GreenBiz Forum 2014: 'Time for the higher-hanging fruit'

Greetings from Phoenix — Paradise Valley, to be exact — home to the 2014 GreenBiz Forum. This year, we’ve teamed up with Arizona State University and its Sustainability Solutions Festival. Let’s celebrate how far the business world has come.

On second thought, we’ve only begun to roll up our sleeves. Take a closer look, and you’ll find that progress is plateauing, said GreenBiz executive editor Joel Makower, introducing the conference.

“The bottom line is we’re not moving the needle,” he said, touching on the latest State of Green Business Report. “You’ve all picked the low-hanging fruit — the quick ROIs, the lightbulbs, the energy, HVAC and building and facilities kinds of things. But now it’s time for the higher-hanging fruit.”

What does that mean for your organization?

For Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, it means rethinking the current approach to the sciences — whether social, behavioral, physical, natural, engineering — which “has led to non-sustainable outcomes” historically. That’s what’s behind the school’s Global Institute of Sustainability, the first of its kind when formed in 2006.

“We decided to basically reject the old model, science for the sake of science only ... and then engage in a very different process," he said, describing the goal of an “outcome science” that leads to “sustainability, intergenerational positive outcomes."

Forty years ago, "it was all about regulation, regulation, regulation — beat the corporations into the ground,” Crow said. “Obviously that’s a failed model. The model needs to be, how do we alter behavior towards a particular outcome? How do we use market forces to be successful?"

Framing the sustainability message is a first step, as shown in these highlights from speakers onstage.

Selling to the C-Suite

Trucost and GreenBiz recently released the Natural Capital Leaders Index, which names “companies that are decoupling environmental impacts from revenue growth.”

Richard Mattison, Trucost CEO: “Take it to your CFO and tell them exactly how you’re going to scan your company for financial events that are going to affect them in the future.”

What’s the problem with using terms like “natural capital” and “decoupling”?

John Davies, GreenBiz VP: “We tend to tie our shoelaces together. That makes it really difficult to walk. ... If you go into your company and say, ‘We’re going to start adding natural capital,’ you’re going to get this blank look. Really it’s risk management that we’re talking about. ... The chief sustainability officer is really the chief translation officer.”

Aron Cramer, president and CEO of BSR: “We always hear ‘people, planet and profit' ... but there’s another P that’s been omitted to everyone’s detriment, and that’s progress.”

Gabi Kedlmayer, chief progress officer, HP: Sustainability is already ingrained throughout the company. “When I want to get something done, we need to have metrics in hand.”

Selling to employees

Lindsay James, VP of restorative enterprise, Interface: Look to nature for guidance. “Sustainability in nature is an illusion. This idea of homeostasis is not a status quo. It’s a balance of disturbance and regeneration. It’s because of resilience that life has thrived for billions of years. ... We have a tenacious entrepreneurial spirit. Remind ourselves, what is it we want to take with us as we grow and change?”

Shannon Schuyler, corporate responsibility leader, Pricewaterhouse Coopers: There's less turnover among employees involved in corporate responsibillity programs. "People are performing at a higher level when they're more engaged with the organization, so it becomes this loop. ... The stories are validated by data."

Selling to the consumer

Following the Coinstar model, ecoATM offers kiosks that have enabled a million people to offload their mobile phones for cash on the spot. What can other entrepreneurs learn from this startup?

Mark Bowles, CEO and founder of ecoATM: Don’t lead with “‘Save the planet,’ because you’ll get 10 percent of people to respond. You want 90 percent.” Instead, lead with “‘It’s faster, it’s cooler, it’s cheaper,’ and when people buy it, the environmental proposition is already there.”

Gabe Zichermann, editor in chief, founder & CEO, Gamification.Co: “The millennial generation cares deeply about how things are made. Give them something to do with their hands, to do with their brains, that delivers greater meaning. ... This generation is absolutely positively aligned with your view of the world. They’d rather be Instagramming than burning paper in their backyard.”

Suzanne Shelton, president and CEO, Shelton Group: “I’m here to disabuse you of the notion of the green consumer.” Welcome to “brand hugger,” the consumer who’s searching for meaning in the brands they purchase.

Top image of Shannon Schuyler. All images by Sandy Baker, GreenBiz Group