It Can(‘t) Be Done

I recently read the inspiring story of how Farmers Electric Cooperative, one of the smallest utilities in the country, overcame some formidable financing challenges to develop the biggest commercial solar project in Iowa.

Rock-uphillThe example called to mind a comment made by Lisa Jackson, Vice President of Environmental Initiatives at Apple and former Administrator of the U.S. EPA, during the closing plenary of GreenBiz’s VERGE conference earlier this fall. She told the audience that, at Apple, the best way to get something done was to say “it can’t be done.”

This idea, of conquering seemingly impossible obstacles, is one I’ve seen reflected in a number of new advances in corporate sustainability, including many discussed at the conference and others from our own work. Each demonstrates how entrepreneurs (and intrapreneurs) are harnessing major environmental and social challenges to create real solutions:

  • The lack of transportation infrastructure often blocks the delivery of medications and other critical supplies to remote areas in developing countries. Rather than wait for new roads to be built, startup Matternet is developing a “drone delivery” system – distributing packages via a network of small automated vehicles and landing stations.
  • While most efforts to mitigate the effect of climate change aim to stabilize the level of greenhouses gases in the atmosphere, Project Drawdown, helmed by Paul Hawken and Amanda Joy Ravenhill, is cataloging technologies with the potential to reduce the levels of greenhouse gases.
  • The current power generation infrastructure and the complicity of electricity markets make it difficult for companies to source clean power, a challenge that the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the World Resources Institute (WRI), and the companies behind the Renewable Energy Buyers’ Principles seek to overcome by signaling their shared goals and needs “to open up new opportunities for collaboration with utilities and energy suppliers to increase their ability to buy renewable energy.”
  • We recently saw General Mills make a bold move to address the twin challenges of boosting farmer productivity while reducing nutrient losses. The company will adopt the SUSTAIN platform, created by United Suppliers after they reached out to EDF for help in developing a set of tools to meet growing sustainability demands in the agricultural supply chain. General Mills’ decision will equip the company and its suppliers with a platform that includes nutrient use efficiency and soil health technologies with training and implementation practices.

Lisa Jackson presented her comment as a process that works well at Apple, but I think her observation holds a lesson for all of us – to find opportunity, rather than merely discouragement, in the scale of the environmental issues we face, and to respond in ways that create value for both the environment and business.

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