Into the Lion's Den: An Enviro at GlobalChem

I entered the room with more than a little trepidation; as a toxicologist and risk assessor, I know how heated the debate can get regarding the safety of chemicals used in consumer products.  As an employee of EDF, I also knew that I was outnumbered by industry.  Also, the title of the panel, for which I was a speaker, was loaded:  Market Sustainability – The Retail Regulator.  Not only does industry have to worry about being regulated by Federal and State governments, but retailers, too!But my message was (and is) essentially a positive one:  there are many benefits for formulators to commit to a program of sustainability and green chemistry, substituting known hazardous chemicals with safer chemical substitutes.  These benefits include: safer working conditions and reduced need for engineering controls and protective equipment, fewer releases of hazardous chemicals to the environment, less hazardous waste disposal, safer consumer products (even when misused!), and such down-stream benefits as fewer chemicals going down the drain and into wastewater treatment plants.  How could anyone NOT like this? Read more

Cool ideas (and, sadly, bluefin tuna) served up at Brainstorm Green

Just returned from the Fortune Brainstorm: GREEN conference and thought this might be the perfect reason for me to write my first blog post: For the second year in a row, it was the best conference I've ever been to. What made it so great? The biggest single reason was the interesting and candid conversations that took place about sustainability. It was the business guys (and it was the guys. By my calculation only 21% of attendees, and 12% of panelists, were female) talking very frankly about the coolest ideas and the biggest challenges in a fast-paced and open way.

It's truly uplifting hearing about the revolutionary things going on out there that together could save the planet and have business opportunity written all over them. Some of the best were the ones that EDF worked hard to unearth in the Innovations Review 2009 that we released at the conference. Some fall into the category of extremely creative with far-reaching impact, such as Patagonia’s Footprint Chronicles that lets consumers track the impact of specific Patagonia products. Patagonia gets why this is important. More companies should get it. It reminds me of something someone said at Fortune Brainstorm: GREEN — Your supply chain is your company.

Some of the environmental innovations in our report fall under the "No Brainer" category in my mind: Things like hotels using a system that links all heating, cooling and power to the keycard that guests insert upon entering their rooms. That simple change can save 25 to 45% of the energy used by hotel rooms, yet few hotels in U.S. have taken advantage of these systems. I again think of the Fortune conference. I overheard a senior executive from Marriott talking to Bill Clinton about the funds they were committing to the rainforest and thought "Great, but what about your hotels?" Right there at the conference I had seen water glasses filled up automatically before people arrived and bluefin tuna served at dinner (a health and overfishing double-whammy). Perhaps the small things they could do right here at the Ritz Carlton (owned by Marriott) would add up to a big environmental impact.

It's clear that companies that "make sustainability part of their DNA" (in the words of Cisco's Laura Ipsen) will reap the benefits. They will survive (Ford was at the conference) and thrive (Wal-Mart was too). They are saving money, reducing risk, gaining customers. It's not always an easy choice. Fisk Johnson, CEO of SC Johnson, talked about changing Saran Wrap from a chlorine-based polymer which cost them customers who didn't like how the change affected the product's feel and performance. Fortune's Marc Gunther half jokingly said, "We only like the positive stories here." But I think that this, no doubt, is a positive story. Products that harm our health and our earth should go away and companies like SC Johnson that have the courage to act on their green principles are most certainly doing the right thing for their business in the long term.

Here at Environmental Defense Fund Corporate Partnerships Program we work with business because we think that it's one of the most effective ways to create big, meaningful environmental change. I'm more hopeful than ever after the Fortune Brainstorm: GREEN conference.

Continuing the IR2009 panel discussion at FortuneGreen

What a whirlwind this conference has been – some new information, some of the same old stories – but many opportunities for interesting discussions.

One interesting discussion I followed was the Innovations Review 2009: Green Advances for a New Economy panel hosted by Gwen Ruta and Fortune's Julie Schlosser with guests from Bon Appetit, REI and Verizon (several other companies with innovations featured in the Review were in the room).

Check out my first attempt at "live tweeting" a play-by-play for highlights.

The CEO of Bon Appetit took the prize for most illustrative quote, "We just aren't flying fish around any more," in reference to the company's sourcing of local food, per its Low Carbon Diet.

Gwen asked the panelists how innovation could spread throughout a sector, the consensus was that the people doing the work know how best to find innovations and save energy, so it's necessary to engage employees at all levels.

That sounded a lot like the point Gwen made a few months ago in a podcast with Marc Gunther after we announced results from the companies piloting the Green Portfolio Project tools: "The drivers know what’s going on in the fleet and the guys in the production line know what’s going on there. It’s a matter of being able to capture those ideas and systematize them. We see over and over again that that’s what’s behind a lot of this environmental innovation – it’s unleashing the workforce."

Unfortunately, time ran out just as the discussion was heating up, but we hope that the discussion will continue here in the Innovation Exchange.

I'm headed back to DC tomorrow and with the time change probably won't get a chance to do another post from here, but you can follow all the EDF_InnovEx tweets from the conference – including highlights of the breakfast roundtable Gwen Ruta is hosting tomorrow on The New Lean Green here.

Innovations Review 2009: Green Advances for a New Economy

Today, EDF releases Innovations Review 2009: Green Advances for a New Economy.  As the title implies, we're highlighting compelling new practices and technologies that drive operational efficiency, create new business opportunities and carve out competitive advantage in these challenging times.  Why?  Because even though these practices have been proven to be technically and financially feasible, they're not yet in widespread use.  Simply put, we want to see these innovations – and the environmental benefits they represent – spread more quickly.

Innovations Review 2009 covers advances in business sectors from food service to agriculture to real estate to financial services.  For just a sampling, check out:

  • High-tech computer systems that monitor real-time weather data and soil conditions to help companies reduce the water needed for crop irrigation and commercial landscaping by 15-40%.
  • A new mortgage program that is boosting sales by offering homebuyers lower interest rates if they elect to install solar panels in their new homes.
  • Annual employee performance reviews that now tie environmental results to compensation, up to the senior executive level.

We hope that Innovations Review 2009 will provide your company with useful models and inspire your team to go even further.

Talk and follow the conversation about Innovations Review 2009 with the tag: IR2009

Why don’t we pick the low-hanging fruit?

As a reporter who writes about business and the environment, I've heard the expression "low hanging fruit" used to describe energy efficiency many times. Google the words "low-hanging fruit energy efficiency" and you’ll get 57,100 hits. Maybe 57, 101 by now.

I've spent parts of the last month or so helping Environmental Defense Fund write a report on business innovations and the environment, and it has helped answer a question that bugged me for years: Why don't people pick the low-hanging fruit?

The answer is that business does not operate according to classic free-market principles. Business is messier than that. Human emotions come into play.

The result is that companies that could (and should) easily save energy and money by becoming more efficient don’t.

Let me offer a couple of examples.

One comes from hotels. Hotels could save thousands of dollars a year by installing key-card systems that would automatically shut off the power whenever a guest leaves the room. A 616-room Westin hotel in Pittsburgh invested $120,000 in a key-card system and got all that money back in energy savings in a year. After that, the hotel could use the savings to lower its room rates, increase its profits or both–and in a world of truly competitive markets, others would follow. That hasn’t happened. Not in Pittsburgh or elsewhere.

And why not? Hotel owners apparently worry that some guests may not like the loss of control or the inconvenience of arriving at a slightly colder room in winter or slightly warmer room in summer–even though the owners could keep room temperatures just a few degrees from 70 or 72. That's human emotion. By the way, travelers in Europe and Asia have come to view the key card system as routine.

A second example involves corporate computer networks. They waste a lot of energy because most computers run at night or on weekends. If you work in an office, you know that networks are controlled by IT departments who want access to fix bugs or deal with security issues. They want power, and they don't, as a rule, care about wasting power because they aren't responsible for paying the electricity bills. They think they've got enough to worry about. That's human emotion, too.

As it happens, there are a number of software products out there that will allow the IT guys to control the network and save energy at the same time. So far, though, these products haven't been selling widely. The people who pay the energy bills don't buy software. The technical word for this in corporate America is "silos." Most companies have silos, and they are another reason why the low-hanging fruit keeps on hanging.

EDF's report, out next week, will highlight best practices in all these areas and others. We will also point to government policy that can help–some states, for instance, give rebates to hotel owners who install the key–card systems because in the end efficiency benefits all of us. It means that collectively we will emit fewer greenhouse gases and that we won't need as many new power plants.

So take a look at the report next week. And do me a favor–even if we can't pick all the low hanging fruit right away, let's retire the metaphor.

Marc Gunther blogs about business and the environment at www.marcgunther.com.

Green innovation: Alive and well, even in a tough economy

IR graphicNext Tuesday, EDF will release the second annual Innovations Review at the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference.

The Innovations Review is our survey of the most compelling — and implementable — new practices and technologies that generate environmental and business benefits for companies.

The Review team has been toiling away for months looking for advances in water conservation, packaging, supply chain management, IT and more. In the back of all our minds is the question: Given state of the economy, is environmental innovation still a viable use of company resources?

The answer is a resounding "yes." We looked at nearly 200 examples of new environmental practices across industries and sectors. We narrowed this pool down to a final slate of 15, based four criteria: environmental benefits, business benefits, replicability and innovativeness.

These 15 represent a broad range of innovations. Some can lower operating costs or drive sales or strengthen the brand. Others create new markets, reduce risk or stake out leadership positions. If taken to scale, all offer huge benefits for the environment.

Innovations featured in last year's Review included:

Fireman's Fund's Green-Guard insurance, special coverage for green-certified commercial buildings.

Telepresence systems—offered by Cisco and HP—the next generation of video conferencing that can virtually eliminate the need for business travel.

Solar power purchase agreements, financing tools that are allowing Target, Macy's, Wal-Mart and Microsoft, among many others, to equip their buildings with solar panels at no capital cost to the company.

Truck engine controls that cap truck speed to reduce fuel consumption. Staples put a 60-mile per hour ceiling on its truck fleet, resulting in a 15% increase in fuel economy.

To download the 2008 report, click here. And watch for the next installment on April 21.

The Path to Prosperous Partnerships

A recent article in the New York Times' Green Inc. column suggests that the dual concerns of greenwashing and reputation management are critical for corporations and non-profit organizations alike – especially as the prevalence of partnerships between these two groups continues to rise. This is something we've known for a long time at Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).

No partnership between a non-profit and a corporation should be taken lightly on either side. For the NGO, it is critical to maintain the independence, ability to challenge and focus on environmental results that are at the roots of its mission.

EDF has built a twenty-year track record of doing this by establishing partnerships when there is clear potential for measurable and significant environmental improvements and by holding our partners accountable to achieving and reporting on them – all while maintaining our financial independence.

EDF does not accept payment or financial contributions from our corporate partners. This helps us uphold high environmental standards and makes it clear that the innovations we develop with our partners are to be publicly shared. We are advocates, not consultants, so the new best practices and innovations we create are for the broader public good. Our ambitious goal is to spread these innovations across entire industries, multiplying the environmental benefits.

Understandably, at times EDF is lumped in with NGOs that do accept funding from corporate partners, as Ms. MacDonald has done in her book.

Are we saying our model is the only way to go? No, but we believe it has contributed heavily to our results over the years.  We've seen time and time again that corporate-NGO partnership can create both credible environmental results and business benefits like cost savings, market growth and improved risk management. When this happens, the environment stops being sidelined and becomes a key driver of innovation and growth.

For more on our model, check out the Guide we issued last year for a run down of best practices for partnering. And for more on the results of our work with corporate partners, visit www.edf.org/partnerships.

A new story for business

Last week I attended a lecture entitled "Building a more ethical world" by Ed Freeman, PhD, at The George Washington University. The event was sponsored by GWU's relatively new Institute for Corporate Responsibility.

Professor Freeman was introduced as "a rock star of business ethics." Well, he may not be an actual rock star, but he is one of the world's top business ethicists – I remember reading several of his articles on stakeholder engagement during my b-school days.

Most interesting to me were Professor Freeman's ideas about the role business could play in a more comprehensive dialogue about ethics and the opportunity that exists right now for leading businesses to "write a new story about what business is."

Freeman's vision is a story about business where companies not only maximize profits, but change the world. In this story, value creation comes from producing great products and services, engaging with stakeholders, protecting the environment, building healthy communities, etc.

In light of what's happening on both Wall St. and Main St., I agree that its time for business to write a new story. Challenges – including economic downturns – can be the fuel for positive capitalism. I'm optimistic that leading companies will see the current crisis as an opportunity to help write this new story. In my version of the story, leading companies innovate using an environmental lens to focus on efforts that deliver business value, helping them come out on top when the economy recovers.

After the lecture I had a chance to talk to Professor Freeman and get his thoughts about EDF and our work with companies to development new best practices that deliver business and environmental value. It turns out that he's a pretty big fan of our work. In fact, he mentioned Lee Scott (of EDF partner Wal-Mart) and Henry Kravis (of EDF partner KKR) as two unexpected business leaders who are starting to pen a new story for their companies.

What will your business' new story be?