Earth can’t really be quantified by a color, even blue in my opinion. The world doesn’t necessarily need another green (or BLUE) colored website, logo, or packaged product. What the world needs is people breaking old, wasteful, and dangerous habits. There’s nothing wrong with tapping into something emotional like the color green or blue as long as the focus is on the end result, which is a healthy planet. But like so many things in the wonderful world of marketing and advertising, it’s really easy to create a monster and allow it to run wild as long as the short-term cash is flowing (until the next “fill-in-the-blank ______________revolution”).

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  7. May 06, 2008 at 8:12 am PDT | marguerite manteau-rao writes:

    Thanks for mentioning La Marguerite. I have very mixed feelings regarding Adam Werbach and WalMart . . .
    I would like to invite you and your readers to consider joining Bill McKibben 350 meme grassroots initiative. A meme is a viral idea that spreads. Will you help spread it with me?
    http://lamarguerite.wordpress.com/2008/05/02/will-you-go-350-with-bill-mckibben/

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  8. June 24, 2008 at 9:49 am PDT | Peter Hess writes:

    I’m surprised that so many responses to Ryan’s post debated Werbach’s use of Blue, vs. Green. We can endlessly debate colors and words. Who cares?
    The meat of the post has to do with whether we should/can focus primarily on climate change, and/or link the issue to something in people’s live they care about. Having worked in corporate change management for 20+ years, I can say from personal experience that if there’s no WIFM (what’s in it for me), there’s no personsal change. and organizations (societies) don’t change unless the people in them change.

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  9. April 10, 2009 at 17:15 pm PDT | Jan Bennett writes:

    I am one of those hundreds of thousands of Walmart that Adam worked with and he changed my life forever for the better. He showed all of us that even the smallest sustainability choices that we make everyday can make a huge difference to the whole world considering that there are almost 2 million people who work for Walmart. Don’t forget, there are 2 Walmarts, The huge monster corporation, and the 2 million individual humans you meet in you local Walmarts. How many of us can say that we inspired and changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people….Adam Werbach did and he continues to do so everyday.

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