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A Dose of Reality at the New York GreenBiz Forum

3p Contributor | Tuesday February 26th, 2013 | 2 Comments

green dropsBy Mike Bellamente

If you’re an optimist about the state of green business, don’t read this.

Shit.  You’re still here.

To put it bluntly: it’s not working.  That’s the rose-colored takeaway of last week’s GreenBiz Forum in New York City.

We’ve succeeded in building an entire industry of sustainability professionals, individually doing yeoman’s work to further the cause, but collectively falling short in how we validate our work beyond our bubble.  When Sandy Frucher, Vice Chairman of NASDAQ, says that adopting sustainability reporting standards by the world’s stock exchanges is the “right thing to do,” it insinuates that such practices don’t lead to higher returns.  Mr. Frucher admits as much when he notes that, until one investment analyst poses a single question about a company’s sustainability performance, we should be content with relying on corporate goodwill as a driver of sustainability – not because operating sustainably mitigates risk, but because of the warm fuzziness of taking the moral high road.

When Jeff Rice, Senior Director of Sustainability at Walmart, confesses that consumer response to their progressive environmental strategy is virtually non-existent, the reality becomes clear that, more than 10 years into the modern sustainability movement, we are pedaling uphill, against the wind.

To echo the thoughts of another conference goer, “We’re all getting really good at operationalizing sustainability and filling out surveys, but at the end of the day, we’re just a small universe, talking amongst ourselves.”  What really drove this home is when, upon my return to the office, I discovered a flyer for the upcoming FUSE event in Chicago on brand strategy and packaging.  The word ‘sustainability’ appeared not once on the agenda. In fact, I would bet my mule that sustainability doesn’t even get uttered at FUSE.

So, where do we go from here?  To borrow from Timothy Westbrook, the quirky, undeniably talented low-impact artist-in-resident at the posh Pfister Hotel, we need to turn our paradigm on its head. More so than looking at a Coke can and seeing a pair of aluminum shoes, we need to blow up our tidy little world of “green bizzers” and explore more effective ways of becoming inclusive of the everyday Joe. Joe Marketer, Joe Consumer, Joe Investor, Joe the Plumber… all the Joe’s and all their female, inter-racial, socially-conservative, LGBT counterparts.

To start, we need to take Amy Harzler’s advice from Free Range Studios and become sustainability “mythmakers.”  If we’re spending millions of the company’s money on low-carbon energy solutions, we need to be a hell of a lot better at framing it with a compelling story, replete with sexy men and women, little puppies and all the other surefire ways of getting people’s attention. It needs to go beyond the enterprise, down to the brand and product level. And, as much as we enjoy seeing our initiatives represented in the traditional CSR media outlets, these things need to be Super Bowl ad-worthy.

During their sneak preview of the latest Ernst & Young/GreenBiz Group survey results on sustainability risk management, Brendan LeBlanc and his band of EY consulting dudes contended that the increasing materiality of resource scarcity and extreme weather is steadily growing the demand for environmental risk management, which, in turn, is driving the inclusion of the CFO as a stakeholder in the sustainability discussion. This is good, because it helps to sell upper management on the business case for the next solar project, but it does little to get consumers to join us as a dance partner in saving the world.

Outside the fraction of light and dark green consumers who shop on eco-values, the rest of society still shops on price, quality, fashion, taste, etc. Understanding this to be true, it’s time we up our game, pool our resources and begin telling people the story of not just how green we are, but what’s in it for the consumer, what they should do about it (see Amy Harzler’s piece on empowerment marketing).

It can be argued that a corporate sustainability program will only go as far as its meager budget allows.  How can we be asked to change how consumers behave and investors invest?  Compared to the folks in marketing, the annual corporate spend on sustainability is a mere drop in the bucket. But as someone so wisely quoted of David Mitchell at the forum, “What is an ocean, but a multitude of drops?”

Mike Bellamente is the director of Climate Counts, a consumer outreach organization that rates corporations on how well they measure, reduce and report their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.  In February 2012, Bellamente was named to Ethisphere’s 2011 list of 100 most influential people in business ethics. 

[image credit: Nick Dubois: Flickr cc]

 


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  • Kevin Baker

    Sobering article. In my view the reason why “sustainability” is not having the tangible impact on most (but not all) customers and investors that it should is that the term itself has been corrupted and mis-used by most corporations and their advisors. The fact that “sustainability risk management” appears as a phrase in this article as a quote from EY is illustrative of the fact that what should be a value creating strategy integrated into the operating model of business has just become another version of the old CSR plus a bit of enivronmental compliance thrown in for good measure. This can also be readily seen in the way “sustainability” is now used in job titles that were once just HSE and risk management to try to make them sexier (despite the fact that the jobs still have the same focus on minimising risk, reduce costs and reporting mainly good news not creating new commercial and societal value).

    Unfortunately most sustainability professionals do not have the mandate to move beyond the old CSR and environmental compliance and reporting mentality and get their organisations to embrace real strategic sustainability. This has really only happened in a few mid-large sized companies such as Interface Flor and Whole Foods which have embraced sustainability as a strategy for value creation and growth which has been led from the top rather than social risk management or environmental compliance added in at the side. In my view the only way sustainability will achieve its true potential is for leaders to push it top down as a market growth and shareholder value creating strategy rather than the “right thing to do”. To do this they will need to be confident of the hard commercial business case for “sustainability” which is not helped by the focus on risk management and sustainability reporting by company boards and their advisors and indeed many of their current “sustainability” professionals.

  • John Natoli

    Mike, I know this is an old one, but of course it’s still relevant to this day. I’m someone trying to become more involved in the world of corporate sustainability and I can tell you that some of the points that you mentioned in here are as relevant from the outside as they are from the inside.

    Running a branding and design agency, it’s difficult for me to show sustainability professionals how we can add value to the cause and more difficult still, to get that in front of c-level decision makers. As you said, “If we’re spending millions of the company’s money on low-carbon energy solutions, we need to be a hell of a lot better at framing it with a compelling story…”

    Sustainability professionals are working in the trenches, cross-departmentally, cross organizationally and cross-sector to make a change in how business is done, but the “compelling story” is the glue that is needed to hold this all together so that anyone on the outside (nearly everyone) can look in and see something that makes sense to them and gives them reasons to care.

    Very well done and important article.