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10 Green Lessons from the Sustainable Operations Summit

| Thursday April 26th, 2012 | 1 Comment

Last week I attended the Sustainable Operations Summit in New York, where I had the chance to hear many interesting and smart people, from President Bill Clinton to Amory Lovins, talk about the green economy. The summit, which got some attention due to its refusal to let Dogwood Alliance participate because the organizers were afraid it will lead to a confrontation with YUM! Brands’ representative, provided some very interesting insights about business and sustainability.

Here are 10 takeaways I believe provide valuable lessons, or at least some food for thought.

1. Wake up and smell the climate change

“We can have a good faith debate on solutions to climate change. We cannot have a good faith debate on its reality.” Dr. Michael Mann, one of the scientists climate skeptics like to hate and the author of The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines, made sure the audience won’t forget we’re still not done with the climate change debate.

Those who didn’t understand what he was talking about probably didn’t hear Mitt Romney sayin a speech last October, “my view is that we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet. And the idea of spending trillions and trillions of dollars to try to reduce CO2 emissions is not the right course for us.”

2. Don’t look for answers in the U.S. Army

“If we use the military as a litmus test if something is good or bad we become Pakistan. And we don’t want to be Pakistan.” Col. Mark Mykleby (Ret.), ethics and leadership strategist at LRN reminded us (myself included) that while it’s great that the Army is one of the green leaders in the U.S., it’s also a troubling sign from a societal point of view.

3. The sustainability challenge

“How do you make the product more sustainable and keep everything else?” Andrew Winston explained the challenge companies face in making products for customers, who are generally willing to embrace sustainability as long as it doesn’t cost more.

4. How to convince the c-suite to support sustainability initiatives

“You need to show the value added of sustainability and build a strategy around it, and then the organization will provide the resources.” Roger McClendon, Chief Sustainability Officer at YUM! Brands gives some insights into his working techniques.

5. The role of media (part 1)

“Media gives momentum to what we try to do.” Again, Roger McClendon, Chief Sustainability Officer at YUM! Brands. I guess he wasn’t talking about this sort of report.

6. The role of media (part 2)

“The media has to help us a little bit…The idea that Muller’s testimony in a Republican committee financed by a very conservative interest…the guy should have got some kind of medal. He should have been interviewed on every talk show…he should have been a huge story on the news, and it was just like a passing thing.” President Bill Clinton expressed his disappointment of the media’s role in following the congressional testimony of Prof. Richard Muller, who was a climate skeptic and unexpectedly told Congress his research actually supported scientific consensus on global warming.

7. On the relationships between business and NGOs

“There’s a role for both businesses and activists. The Greenpeace report is encouraging us to do better.” Christina Page, Global Director of Energy & Sustainability Strategy at Yahoo talked about Greenpeace’s report How Clean is Your Cloud, providing a lesson that some companies (Facebook, Yahoo) have already learned and some (Apple, Amazon) haven’t. At least not yet.

8. Economics of scale

“It didn’t take me a much bigger team to design the retrofit of the Empire State Building than it would take for your home.” Anthony Malkin, owner of the Empire State Building, whose green retrofit reduced its energy costs of the building by almost 40 percent (about $4.4 million annually) and earned it Gold LEED certification.

9. The trillion dollar question

“If we have to choose between making a fast buck and a clean buck, what will it be?” Trudie Styler, co-founder of the Rainforest Foundation and Sting’s significant other raised the question we all know what the answer to should be, reminding the audience the only sustainable future is one where all the rainforests are protected.

10. For those at GM who are worried about the Volt’s sales

“The shift to electric autos is going to be as big as the shift from typewriters to computers.” Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, who talked about his new book, Reinventing Fire, was very bullish about electric cars as part of a greater vision for running a 158 percent bigger U.S. economy in 2050 but needing no oil, no coal, and no nuclear energy. If you know Lovins, you can be sure he knows what he’s talking about. I’m not sure if this provides any comfort to the anxious sales managers at GM and Nissan, but it’s definitely a slogan they might want to put on their wall to encourage them the next time they receive the Volt’s or Leaf’s monthly sales report.

[Image credit: Sustainable Operations Summit]

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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  • Andrew Marina

    Good post. This was one of the most valuable events I ever attended. Such a well put together program. Excellent speakers and opportunities to meet people. I wonder if there are plans for future events from this group?