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For a Crash Course in Sustainable Business, What Are the “Must Read” Books?

Scott Cooney | Wednesday February 3rd, 2010 | 60 Comments

The sustainable economy is perhaps the fastest growing, fastest changing segment of the overall economy.  It’s hard to keep up with all the new books, movies, and websites that cover sustainable food, clean tech, renewable energy, alternative transportation, Socially Responsible Investing, ecotourism, green building, holistic education, and all the other facets of the sustainable economy–even for those of us who live and breathe this stuff.

But what about those people who are new to the field, and feel completely overwhelmed by it all?  They’re not ready for a green MBA from Presidio or Dominican, but they are curious, interested, and part of that broader populace we need to reach that has open minds and are terrific potential converts to sustainable businesspeople and consumers….if only they could get, well, a crash-course in sustainable business. 

I recently met a couple of English travelers who had started seeing sustainability pop up in their neighborhood newspaper with a recurrence they couldn’t ignore.  When they found out this is what I do for a living, they unleashed a throng of questions that proved their curiosity, interest, and, most importantly, genuine desire to learn about the world of green business.  I  suggested a handful of books that I happen to like, and that influenced my green business education.  But it occurred to me that I’ve never looked for a ‘Best Sustainable Business Book List’, to see what books have influenced other green businesspeople.  When I googled it, I found a handful on Amazon’s Listmania feature, but each represented only one person’s opinion.  I’ve got my personal list, too, but it also represents, well, one person’s opinion.

So I propose that we generate a list, similar to Bill Roth’s recent article on 3P soliciting nominations on the Top Ten Sustainable CEO’s, of the “Must Read” sustainable business books, and by vote, create what the 3p community thinks is the Top Ten Sustainable Business books that every aspiring green businessperson needs to read.

To nominate a book or a couple of books, leave a comment below with the name of the book(s) and the author(s), if possible, and why you think your choice(s) is/are “Must Read.”  Next week, I will compile all the responses into a followup article with the best reader comments highlighted, and solicit votes from the 3p community.  From this, I hope we can create a list that will help educate a whole new swath of sustainable entrepreneurs, businesspeople, and eco-savvy consumers.

Update: The results are tallied below. We’ll follow up soon with some analysis and a wrap up post.

[poll id=”5″]

Scott Cooney is Co-Founder of Green Business Village, a sustainable business incubator.


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  • http://www.papernuts.com/ george

    please dont close the vote after one day then.

    sustainable packaging by steve sterling

    Also papernuts are the most environmentally method to fill boxes. Check out the website!

  • Tom Pryor

    My most underlined book of the past year is “Confessions of a Radical Industrialist: Profits, People, Purpose–Doing Business by Respecting the Earth” by Ray Anderson.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/MDNWZQQKGGBX5GS3O4BIR35UD4 Russell

    Cradle to Cradle, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, should be at the top of the list. Pushing the reader to redefine our ambitions for ecologically-intelligent design and business, it can serve as a guide for those who want to imagine design and business 100 years from now, not just eco-fads. Cardle to Cradle focuses on how to radically reform the marketplace, not just take baby steps, with products that create only value, not waste. Even the book itself, made of rugged plastic that is 100% recyclable through low-tech processes (like yogurt containers), is an inspiration of how to reimagine our future.

  • Tim

    The Ecology of Commerce
    Natural Capitalism
    From Green to Gold
    Ecotopia (a novel, but still inspiring)

    Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (as a cautionary tale)

  • FR

    Natural capitalism – Lovins/Lovins/Hawken
    The truth about green business – Friend
    Strategy for sustainability – Werbach
    many more…

    • http://GreenBusinessVillage.com/ Scott Cooney

      Tell us more! There are many more, indeed…so throw them all out here and we'll vote on them later.

  • carly

    Leading Change Toward Sustainability: Bob Doppelt
    Natural Capitalism: Hawkins, Lovins and Lovins
    From Green To Gold

  • Ruth

    Return on Sustainability by Kevin Wilhelm

  • Sam

    Deep Economy by Bill McKibben is one of the best sustainable food and local economy books.

  • jgensler

    Stirring It Up – Gary Hirschberg

  • wesleygee

    Cradle to Cradle
    Ecology of Commerce
    Mid Course Corection
    Good to Great
    Carribals with Forks

  • ericjkline

    “Collapse” by Jared Diamond. It's mostly case studies of societies that collapsed because of environmental degradation / overpopulation / over-use of resources. The last few chapters talk about necessary solutions.

  • Michelle

    from green to gold by winston & esty – solid overview of the issues, basic strategic framework for businesses to use, and most importantly, well analysed and organized examples of corporate environmental strategy in action. excellent reference and intro course – a must read for every corporate actor.

  • http://www.earth2017.com/ Bill Roth

    Forgive the self promotion, but this is what Dr Letitia Wright LA Business Book Review Examiner said about my book, The Secret Green Sauce: “This is a different way to thinking about the green market. Need a human resources plan? He covers it. Need to engage your CFO? He covers it. Need a strategic plan? He covers that too! Most business books will tell you to get a strategic plan; however, they never give you one. Roth lays it out, easy to understand and use. Then he goes on to explain it completely. I love books that are complete and do not expect you to have a bank of knowledge you may not have. This book is a great start to your ‘green education.”

    • http://GreenBusinessVillage.com/ Scott Cooney

      Got a website where people can find out more?

  • sarahcatfish

    I recommend “Ecological Economics, Second Edition: Principles and Applications” by Herman E. Daly and Joshua Farley, which is a critique of traditional business economics with applications for a view based on how economics fits within the bigger social and phyiscal environment (limits) picture. I also worked for Patagonia and I must say that they have a pretty huge company model but they do a LOT to be sustainable and one can learn a lot from the biography, “Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman”, by Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia Inc. I also heard that this was very good although I haven't read i yet: “Confessions of a Radical Industrialist: Profits, People, Purpose–Doing Business by Respecting the Earth” by Ray Anderson, founder of Interface, who is also an inspiring eco-businessman.

  • http://www.ywse.org/nywse natalia

    _Climb the Green Ladder: Make Your Career & Company More Sustainable_ by Shari Aaron & Amy V. Fetzer.

    _Climb the Green Ladder_ contains great case studies, inspiring stories, and a framework to help social intrapreneurs put their ideas into action.

    For more information, go to: http://www.climbthegreenladder.com/about

  • http://twitter.com/amievaccaro Amie Vaccaro

    I second Stirring it Up by Gary Hirshberg

  • http://GreenBusinessVillage.com/ Scott Cooney

    This is great discussion, guys! Any books on clean tech? Socially Responsible Investing? Organic Gardening?

  • http://www.organicarchitect.com/ Eric Corey Freed

    This is tough to choose, but I love all of these:

    Design Is the Problem: The Future of Design Must be Sustainable
    by Nathan Shedroff

    The Truth About Green Business
    by Gil Friend

    Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things
    by William McDonough & Michael Braungart

    Dark Age Ahead
    by Jane Jacobs

    Mid Course Correction
    by Ray Anderson

    Greed to Green
    by David Gottfried

    Now if you want to talk about the best green DESIGN books, that is another list (and hopefully Scott will include one of my books on that one!)

    • http://GreenBusinessVillage.com/ Scott Cooney

      Green Building and Remodeling for Dummies! An absolute masterpiece by Mr. Eric Corey Freed.

  • http://www.jonathanmariano.com/ Jonathan Mariano

    Sustainable Growth: Principles and Policies

  • http://www.facebook.com/jen.boynton Jen Boynton
  • http://twitter.com/elizlk Elizabeth Krueger

    Thinking in Systems: A Primer
    by Donella H. Meadows
    Readable description of what it means to think about whole systems – quite different from the way many actors in our society operate today. This study should be required for all business programs. Understanding this approach will help all of us make better decisions with fewer unintended consequences.

    The Compassionate Carnivore: Or, How to Keep Animals Happy, Save Old MacDonald's Farm, Reduce Your Hoofprint, and Still Eat Meat
    by Catherine Friend
    Easy read – approachable on topic of sustainably eating meat, with good coverage of issues, with touches of humor.

    Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered
    by Woody Tasch, Carlo Petrini
    Very interesting perspective on the need for a new form of investing in sustainable practices for the sake of our food system and our future.

    Green to Gold: How Smart Companies Use Environmental Strategy to Innovate, Create Value, and Build Competitive Advantage
    by Daniel Esty, Andrew Winston
    Good airplane reading for any senior executive – pragmatic on why and how to incorporate environmental concerns into your business plans.

    Sustainable Value: How the World's Leading Companies Are Doing Well by Doing Good
    by Chris Laszlo
    Next step beyond Green to Gold, this covers a broader view of sustainability, including a description of a process for implementation.

    The Next Sustainability Wave: Building Boardroom Buy-in (Conscientious Commerce)
    by Bob Willard, Hunter Lovins
    Excellent reference for building the case for sustainable business practices, with easy-to-find reference material for overcoming objections, and backing up generalities with data. Also includes a section highlighting the particular challenges and opportunities for small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

  • glenncroston

    Okay folks, how many votes do I get?
    Here's are my votes:

    Natural Capitalism (a classic)
    Green to Gold
    The Omnivore's Dilemma (okay, its not really a green biz book I suppose, but I think its a great book)
    Mid-Course Correction (another classic)
    Stirring It Up (Gary Hirshberg's book)
    Biomimicry (by Janine Benyus – an old favorite)
    Cradle to Cradle (of course)
    Strategies for the Green Economy (Joel Makower)

    And of course ten votes for myself.
    Oooops -time's up, gotta run.

    • http://GreenBusinessVillage.com/ Scott Cooney

      Starting Green, Glenn's book, is one I'd personally recommend, though I promised to keep my own suggestions to myself! His original work, 75 Green Businesses, is also fantastic. Glenn's one of the preeminent thinkers on social entrepreneurship, and can be found at http://www.startingupgreen.com. If you're interested in starting a green business, I'd suggest becoming acquainted with Glenn's work.

      • glenncroston

        Stop – I'm blushing!

  • markmcleod

    Bill Roth, The Secret Green Sauce
    Gil Friend, The Truth About Green Business
    Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food
    Ted Hart, Adrenne Capps, Matthew Bauer, Nonprofit Guide to Going Green
    Michael Shuman, The SmallMart Revolution
    Elizabeth Kobert, Field Notes From A Catastrophe
    Margaret Atwood, Oryx & Crake (2003)
    Robert Reich, Supercapitalism
    Tom Greco, The End of Money
    Dick Korten, The Great Turning Point

  • SGreen

    The Necessary Revolution: How individuals and organizations are working together to create a sustainable world. Senge et al. 2008

  • BR

    The Ecology of Commerce – Hawken
    Mid-Course Correction – Anderson
    Let My People Go Surfing – Chouinard
    Biomimicry – Benyus
    Natural Capitalism — L, L and H


    The Fifth Discipline, or anything else by Senge and friends
    Freedom and Accountability at Work – Koestenbaum
    Leadership w/out Easy Answers – Heifetz
    Leading Change – Kotter
    The Balanced Scorecard – Kaplan/Norton
    The Innovator's Dilemma – Christensen

  • nickaster

    It's been said a dozen times already, but Natural Capitalism really is my favorite starting point for people. It's a bit dated, but still very very good.

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  • http://GreenBusinessVillage.com/ Scott Cooney

    We'll be voting in the next column, so make sure your nominations are in. If you don't see your book listed above, GET IT IN HERE! Glad to see Slow Money made the list…one of my personal favorites.

  • margarethartwell

    Presence, Peter Senge, C. Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski and Betty Sue Flowers (2004)
    Blessed Unrest, Hawken
    Biomimicry Janine M. Benyus
    Ecotherapy, edited by Linda Buzzel and Craig Chalquist, Foreward by David Orr
    any Mary Oliver poetry

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  • Nancy

    Sustainable Business: An Executive's Primer (Landrum & Edwards)
    From the abstract:
    A brief overview of sustainability as it applies to business. This book will offer an overview of how sustainability is applied throughout the organization. We offer chapters organized by familiar departments or functions of the business and cover the applications and terminology of sustainability throughout each area. Whether you are an executive, an entrepreneur, an employee, or a business student, this book will help you understand the big picture of what it means to be a sustainable business and will give you the information you need to begin your journey toward sustainability.

  • jcobden

    1. Green to Gold – by Daniel Esty and Andrew Winston is a fantastic playbook filled with tips and cases.
    2. Climate Coverup – by James Hoggan is not necessarily aimed at business but an excellent overview of why we should be skeptical about skeptics

  • Michelle

    Voting for:
    Stratetgy for Sustainability by Adam Werbach
    Green to Gold by Dan Etsy and Andrew Winston
    Cannibals with Forks by John Elkington
    Green Recovery by Andrew Winston

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/ryancwing Ryan Wing

    Great suggestions so far!.. But I think if we're making a list of the greatest sustainability books, especially those that can serve as primers for those interested in getting right to the point before they delve into the nitty gritty, we have to include 'The Lorax' by Dr. Seuss! Genius, accessible, and classic.

    • http://www.facebook.com/jen.boynton Jen Boynton

      on that note, what about silent spring?

  • CLS

    Ishmael is a good wakeup call before the down and dirty books.

  • shadan

    I would have to agree that Cradle to Cradle, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart is a great one to be on the list.

  • http://www.amazon.com/Earth-Inc-Natures-Sustainable-Profits/dp/1422127176/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1261591448&sr=8-1 Tara B

    “Earth, Inc.” (Harvard Business Press) by Gregory Unruh

    Unruh says that emulating Mother Nature is the key to business sustainability. He explains how Mother Nature is the ultimate business strategist and discusses in detail his “Biosphere Rules,” a five-rule theory that serves as a catalyst for businesses to mimic the most natural and sustainable model – the Earth’s biosphere – as the source for transforming product development and manufacturing processes into both environmentally friendly and financially profitable enterprises.

  • heatherdriscoll

    Diet for a New America by John Robbins (not business, but good one for going veg!)
    Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight by Thom Hartmann (a bit depressing but good wake-up call)
    The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell (reading it right now – good business book!)
    Growing a Business by Paul Hawken (inspiring and helpful)
    E-Myth by Michael Gerber (not green but helpful for entrepreneurs starting out)
    The Green Collar Economy by Van Jones (not as powerful as his speeches but still great – I love Van Jones!!)

  • amityhooksopko

    Excellent recommendations! I wrote down a few I hadn't heard of. If I had to choose only one, it's Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. I just know too many children who never get off the pavement.

  • http://www.myEARTH360.com/ lynn

    Did anyone mention Hot, Flat and Crowded? Thanks for all the other recommendations–there are so many, I hope to read them in my lifetime :)

  • timshaffer

    Natural Capitalism

  • Nick

    The Green-Collar Economy, Van Jones

  • Cynthea Lee Rose

    PERMACULTURE: A Designers' Manual (Hardcover)
    ~ Bill Mollison (Author), Reny Mia Slay (Author)

    The concepts can be applied to any and all human activity on the planet, including business.


  • Michael Bartner

    Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered
    by Woody Tasch. This book provides a vision for a new economy based on preservation and restoration rather than consumption and greed.

  • Anne

    Any suggestions for an essay on sustainability, will use it as first reading for a newly formed team. Needs to be inspirational, educational and lighthearted. Thanks.

  • http://ssinvest.org/ Tim Nash

    Lots of great books on here! I'd recommend Matt Kiernan's “Investing in a Sustainable World”.

  • http://GreenBusinessVillage.com/ Scott Cooney

    Email from my friend Sarah Kurhajaretz:

    Mindfully Green: A Personal and Spiritual Guide to Whole Earth Thinking
    By Stephanie Kaza

  • Kerry Payne

    Strategy for sustainability – Werbach

  • carykrosinsky

    Gil Friend's “Truth About Green Business”
    Dan Esty's “Green to Gold”
    and my own (Cary Krosinsky/Nick Robins) co-edited “Sustainable Investing: The Art of Long-Term Performance”

  • karenvreeland

    “Women in Green,” by Kira Gould and Lance Hosey. The first book to look at the connections between women and sustainability design and development. http://www.amazon.com/Women-Green-Voices-Sustai

  • Paula

    Anne: “Any suggestions for an essay on sustainability, will use it as first reading for a newly formed team. Needs to be inspirational, educational and lighthearted.”
    Not sure if your received an answer to this BUT
    I found William Mcdonough's essay in Vanity Fair (May 2008) “Industrial Revolution: Take 2″ to be exceptionally good.

  • Paula

    Anne: “Any suggestions for an essay on sustainability, will use it as first reading for a newly formed team. Needs to be inspirational, educational and lighthearted.”
    Not sure if your received an answer to this BUT
    I found William Mcdonough's essay in Vanity Fair (May 2008) “Industrial Revolution: Take 2″ to be exceptionally good.

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  • John C

    Some good suggestions regarding sustainable business.