The Wall Street Journal’s Environmental Capital blog may have closed up shop earlier this year but the name lives on in the Journal’s third annual ECO:nomics conference: Creating Environmental Capital. The event, focusing on the “most urgent issues in business and the environment,” continues to draw a host of prominent executives, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, policymakers, and nonprofit leaders. Robert Iger, Disney President and CEO, Steven Chu, U.S. Secretary of Energy, and Amory Lovins, Chairman and Chief Scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute, are among this year’s speakers. The format of frank, highly strategic, executive-level discussions has apparently struck a chord, with many participants returning year after year. Three days in Santa Barbara can’t hurt either.
I will be writing from the conference starting this Wednesday and I invite your comments on what promises to be a stimulating agenda. Against the backdrop of carbon regulation uncertainty and the lingering recession, the 2010 program has a stronger focus on energy than in years past, with a series of sessions on oil, coal, wind, solar, and even genomic approaches to biofuel production. Later, a clean-technology elevator pitch session will feature execs from eMeter, Recycle Bank, and Suniva. New to the lineup this year are working group sessions (closed to the press) on topics ranging from Financing Green Projects to Working with NGOs, in which participants discuss and determine action priorities.
I find that business approaches to environmental issues can often be characterized by a tension between managing risk and pursuing opportunities. The former is certainly a necessity, especially for the biggest companies who have the biggest bull’s-eyes on their backs. However, an increasing number of business and thought leaders view sustainability as a powerful engine of innovation and competitive advantage. This latter approach may require a more complete integration with or transformation of the core business. The potential rewards for such bold action, far beyond regulatory compliance, are magnified in these uncertain times. I hope that the discussion at the conference will trend towards this direction, investigating the challenges that large corporations in particular face in taking this path.
Parting thought on the theme: what is environmental capital anyway and how does one create it? Is it simply the economic activity accompanying environmental problems and solutions, i.e., the business of the environment? Or is it closer to the natural capital defined by Hawken, Lovins, and Lovins, distinct from human, financial, and manufactured capital, and much of which may not have man-made substitutes?