There was no shortage of celebrities at this year’s Fortune Brainstorm Green conference. Harrison Ford started us off, talking about the work of Conservation International, Adam Gardner of Guster filled us in on Reverb, his new company designed to make concerts more sustainable, and will.i.am brought us to a close today. I think will.i.am was there to talk about EKOCYCLE, but he wound up delivering one of the most important insights of the conference (in my view):
“Be a verb.”
Thankfully, he paused and then said, “If you don’t know what I mean, Google it.” His point was that sustainability should be about action and that action should be synonymous with brands. Though he didn’t say it quite like this, what I took him to mean was if your sustainability efforts aren’t obvious in your company’s actions, and your company’s not known for them, they’re not very effective.
This is really important. I found myself searching for the shining examples of mainstream companies who’ve embraced sustainability to the point that it’s synonymous with their brand and they’re widely known for it, but I didn’t find them. There were many enormous companies doing good things from a sustainability perspective and creating excellent innovations rooted in sustainability thinking, but not anybody who’s crossed the threshold into baking sustainability into their brand’s DNA. Conversely, there were the smaller challenger companies – like Method and Patagonia – for whom sustainability has always been fundamental to their essence, and who are continuing to challenge the status quo. But not much in the middle.
Here’s my take: I think mainstream companies are really, really struggling with the fundamental problem of how to claim sustainability as a pillar of their brands while also driving to sell more stuff – stuff that consumes diminishing resources and winds up in landfills. I don’t have an easy answer for any of them. Though I think the answer lies in will.i.am’s point. And I think Coca-Cola may be closer than anyone to cracking the nut. Here’s why:
Obviously, Coke (and others) have been under fire for our nation’s obesity problems – a very expensive health issue. Guess what else is a very expensive health issue? Unclean water. Roughly half of hospital beds globally are filled with patients suffering from water-borne illnesses. If Coke can clean up water, they can solve a very expensive health issue, deliver a basic human right to millions who don’t have it AND ensure the main ingredient for their products is readily available. They’re actually doing this. They’ve invested in a company called DEKA, which is creating these amazing units that quite literally can take sewer water and turn it into potable water using very little energy and no chemicals. It is amazing in the very definition of the word. The inventor of the product turned to governments and health care companies to get the support he needed to build the units and got turned down by everyone. Coke saw the value proposition, and now something very tangible, game-changing and real is happening.
How’s that for being a verb?