CEO of SC Johnson Delivers Keynote at Ceres 2010 Sustainability Conference

Not everyone lobs rolls of toilet paper at the audience during a keynote address.

But then, not everyone is Fisk Johnson.

Speaking to a standing-room-only crowd in the grand ballroom at the Renaissance Hotel in Boston yesterday morning, Johnson, Chairman and CEO of SC Johnson, kicked off the Ceres Conference 2010 with an impassioned speech that touched on family tradition, current environmental and societal challenges for business and hope for the future.

The fifth generation Johnson to lead the company, he fondly recalled his father –a businessman, environmentalist and devoted family man –who emerged as a sustainability leader in 1975 when he took the bold step of removing CFCs from SC Johnson’s aerosol products, three years before the US mandate.

Back then, the decision was controversial, costly to the company’s bottom-line … and courageous.

And, according to Johnson, that’s precisely the kind of “disruptive progress” that we need now.

At our current rate of consumption, the planet will run out of resources by 2050, he said. Companies like SC Johnson are working hard to reduce GHG reductions, increase use of renewable energy and further other “green” initiatives (see details about SC Johnson’s GreenList here), but significant challenges related to resource scarcity remain.

“As hard as we’ve worked –and as much as we’ve accomplished –it’s not enough,” Johnson soberly explained, adding that businesses, governments, NGOs and individuals need to work on the problem collectively. “We have to make faster progress. But business can’t move fast enough if the government and consumers don’t care.”

It won’t be easy, he conceded. Perceptions have to shift, and consumer preferences and the cost of innovation are formidable hurdles.

For instance, in Asian markets SC Johnson successfully sells cleaning solution packaged in flexible pouches. Consumers buy a trigger bottle of cleaner once, and then simply refill it with the solution from the pouch. These pouches require only 25 percent of the materials needed to manufacture a trigger bottle, and they contribute significantly less to landfills, as well.

American consumers, however, have largely rejected similar products. In the U.S., refilling the trigger bottle is considered inconvenient, Johnson said.

In  another example—and here’s where he lobbed the toilet paper rolls—Johnson pointed out that Americans have grown accustomed to “cushiony” toilet paper. Unfortunately, that means virgin pulp (which has the long fibers necessary for the fluffy product) is literally being flushed down our toilets.

“We need to redefine what is important,” he said. “Increasing consumption doesn’t equal increasing well-being.”

Johnson is hopeful that social norms can change—as long as there is leadership to help us move in the right direction.

“And a plan is not leadership,” he stressed. “Leadership is getting people to act on the plan.”

We need to move towards a mentality where it’s not about “keeping up with the Joneses,” but about “living greener with the Joneses,” he concluded.

Photo courtesy of Ceres.

As a corporate content specialist and a ghostwriter for C-level executives, Kathryn's work appears at Forbes, Industry Week and other leading trade publications and websites. She focuses on topics related to science, business sustainability, supply chain risk management and marketing. Find out more about Kathryn at . You can follow Kathryn on Twitter: @CorpWriter4Hire.