Sierra Nevada’s Ken Grossman – Sustainability’s Anti-Hero

By Linda Chang

Ken Grossman, President and Master Brewer of Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, was the opening speaker of Day 2 of the 2010 Communicating Sustainability Conference. Sierra Nevada has an impressive record of progressive practices that can be fully viewed on their website. Grossman covered many of these activities in his talk, but well aware of the trendiness of sustainability in business these days, he repeatedly downplayed their accomplishments. “Let’s face it,” he said, “we’re not ever going to get to perfect.” He acknowledged that at the end of the day, his business consumes a lot of water and energy, in making bottles and transport, so he doesn’t believe his business will ever be capable of truly “going green.”

Right off, he recognized that they were probably not very good at communicating what they have accomplished because they have been busy. “We’ve always had the notion that we wanted to walk the talk and not necessarily just talk about it.” His introductory slide summarized his 4-point message:

  • First…Walk the talk
  • Sustainability starts at the top
  • Historical ROI measures cannot be the only driving drivers
  • Acknowledge you’re not perfect, nor will you ever be

While others have said that sustainability cannot lead to a lack of focus, Sierra Nevada seems to have allowed themselves to explore the opportunities that presented themselves, without any erosion in the quality of their final products or services. After all, as many well know, they produce a solid brew that is a regular offering in many Bay Area restaurants and bars.

Their installation of four 250-watt co-generation fuel cells earned them a visit from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. They have long had the first largest private installation of solar panels in the nation. They engage in heat recovery, CO2 recovery, water recycling, bought their own cows to eat their spent grains, and they don’t believe in buying carbon offsets. And now, they have a new composting system—all presented with “again, it’s not the greatest ROI” from Grossman, “but it’s the way we want to do things around here, it’s part of our story.”

In the beginning, Grossman explained, they worked on being efficient because they did not have access to a lot of resources. Necessity was the proverbial driver of recycling and innovation. They just didn’t have the money to spend on a lot of equipment, so they recycled. Fast-forward 30 years, and they remain the pioneers in their field with newly installed real-time monitors tracking the efficiency of their solar power system that can be viewed over the internet.

In the days since hearing his talk, I’ve been thinking a lot about what Grossman said, how he said it, and what kind of business model Sierra Nevada represents out there in the world. Sierra Nevada is more than just a story about successfully building sustainability into your organization’s DNA and then communicating that value with all your stakeholders. This is a story about knowing what you want and having the courage to express that vision. The vision clearly begins and ends at the top, while its manifestation emanates through authentic, transparent communication throughout the plant to engage a 500-employee team. They’re doing all the smart and transparent things—openly posting their tracking of an impressive checklist of measures that monitor water consumption, wastewater generation, energy recapture, and more. But there is something else going on when someone makes it a point to say, “historical ROI measures cannot be the only driving drivers.”

Grossman finished his talk with a picture of his 3-year-old daughter. Having mentioned his own experience of and commitment to Nature as a seasoned outdoorsman, he brought it all home—the ultimate ROI cannot be found on the balance sheet, but in the next generation’s ability to enjoy and thrive, with respect and in harmony with the great wonders that are beyond us all. Grossman demonstrated that an authentic and accountable sustainability checklist is not the only offering on the plate, but has to be merged with authentic leadership.

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