Are we getting anywhere? Musings from Fortune Brainstorm Green 2014

Are we getting anywhere? Musings from Fortune Brainstorm Green 2014

One of the interesting challenges of running a marketing firm entirely focused in sustainability is that our clients define the spectrum of sustainability in very different ways (as do Americans, incidentally). Some utilities have been reticent to hire us for fear that we’re “environmental advocates,” while some consumer packaged goods companies have asked, “Don’t you guys just work in energy?”

The truth is it’s ALL sustainability. But I rarely see utility employees at conferences focused on sustainability, and I never see a CPG representative at a conference focused on dealing with energy issues. That’s one of the things I enjoy so much about the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference. It takes on the whole mix: how to motivate adoption of renewables, energy efficiency and plug-in hybrids; how to solve the looming water and food crisis; how to deal with chemicals of concern; and overall, how to meet the needs of an ever-growing, demanding population without compromising profits and the world’s finite resources.

I’ve included a few interesting takeaways (below), but what was generally missing in this year’s program were new success stories. It may be that most companies who are really working to solve energy, water, waste and chemistry problems have already done (and reported on) the easy stuff, and now we’re slogging through the time-consuming, not-so-sexy, hard work that has to happen before the next successes can occur. Or maybe the solutions are not so forthcoming on our own, and that’s why we’re doing a lot of talking and collaborating instead of sitting back and listening to the splashy success stories of breakout “superstars” who’ve “figured it out” for us.

We’ll see what we hear at Sustainable Brands in two weeks. In the meantime, here are a few things I walked away with.

  • The solar industry doesn’t need the Sierra Club. There was a very interesting point/counterpoint discussion between Michael Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club, and Michael Shellenberger, President of the Breakthrough Institute. It appears the two men are/were friends, and Shellenberger was practically doing an on-stage intervention with Brune, begging him to stop embarrassing himself by being so quixotically focused on supporting only solar and wind as the way forward, without consideration at all for natural gas in the short term and nuclear in the long term. Based on other panel discussions (and what we’re seeing in market data), renewables are doing really, really well and will continue to do well. So perhaps it’s time for the Sierra Club to focus its considerable energy on another fight.
  • A few progressive utility executives really are starting to figure out a future where distributed energy is the norm. David Crane, President and CEO of NRG, earned a lot of buzz earlier this year with his “Jerry Maguire-style” letter on about what the future should hold, and how NRG will respond to it (essentially enabling – and profiting from – customer generation). He continued in the same vein at the conference, literally saying something like, “Ninety-eight percent of our revenue today comes from the grid, but we’re betting big on off-the-grid technology.” Based on this and one-on-one conversations I had with folks at extremely large technology companies who referred to the grid as a “back-up” vs. a primary way of getting power, all utility execs would be wise to follow David Crane’s lead.
  • If we don’t define “value,” we won’t see a lot of progress in sustainability. There aren’t many hard numbers around the value of sustainability, specifically:
    • The incremental revenue/profit resulting from employees who are engaged in sustainability efforts
    • The dollars and cents associated with the social impacts of sustainability
    • The potential profitability associated with curbing the negative impacts of climate change

Plus, sustainability reporting is typically done separately vs. being integrated into annual reports and financial statements. And while CEO compensation packages always include bonuses associated with profitability or revenue growth, they rarely include incentives related to the bullets above. If we don’t define what value looks like and begin measuring it, we won’t really see sustainability become the norm.

  • Walmart is rolling out organics at conventional price points. That’s one of the huge advantages to their scale. We know, from our ongoing polling of Americans, that their typical customer is very worried about what they feed their kids and feels very angry/guilty/conflicted that they can’t afford organic food. So this is truly a home-run in terms of meeting a market need.
  • Michael Dell delivered a hell of a presentation on packaging. His company has figured out how to replace the plastic cushioning inside packages with mushrooms; make the exterior package out of bamboo; and make the plastic sleeves for components without petrochemicals but instead from carbon sourced FROM THE AIR! I have no idea how that’s possible, but the notion is super cool, and Dell delivered all this innovation in a very relatable, grounded way. When asked, “Doesn’t all this add a price premium?” Dell responded, “We don’t sit around making up ways to make our products more expensive … so, no, we’ve found a way to do this without increasing costs and, in fact, some of this is reducing our costs.”

So maybe I can take back part of my early bemoaning. I would say Dell was actually the standout at this conference, in terms of sharing something real and tangible they’ve committed to that will move sustainability further toward the norm. And presuming Walmart is getting the price down on organics in a way that still allows farmers to earn a fair wage, I’d give a big pat on the back to them, too. Hopefully, we’ll see next year that these bold commitments have inspired more companies to do the same.

About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.

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