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Hunter Lovins is Still Optimistic About the Future of Sustainability in Business

Raz Godelnik
| Friday March 16th, 2012 | 3 Comments

When I heard Hunter Lovins for the first time in 2006, I was left feeling like I’d just witnessed one of the best speakers the sustainable business movement has. To be frank, I thought her presentation was electrifying. Six years later I had the chance to listen to her on a Bard MBA event in New York and was happy to find that Lovins still rocks. Is it her profound knowledge? The loads of experience she has? Maybe the hat? I don’t know, but I do know that very few make the business case of sustainability in such a vivid and powerful way.

Lovins, who is joining the faculty of Bard College’s new MBA in Sustainability Program (a TriplePundit sponsor), set down last week to a conversation with Eban Goodstein, the Director of the Bard MBA in Sustainability and Bard Center for Environmental Policy. This talk was a chance not only to learn more about Lovins’ impressive biography, but also to explore with her the sustainability challenges we are facing.

The basic narrative Lovins shares is very simple – “business as usual is a recipe for ending life as we know it.” It reminded me of Bill McDonough who once said “if our design, if our intention, is to cause global warming, poison the oceans, fill them with plastic, toxify rivers, give our children endocrine disruption from badly designed toys, then we are doing great- if that’s our strategy. If it’s not our strategy, what should our strategy look like?” McDonough’s answer is based on cradle to cradle, but what’s Lovins’ reply?

Business according to Lovins is not just the problem, but also the solution, or at least the engine behind it. She mentions 27 separate studies showing that when companies make a commitment to responsibility, their profits go up. The problem is, as she quickly added, it’s easier said than done. One of the main reasons is metrics – human and social capital are still not appearing on the balance sheet. Yet, Lovins don’t wait until the day sustainability will find its way to the balance sheet and offers solutions that innovatively bypass this metrics problem, such as biomimicry or transformation to a ‘service and flow’ business model (the solutions economy).

While these are all great ideas, they have their limits – biomimicry has a growing number of examples, but still don’t address many needs. The solutions economy also has its own obstacles, as even Lovins’ friend, the late Ray Anderson of Interface, who actually tried to implement it found out (again it was related to financial metrics – this time to the different accounts an expense is attributed to when a carpet is bought or alternatively is leased). Add to that the fact that more than a decade they were introduced in Natural Capitalism these concepts still struggle to gain popularity, and you might start feeling somewhat depressed. But not Lovins!

Lovins still believes we need to reframe economics and she is still very much optimistic. How come? Here are some of the reasons that make her believe we can still make it: China, U.S. Army, Wal-Mart and the EU carbon scheme. The first three are definitely not the usual suspects, but this is only a reason to feel better about it. Who would believe, she said we will see a horse race between Wal-Mart and the U.S. army to make the business case for sustainability? And the Chinese? They are very serious about clean energy and we are not, she explained. China knows how to focus on business opportunities that arise from drivers of change, like the mass migration of hundreds of millions of people into cities. Finally, the EU carbon emissions scheme shows that markets work and it provides a great example for other market solutions.

When asked about Occupy Wall Street movement, Lovins said she believes in the need to sit down with the protestors and engage in a conversation with them. While she was in general positive about the movement, Lovins also mentioned that she thinks OWS should come up with their own theory of change, or in other words, they need to define solutions and not just the problems. They need to find their own voice, she summarized.

Although Lovins is a big believer in the power of business to generate solutions (which is why she is involved with educating the next generation of business leaders at Bard), she still believes in the need for a solid policy that will provide business with the right incentives, such as feed-in tariffs. Policy, she added, still matters. At the end of her conversation, she tried to remind the audience we all need to be patient, even if things aren’t moving forward as fast as we would like them to be. Change is difficult and slow she said and reminded Margaret Mead who said that “the only person who likes change is a wet baby.” Not too comforting, but yet when Lovins ends her talk, you walk out optimistic. The magic worked again.

[Image credit: Bard MBA in Sustainability]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Department of Business Administration, CUNY and the New School, teaching courses in green business and new product development.


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  • BGIedu

    Keep up the great work, Hunter. You are inspiring a generation of change agents!

  • http://twitter.com/shelhorowitz ShelHorowitzGreenMkt

    Lovins (and her ex-husband Amory Lovins) continue to be among my favorite people in the green movement. Exciting that she’ll be at Bard–only two hours from me. I haven’t yet had the chance to hear her speak in person.

  • Cbksk

    Frankly, Lovins is being outflanked by Umair Haque.  His newest book Betterness appeals to a wider audience.

    The number of people that care about the environment and can make the connection from their choices to long-term degradation is a small subset of people.

    Whereas Haque’s approach is applicable and appealing to a much wider audience people. 

    Certainly, McDonough is an inspiring orator, but like most architects, execution isn’t their strong suit.  He should stick to the vision thing.