GreenBiz Forum 2014: Get set for going 'further, faster'

“Going further, faster” is the unofficial tagline of this year’s GreenBiz Forum. We’re eager to accelerate sustainability, but what does it mean?

Take a step back. We know the work is urgent, but look around. We are in an oasis, a luxe resort at the foot of the dramatic Camelback Mountain outside of Phoenix. Here fountains, conversations and libations flow freely.

At the same time, many of us here have fled eastern snowpacks for a moment of Arizona sun — from the lands of the “polar vortex” to the drought-parched west.

Joyce Coffee described more sobering, looming threats. The managing director of the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index noted that four of the top 10 risks facing business relate to climate change, according to the World Economic Forum Global Risk Report. She urged companies to “turn risk into opportunity” when it comes to coastal and energy infrastructure, food and agriculture, and water.

Maybe we should look far back in order to plan ahead. Colin Tetreault helped to drive forward sustainability efforts as senior policy advisor to the Phoenix mayor’s office. He found inspiration in how the ancient Hohokam people fed thriving farms in the area by building canals with stone tools more than 1,000 years ago.

We see inspired engineering and entrepreneurship from Eben Bayer, who grew up on a subsistence maple farm in Vermont. His company, Ecovative, grows mushrooms to create packaging for companies that include Dell and Steelcase. Mushrooms behave like plastic as a material, and have natural anti-static, flame-retardant properites. They eat waste, like lobster shells or pine shavings. They use “nature’s recycling system.” Toss Ecovative's mushroom "foam" in your backyard compost pile and it could break down in a month. Next, the company plans to create mushroom-based building products, such as grow-in-place insulation.

But it takes more than genius inventions to affect change; progress only happens if people use their tools wisely. Take Big Data. It promises to improve efficiency in agriculture, supply chains, energy and beyond.

However, “to convert data to information you need data centers humming around in the background,” said Tate Cantrell, CTO of Verne Global, which provides 100-percent-renewable data centers. “You are the stewards of sustainability for your organizations. Will you go to your organizations and hold them computationally accountable?”

Accountability requires a will. That's missing among leaders in Washington, even though “most of us in the U.S. owe our jobs to policy infrastructure,” said Anne Kelly, director of public policy at Ceres. Align your policy engagement with your sustainability goals, she said: “You need to sit down and get to know your government affairs team.” In other words, have a beer with the lawyers on your staff.

Inertia by politicians may leave corporations to fill in the gaps in furthering sustainability. Yet what about the communication and intention gaps within companies themselves? CSOs often groan about the challenge of translating sustainability-speak to lingo the CEO understands. Then there are the gaps between companies and other companies, not to mention those among so many for-profit and nonprofit groups.

Lines are being drawn, thankfully, between “strange bedfellows” in these varied worlds — such as Asia Pulp & Paper's work with The Forest Trust and Greenpeace to end its clear-cutting in Indonesia. Putting a higher value on natural resources — whether it's biodiversity, clean water or rich soil — is getting more attention from more players. Witness more than 41 companies and NGOs teaming up to create the Natural Capital for Business Hub, launched from the GreenBiz Forum stage Wednesday.

Don’t miss Heather Clancy’s excellent piece, which takes a closer look at these and other collaborations that are making a difference.

Top image of Anne Kelly by Peter Jordan Photography/GreenBiz Group