There are few more recognizable names than Dell. You’ve likely owned one or more of their PCs. You remember the dude from their commercials, and you can’t miss the current headlines. Everyday, breaking news offers updates on the company’s somewhat precarious future as Founder, Michael Dell jockeys with billionaire investor, Carl Icahn and others to take the company private. Yet while the company’s future ownership hangs in the balance, Dell employees work quietly behind the scenes to innovate for the good of society and the environment.
In a recent interview at the Wall Street Journal’s ECO:nomics Conference with Dell’s VP of Corporate Responsibility, Trisa Thompson, I was inspired by an impressive array of initiatives that together form a rare embodiment of TriplePundit’s fascination with people, planet and profit. For this reason, I’d like to flip the page on the current headlines and offer a glimpse into the stories you aren’t hearing in the news.
How many of you have solar panels installed on your roof? This question was asked last week of an audience at the Wall St Journal’s annual ECO:nomics conference. The answer, from a room full of business executives and heads of state who are forging the road ahead for our energy future, was roughly 15 percent. Given that solar power accounts for less than one percent of total power generation in the U.S., it’s no surprise that the overwhelming majority of our nation’s homes and companies are not powered by the sun’s rays. Thus, most of the American public still thinks about solar power like they think of organic produce or electric vehicles – as something that is good for the world but sits on the shelf at a specialty store, around the corner from main street.
Yet for three days under Santa Barbara’s warm sunshine, industry leaders hailed solar’s arrival on the energy main stage. While recent years have seen investments in alternative energy plummet 20-30 percent, solar has quietly emerged as a key energy resource on a global level. In a recent TriplePundit article, RP Siegel discussed the long-awaited cost parity of solar power, at last achieved in countries like Germany, China, India, Spain and Italy.
As for the U.S., consider a few key points raised by industry leaders about the present economics of solar:
Most consumers report a willingness to spend their dollars in ways that are beneficial for society and the environment. Yet sustainability is still far from entering the mainstream market, regardless of what we at TriplePundit are tempted to believe living in the green bubble that is San Francisco.
According to award-winning journalist and “Environmental Messenger,” Simran Sethi, “sustainability hasn’t taken off not because people don’t care, but because the story doesn’t resonate with people.” According to Sethi, it is hard to sensitize people beyond “magnitudes of one”. In other words, people must feel something on a personal level – one magnitude – before they are willing to make significant changes in how they live. Their rational minds might be willing to spend a slight premium on products made from recycled materials or created by the hands of individuals compensated fairly for their labor, yet they do not feel compelled to demand such products.
Perhaps sustainability marketers could learn something from our world’s most popular brands with whom they compete and sometimes stand in stark contrast. For generations, our most successful advertisers have forgone educating people on the complexities of their offerings in favor of appealing to the emotion of the crowd. In doing so, they have proven that consumer habits are driven largely by what society deems cool.
You’ve likely heard the statistics – Africa’s economic growth is staggering. During a period in which the global economy is bogged down by a recession and the rest of the world flounders at well under a 2 percent annual GDP growth rate, Africa has seemingly defied the economic landscape registering growth rates of 4.5 percent in 2010, 5.0 percent in 2011, around 6 percent in 2012, and projections exceeding 7 percent by 2015 (UNDP).
Morningstar captured the attention of the investment world last week when it ranked Nile Pan Africa Fund, the only US mutual fund focused exclusively on Africa, number one in performance out of 543 funds in it’s Diversified Emerging Markets Category for the year ended December 31, 2012.
Yet most in the global West refuse to be too impressed by the numbers. Most companies and investors in North America and Europe still balk at the notion of doing business with Africa. After all, we’re talking about Africa – the poorest of the poor. But is it wise to dismiss these reports so effortlessly? Don’t most great investors only become successful by risking their assets for the potential of gain when and where others are unwilling to do so?
SOCAP is the world’s largest conference convening at the intersection of money and meaning. At its core, it is a storytelling platform for those who apply business principles to social change – attendees included socially conscious entrepreneurs, investors, corporate employees, philanthropists, artists and an increasingly broad array of enthusiasts who came to tell their stories in front of 1,600 of their peers.
Over three full days, attendees were educated, challenged and inspired to action. Yet amidst all the discussion of past successes and hope for the future, there was still a sense of gaping incompletion – nagging elements of frustration, regret or discouragement stemming from the notion that these life- and world-altering stories would scarcely drift beyond the SOCAP conference grounds.
Panel after panel, this concern cropped up through various phrasings of the essentially the same question: When asked of the social entrepreneur – How do you scale? When aimed at the impact investor – How do we generate returns that attract the everyday investor? When intended for the corporate thought leader – How do we shift the paradigm of traditional consumer behavior? When inquired of a cause-oriented nonprofit – How do we gain the support of the masses?
Sustainable racing – is it an oxymoron? Possibly. Yet on Friday, experts in the automotive and clean energy industries gathered at Northern California’s Sonoma Raceway to discuss how the traditional auto industry debate of sustainability versus performance might end up parked within a mainstream narrative of sustainability plus performance in garages across the world.
The second annual Accelerating Sustainable Performance Summit focused on topics ranging from a future where electric and solar are the mainstream to the potential role of sports as a catalyst for sustainability. Much of the discussion was held within the context of the auto racing industry.
“You race to win, not to be sustainable,” stated Marshall Pruett of SPEED.com, wasting no time before appearing to drop the hammer on the pro-environment position held by the majority of racing enthusiasts.
He even lauded exhaust fumes and roaring engines, components of racing that might disappear if electric vehicles took to the track. “The sight of cars going quickly is vital to our sport, but take away the sounds and the smells and we’re left with niche exhibitions played out in front of empty grandstands,” says Pruett.
While Pruett’s comments seemed to set the tone for the remainder of the discussion, they did not totally squelch more forward thinking panelists from offering their hopeful (and at times quasi-whimsical hypotheticals.
Since opening its doors in March, 2010, Uburanga Art Studio has swiftly emerged as one of Rwanda’s leading art organizations. But it is more than that. Behind it’s abstract forms and vibrant paint strokes lies a powerful story of the potential for business when people and planet come before profit.
Jean Bosco Bakunzi, a 26 year old survivor and orphan of the genocide, founded Uburanga Art Studio, named after the Kinyarwanda word for “beauty” with the mission “to heal people mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.” Already representing eleven other young visual artists, Uburanga is evolving into Rwanda’s leading incubator of artistic talent. In addition to training and connecting its artists to commercial markets, Bakunzi leads a number of projects in the community. One such project involves weekly arts and crafts classes held for children living at the Gisimba Orphanage and throughout the studio’s hillside neighborhood. The artists of Uburanga teach the children to make postcards and jewelry which are sold to tourists and admirers. All of the proceeds are then reinvested into the program to purchase art supplies for the classes and to help the children pay for school fees, health care, and other living expenses. Bakunzi’s eyes light up when he talks about his students: “With this project, we are able to help children deal with the traumas and challenges they have faced in their lives by inspiring them and helping develop their skills and creativity so that they can look to a brighter future.”