Matt Petersen: 'If we can do it in LA, we can do it anywhere'

Garrett Hering

Catch Matt Petersen in person at VERGE SF 2014, October 27-30

About 15 months ago Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti appointed Matt Petersen the city’s inaugural chief sustainability officer. Considering that Los Angeles consistently ranks among the most polluted, most sprawled-out and most traffic-congested metropolitan areas in the United States, the veteran environmentalist has not been lacking for things to do.

“It’s been intense, in the best sense of the word,” said Petersen, reflecting on his first year leading LA’s new Office of Sustainability, which has grown into a five-person team focused on developing environmental initiatives and creating healthier neighborhoods with cleaner air and water for Angelenos.

The former long-time chief executive of Santa Monica-headquartered environmental non-profit group Global Green USA took the reigns of LA’s sustainability efforts amid California’s historic drought and major push to conserve water and expand the city’s efforts on transit, renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Many of the initiatives that Petersen found already in place when he became the city’s sustainability czar are programs he had advocated while head of Global Green USA. Those include the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s distributed solar feed-in tariff program, which the city is now preparing to expand.

Launching new sustainability plan

Growing distributed solar power in Los Angeles is just one facet of a comprehensive new sustainability plan that Petersen and his team are spearheading.

“Creating our first-ever comprehensive sustainability plan has been a real big undertaking. We are doing stakeholder outreach across the city, and our goal is to release the plan by year-end,” explained Petersen. The plan will build on existing initiatives in areas such as renewable energy, energy efficiency, housing, transportation and water. As part of the plan, the city will launch new sustainability programs and goals, he said.

While Petersen and his team still are “in the middle of a deep dive” into the details of the plan, the chief sustainability officer clearly is excited about its potential impact, even if several items may still require action by city council, he added.

“We really want to become the leader in electric vehicle infrastructure and water conservation. We want to continue to clean the air and increase energy efficiency in our building stock, and we want to continue to lead by example,” previewed Petersen.

Water will be a central element of the plan.

Los Angeles, which uses about the same amount of water today as it did in 1970 despite adding about a million more people, has been at the forefront of water conservation amid the state’s ongoing drought. The city’s current water restrictions date back to 2009. LADWP gives away free water-efficient household items, and offers rebates for measures such as installing storm-water capture systems and replacing water-intensive laws with more native landscape options like cactus and succulent gardens.

“The drought also underscores the vulnerability of water supply. How to increase the amount of water in the LA Basin?” said Petersen. The $7.5-billion water bond on the Nov. 4 ballot “is going to be key for more water supply for Los Angeles,” he added.

Safety first

Among the most important sustainability initiatives currently underway in Los Angeles, according to Petersen, is Mayor Garcetti’s Great Streets Initiative. Its long-term goal is to transform LA’s city streets, which make up approximately 13 percent of its land, into revitalized, thriving neighborhoods and communities. This summer, Mayor Garcetti announced the first 15 streets in the initiative, which is kicking off with the help of $800,000 in the city’s 2014-2015 budget.

Immediate, near-term actions include the creation of temporary “parklets” and plazas, as well as planning and outreach for each of the 15 corridors. These will be followed by long-term, permanent measures such as changes to sidewalks and curbs, street lamps, trees and public seating areas.

“Our streets are our largest public asset, forming and reflecting the character of our neighborhoods, our people and our city,” stated Mayor Garcetti when he made the announcement in June. “By reimagining our streetscape, we can create transformative gathering places for Angelenos to come together, whether they travel by foot, transit, bike, or car,” he added.

“Mayor Garcetti has been passionate about sustainability for a long time. It’s exciting to be involved,” said Petersen. “Whether it’s urban sprawl, a fossil-fuel dependent transportation system or a growing population in a region dependent on imported water, our climate challenges are the world’s climate challenges. We want to prove that if we can do it here, we can do it anywhere.”

Top image by Melissa Valladares

BT, Carlsberg, Coca-Cola, Unilever launch Collectively site

Heather Clancy

A global group of companies led by BT Group, Carlsberg, Coca-Cola Co., Marks & Spencer and Unilever believes mainstream media coverage of sustainable consumer lifestyles is too subdued.

So they're teaming up with non-profit Forum for the Future to create their own dialogue in the form of a new site, called Collectively, targeted predominantly at millennials. Its mission: expose the most sustainable options and innovations from the worlds of fashion, food, design, architecture and technology, among other things.

"We're interested in talking to younger people, explicitly," said Collectively CEO Will Gardner. "We want to engage them in making sustainable living the new normal. They are showing signs of leading the way."

The plan for the site took shape at the World Economic Forum, when the five companies realized they shared a common goal: an interest in accelerating demand for green products and services.

Asked why this can't be accomplished through existing sites focused on green products or environmental coverage, Gardner and one of the site's sponsors pointed to the need to reach a broader audience that has yet to make up their minds but that could become a powerful voice.

"Our intent is not to reinvent the wheel," said Jeff Seabright, chief sustainability officer for Unilever (who held a similar position at Coca-Cola when the initiative got under way). "We just feel this is a real opportunity to create something where the sum is great than the parts."

The original sponsors were joined by 29 other companies prior to today's launch, including Audi, C&A Foundation, Diageo, Facebook, General Mills, Google, Havas, IPG, Johnson & Johnson, Kingfisher, Lenovo, McDonald's, Medialink, Microsoft, Nestle, Nike, OmniCom, PepsiCo, Philips, SABMiller, Salesforce, Dow Chemical, Twitter and WPP.

The site was designed by VICE Media's creative division, VIRTUE, along with Forum for the Future and Purpose, experienced in developing social campaigns.

Collectively will encourage readers to take action, whether that's by buying a sustainably designed and sourced product, investing in a company that has embedded triple bottom-line principles into its overall strategy, or campaigning via social media for causes they support.

Gardner said the content will be produced by an independent editorial team, although the sponsors will be able to pitch stories for consideration. Contributions will be judged on their ability to inspire positive change. "We hope to engage and ignite a whole level of excitement," Seabright said.

The move comes slightly less than two years after The New York Times abandoned its Green blog and disbanded its environmental reporting team. While the newspaper positioned the move as a way to mainstream this coverage, bringing it to a broader audience, coverage of key issues such as climate change dropped noticeably in the months following that decision.

Ericsson CEO touts role of business in climate fight

Heather Clancy

Amid the lead-up to last month's Climate Week NYC, Ericsson CEO Hans Vestberg penned letters to hundreds of his Swedish telecommunications company's top customers. The mission of his missive: raise visibility for the increasingly critical role of businesses in combating climate change.

He wasn't alone. The action was one embraced by many members of the leadership council for the United Nations Sustainable Development Network, a group that includes the likes of media mogul Ted Turner, Unilever CEO Paul Polman, Google energy czar Arun Mamjumdar, senior Citibank executive Zubaid Ahmad and dozens of other high-profile experts from academia and the public and private sectors.

"The tone of the letter is that the science is increasingly clearer, business needs to act on issues around climate, and we think it's important," said Elaine Weidman-Grunewald, Ericsson's vice president of sustainability and corporate responsibility who traveled with Vestberg to New York in late September to meet with investors and other green business advocates. "It's important to Hans personally and within our sector. We have a lot to offer when it comes to solutions."

Why now?

"The proactive, solutions-oriented voice needs to be heard because otherwise we're going to be dominated by the heavy polluters who don't want to see progress and don't want to see change," Weidman-Grunewald said.

Since Ericsson has been concerned about these issues for at least two decades, sustainability is deeply embedded into its corporate strategy. In 2013, the company reached its five-year commitment to reduce its carbon footprint by 40 percent more than a year earlier.

When I caught up with both Ericsson executives in late September, Vestberg said it was important for his company to get its own house in order before campaigning for other businesses and organizations to do the same.

"You can't start by screaming about everybody else," he said. "You start with your own organization, and then how you can impact the industry, and then you look at others. We have been working with this for 10 to 15 years. More and more to be honest, we are working on the third leg, which is impacting the whole world, which is dealing with much bigger CO2 emissions than ever before."

Vestberg and other information and communications technologies executives believe that up to 20 percent of worldwide carbon dioxide emissions can be reduced via habits and services made possible by broadband networks. Ericsson's position is that mobile networks in underserved communities, especially in emerging economies, will connect an additional 1 billion people within five years.

"We're building networks in 180 countries in the most remote areas of the world," Vestberg said. "The more renewable energy we can use, meaning wind power, solar power and all of that, that means we can get connectivity in place much faster. We try to do all of that, but still we haven't seen that inflection point between renewable energies and diesel, etc."

Weidman-Grunewald offers that Ericsson collaborated on its first wind-powered network in the 1980s, and it now has thousands of base stations running on solar, wind and other hybrid options. The reality is diesel fuel is still the predominant way to power these sites in many rural locations, where it's transported by trucks, so it developed a technology called Psi that reduces power consumption for off-grid installations by up to 40 percent, she said.

In conjunction with the recent climate meetings, Ericsson helped publish two white papers advocating the role of information and communications technologies as a tool for sustainable development (PDF) and as part of the "new urban agenda" (PDF).

Its concern is ensuring that technology is considered more comprehensively within the context of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. It doesn't get as much attention as it should right now in the 17 goals proposed by the Open Working Group in July, according to Weidman-Grunewald, although it is explicitly mentioned in four related to equitable education, achieving gender equality and building resilient infrastructure.

"We feel that as a global society," she said, "we can't afford not to integrate this."

Hans Vestberg image by Ericsson.

Who cares if 97 percent of scientists agree on climate change?

Lee Ahern

Former BP scientist and DOE Undersecretary Steven Koonin landed an elbow to the ribs of the "97-percenters" in a recent Wall Street Journal article, "Climate Science Is Not Settled."

Climate policy advocates called foul. The result is another sideline dust-up in the continuing climate science consensus debate. Not just the debate over whether there is for-all-intents-and-purposes scientific consensus on the big questions (there is), but also the debate over whether it's a good idea to make "97 percent of scientists agree" a standard pro-climate-policy talking point.

Spoiler alert: It's not.

Koonin brings strong credentials to the table, as well as some baggage. In addition to his stint as undersecretary in the Department of Energy for President Obama, he was a theoretical physicist at Caltech and is currently director of the Center for Urban Science and Progress at New York University. He also deposited some paychecks as chief scientist at BP.

In any case, Koonin is certainly the kind of person who stirs the pot when he says, "There isn't a useful consensus at the level of detail relevant to assessing human influences" when it comes to climate change.

The thrust of the article was not really that controversial: scientists agree on the broad questions such as, "Are humans influencing the climate?" (Answer: Yes).

Things get much fuzzier, however, when you get down into the weeds with questions such as, "How, and how much, exactly, are humans influencing the climate?" (Answer: We don't exactly know.) But the suggestion that climate science is not settled, however subtle the distinction as to what that means, is hostile to a central narrative of pro-policy advocates, and therefore had to be countered.

The next day, Climate Science Watch put up a post that took on Koonin's arguments, saying: "[Koonin's article] doesn't hold up when confronted with all the evidence."

The view from the sideline

It is highly unlikely that this brief exchange changed the minds of anyone who took the time to read both articles. Deniers would applaud Koonin for pointing out what they have been saying all along. Climate policy activists would be outraged but not really surprised that the Journal would publish such blatant untruths, and take solace in the fact things were set straight by the real experts. So no one convinced anyone of anything. Return to your corners and we'll call that round a draw, right?

Not exactly.

Like a boxing match, this debate took place in the media, in the public sphere. The "expert" judges — the passionate advocates on both sides — may have marked their cards a draw, but the audience witnessed something. Even if people gave the bout scant attention, or if they didn't have the background to really understand what was going on, the exchange created meaning in their minds. We know from psychology and communication science that highly involved audience members already have a strong opinion one way or another.

 Elnur via Shutterstock

It is safe to say that none of these folks were "convinced" by the other side. If you're reading this, you're one of these. But what of everyone else?

This question takes us into the domain of public communication. When it comes to mass mediated messages, things such as semantics, arguments, evidence and facts are only part of the equation. Audiences take in information with varying degrees of attention and with diverse and dynamic sets of pre-existing worldviews related to the issue at hand.

This indirect, incomplete, second-hand knowledge that people gain about scientific issues through the news and other types of mass communication constitutes what Dietram A. Scheufele called "mediated realities" (PNAS, September 2014). Mediated realities, Scheufele argued, exert far more influence on people's understandings of scientific issues than scientific facts and figures.

People make quick judgments about new information based on the limited knowledge of their mediated realities so that the information environment can be reconciled with their existing models of how the world works. Those message elements that are most easily and quickly "fit" with existing schema are internalized; other information gets ignored or forgotten. This has interesting and important implications for those engaged in public debate about policy.

The ice cream argument

A scene from the movie "Thank You For Smoking" — based on Christopher Buckley's humorous and incisive novel about PR and big tobacco — brilliantly dramatizes one very important and relevant dynamic of public communication.

In the food court of a bustling amusement park on a summer night, Nick Naylor (the "Sultan of Spin") is explaining to his son Joey how if you argue correctly, "you're never wrong." Joey is skeptical, as he clings to the idea that there are objective truths that can't be avoided or argued away. Sound familiar? To prove his point, Nick proposes a hypothetical argument where he takes the side of vanilla ice cream and Joey takes the side of chocolate. Before long, Nick has Joey defending chocolate as the only flavor anyone needs, while he is promoting freedom of choice and liberty.

     "But that's not what we're talking about."

     "Ah," says Nick. "But that's what I'm talking about."

     "But you didn't prove that vanilla is the best."

     "I didn't have to. I proved that you're wrong, and if you're wrong, I'm right."

     "But you still didn't convince me."

     "But I'm not after you," Nick says, pointing around to the crowd. "I'm after them. "

The take-away

So what did "they" — the people in the crowd, on the sideline, in the audience — hear in the latest installment of the "settled science" debate? Exactly. Arguing about the facts = the science is not settled.

Expert public communicators understand this about message strategy: The objective is not necessarily to convince people you are right and they are wrong, it is to frame the debate in a way that indirectly conveys preferred assumptions about "reality" to the audience watching at home. To frame information in a way that favors certain mental models over others.

You don't want to do this directly because people quickly will recognize it as a persuasive attempt and discount its credibility. You do it by subordinating the point you want to make in the context of another discussion (thank you, Nick Naylor).

People who witness the conversation, and accept it as a true happening (not a staged stunt of some kind), also will accept and internalize the subordinated assumptions, usually subconsciously. In this case: If it is true that scientists are arguing over whether climate science facts are settled, then it must also be true that the science is not settled. This favors a mental model where climate science remains an area of uncertainty and disfavors a mental model where uncertainty has been reduced to the point where action is necessary.

"But they're wrong about the nature of the scientific consensus," many will say. "They did not convince me!" Well, Joey Naylor, that is not what they're talking about. The point is not to convince you, it is to create and support specific meanings — specific mediated realities — in the minds of "them."

Making near-consensus — 97 percent of scientists — a central element in the pro-policy debate opens up a rhetorical hole that policy opponents can drive a rhetorical truck through. A debate on the nature of consensus means the science is not settled, which means it's premature for costly public policies.

Pivoting the conversation

So what are climate-policy advocates to do? In the words of "Mad Men's" Don Draper, "If you don't like what's being said, change the conversation."

The first step in a pivot toward conversations that favor mental models supporting action is to reflect on what those conversations should be about. Ask this simple question: "Does this conversation or debate include the subordinate assumption that climate change is happening and the responsibility of the current generation of humans to respond to it?" Note that a conversation about whether climate change is happening and the responsibility of the current generation does not meet this standard. Even if you feel like you have all the facts and figures and the "truth" is on your side and you can't lose, it is a loser.

Just say to yourself, "That conversation is over and we didn't convince everyone but we don't have to and we're moving on." Then pivot to a conversation with a preferred set of subordinate assumptions. When it comes to climate consensus, for example, one could pivot with, "The history of science has shown that there is always some level of disagreement and uncertainty. But history has also shown us that pursuing policies supported by the majority scientific opinion and predominance of scientific evidence is the best way to go."

No doubt climate policy opponents will continue to want to change the conversation back and mire the public debate in the degree of scientific consensus, the degree of human causation, the relative impact of natural climate cycles, and so on. These rhetorical forays must be blunted and re-directed, not engaged, but also not ignored (Remember John Kerry and the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth.). Pivot.

It should also be noted that "changing the conversation" will not always be easy. This kind of message consistency takes discipline, which is extremely difficult in the context of a far-flung and diverse social movement. But it is possible, with the right leadership and focus, to achieve agreement and coherent action on what the conversation should be about, if not on all the policy solution details.

Top image by Marish via Shutterstock.

Urban imagination: The real promise of data in today’s cities

Emma Stewart

[Catch Emma Stewart in person at VERGE SF 2014, October 27-30.]

Today over half the global population lives in urban areas; by 2050, the UN projects that number to grow to 70 percent. The World Economic Forum forecasts we’ll need to develop the same amount of infrastructure that’s been built over the past 4,000 years to accommodate the coming wave of urbanites. This will only compound the fact that cities are already responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions, sewage overflows and air pollution.

Many believe technology will solve the urbanite plight with mountains of collected data. Everything will have a wireless sensor and be connected to the cloud — from transit card swipes to smart energy meters to air quality monitors to taxi rides to 311 calls. New York City, which produces 1 terabyte of this type of data per day, has a dedicated analytics team to manage and parse through the deluge.

And yet, for most, today’s vision of a smart city remains an elusive luxury. Even if every city had a Chief Information, Data, or Technology Officer, it’s quite likely that in the breathless optimism of chasing a smart city, decision-makers would end up spending billions metering and sensoring every inch, only to discover that the results fall short.

They'll be obvious (“yep, crossing the 520 bridge in Seattle any time after 4 p.m. is a nightmare, though any local could tell you that”) or come too late (we spend all that time on data collection, and quietly passed the tipping point of dangerous climate change). They could turn cities into the equivalent of airport security checkpoints, where nothing is private and public distrust is at an all-time high. They may unintentionally create “automaton” cities where decision-making is so automated or restricted to a small group of data scientists that it becomes devoid of citizen input. They could become smart but unimaginative (reflecting what’s happening, but be incapable of simulating the complexities of what could be).

So how can we make more out of collected data while also simulating alternatives to today’s messy reality?

At the risk of oversimplifying a complex topic, we can boil it down to three fundamentals.

1. Create a master repository of data that acts as a “single source of truth” — as with national security intelligence failures in the past, data that lives in silos is the bane of true understanding and decision-making.

2. Use that data to imagine future scenarios and simulate possible outcomes — analyze projects from every angle in the virtual world before ever breaking ground in the real one.

3. Prove the economic, environmental and social benefits of projects in order to secure increasingly scarce financing.

Let’s not get too swept up in a technological future that is, at worst, a costly diversion — and at best, unevenly distributed. Let’s instead refocus our discourse on the real promise of data in today’s cities: simulating the thriving and sustainable city that could be, and securing the funds to get us there.

Top image of city by Dahabian via Shutterstock. This article originally appeared in Quartz in a longer form. 

How to make a better adhesive without the nasty chemicals

Tom McKeag

We have been using adhesives for some 200,000 years now, by archeologists’ estimates. Our progress has been remarkable, particularly with the postwar explosion of discovery in synthetic adhesives. Epoxies, polyurethanes, cyanoacrylates and acrylic polymers have all made our lives richer by providing high performance and efficiency when we have wanted to stick two things together. Adhesives are everywhere in the built world, from packaging to products to buildings to infrastructure. These wonderful synthetic materials, however, have come at a cost: many are deadly toxins.

Most glues and adhesives contain some of our nastier recipes: solvents such as benzene, toluene, xylene, styrene, acetone, methanol, phenol, alkylphenol and dichloromethane. Benzene, for example, is an EPA Class A carcinogen. It can destroy red and white blood cells (aplastic anemia), and is a suspected immune system inhibitor.

It was not always so. In the past most of our glues came from nature: proteins from animal parts or products like milk and eggs, starches or natural resins from plants. Now researchers are looking to nature to provide new sources for glues that work better and are non-toxic. Their aim is to mimick the chemistry of nature rather than exploit natural sources.

An engineering team at Massachusetts Institute of Technology has developed what they claim to be the world’s strongest bio-inspired, protein-based underwater adhesive. Funded by the Office of Naval Research, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, their research was published in the September 21 issue of the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

The researchers had to copy both the proteins from the mussel and those from bacteria to make an engineered product that is stronger than what even the mollusk can make. Not that the mussel isn’t impressive. This marine bivalve is common in the temperate zones of the world in the low and mid intertidal zones. Continually pounded by surf, it has evolved an effective anchoring system. It lays down a radius of sticky proteins or byssal threads that can stick to most anything, including Teflon. This ability is due to the chemical composition of those proteins.

So, what makes the mussel byssus stick so well even underwater? It’s all about attraction — chemical, that is. Proteins are made up of amino acids, basic molecular building blocks. One of these, in the mussel protein, contains a functional arrangement called a catechol (two hydroxyls on a benzene ring.) These molecules form strong bonds with other catechols in other materials, such as the metals in rocks; so strong, in fact, that these molecules would rather bond with each other than that most promiscuous of molecules, water.

The team at MIT used E. coli bacteria as factories to produce two types of proteins typically made by the mussel. Then they enmeshed these proteins in a lattice of self-organizing bacteria proteins normally found in slimy biofilms called curli fibers. It was the combination of these designer proteins from two different organisms into a complex array that has made the adhesive so strong. This dense, fibrous mesh is regular but flexible and has a great ability to bind to both wet and dry surfaces.

“The ultimate goal for us is to set up a platform where we can start building materials that combine multiple different functional domains together and to see if that gives us better materials performance,” said Timothy Lu, an associate professor of biological engineering and electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) and the senior author of the paper.

The researchers see advanced applications in the marine and biomedical fields. They are busy working on scaling up production of the proteins beyond small experimental batches, tinkering with the relative proportion of proteins in the formula. They're also musing about using biofilms as “living glues”, preventative coatings that can secrete adhesives when triggered by damage to a surface.

Columbia Forest Products pioneered the “mussel glue”

Mussel glues have been used before in manufacturing. Columbia Forest Products developed a mussel-mimicking glue for its Purebond line of hardwood plywood between 2003 and 2006. The company was the first to offer a formaldehyde-free plywood, laminated with a bio-based thermo-set glue.

Formaldehyde is a volatile organic compound (VOC), highly toxic to all animals and a carcinogen. In 2011 the US National Toxicology Program described formaldehyde as "known to be a human carcinogen". In the plywood industry formaldehyde is typically treated with urea to make urea formaldehyde resin, the glue to join all the thin layers of wood together into a thicker sheet.

Columbia's formula for the new bio-glue was soy-based, but the proteins had been altered to more closely resemble those of the mussel. The new technique was invented and patented by Dr. Kaichang Li, associate professor in the Department of Wood Science & Engineering at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon. He saw a need for a cheaper mass-produced bio-adhesive based on the readily available soybean, and figured out a way to block the expression of certain amino acids in the soy that were not present in the mussel protein.

Columbia, the largest manufacturer of hardwood plywood and veneers in the United States, was able to create a product that actually performed better in many ways than comparable UF-based alternates. Purebond tested as more heat and moisture resistant than its UF competitors while being competitively priced, and reducing VOCs by as much as 90 percent. It earned a LEED EQ Credit 4.4 accreditation in the Low-emitting Materials: Composite Wood category. By converting seven of its plants into Purebond production facilities early on, the company was able to catch the wave of consumer demand for less toxic interiors without the green markup of its later competitors.

The worldwide market for adhesives has been projected to be upwards of $50 billion within the next five years. Regrettably, many of those adhesives will be synthetic and toxic, but innovations by MIT and Columbia Forest Products give hope that we can find a safer way to build our world.

Top image of mussels by Sergey Yechikov via Shutterstock

Green Seal at 25: Still looking to make its mark

Joel Makower

This week, at a gala dinner in Washington, D.C., the environmental standards and labeling organization Green Seal celebrates 25 years of trying to transform the marketplace. It’s been a long road with lots of twists and turns, and more than a few detours.

I attended Green Seal’s organizing meeting in D.C. in 1989. Great promise was in the air. Earth Day 1990 was months away and it promised a media and public extravaganza unlike anything the environmental movement had seen. A “green consumer” movement was taking shape in Europe, spurred in part by a bestselling paperback, "The Green Consumer Guide." I had been tapped to write the U.S. edition, to be published in early 1990, with the hopes for a similar outcome. “Every time you open your wallet, you cast a vote, for or against the environment,” I wrote back then. It seemed pretty straightforward and easy.

Like the green marketplace itself, Green Seal’s quarter-century journey since then has been anything but straightforward or easy. The organization shifted its sights from consumers to institutional buyers, where it was easier to drive demand for environmentally preferable products. It encountered a slew of competitors — from nonprofits, government agencies, entrepreneurs and large retailers — not to mention ups and downs in market interest in greener products and services. Five years ago, the venerable Good Housekeeping Institute launched its own green certification, although it never became much of a market force.

But Green Seal endured. Today, it is older, wiser — and as determined as ever. It has made great strides in raising the bar, environmentally speaking, in several markets, particularly institutional cleaning, where Green Seal standards have become the de facto national standard for green cleaning products and are even required by law in several states. Its other standards address everything from printing paper to motor oil.

On the occasion of its 25-year milestone, I recently spoke with Arthur B. Weissman, Green Seal’s president and CEO since 1996, about the organization’s journey. Weissman is also author of "In the Light of Human Nature," a semi-autobiographical book that weaves personal narrative and philosophy to tell the story of the green economy. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Joel Makower: First of all, congratulation on 25 years. Not a lot of environmental organizations get to say that. How are you celebrating?

Arthur Weissman: Thanks. It’s a chance to look at and improve what we’re doing. I know a lot of companies do that. Nonprofit organizations have to do the same thing.

We looked inside. We improved our efficiency, our effectiveness, and I think we've come out stronger. That's not to say that things are back to where they were before because everyone's more cautious now, including companies, in terms of their putting funding or marketing toward sustainability.

Makower: Let's back up a bit. When Green Seal was launched 25 years ago, the one-liner about it was that it would be “the Good Housekeeping Seal for the environment.” What's the one-liner you use now?

Weissman: What you're getting at is the fact that when Green Seal was launched 25 years ago, our founders saw this entirely as a consumer eco-label. They didn't have any knowledge that there was anything called an “institutional market” — business-to-business and business-to-government. They thought it made a lot of sense to have a seal to guide consumers in their purchasing. They didn't realize how adversarial the U.S. consumer market was — and is still — in terms of multinationals protecting their market share and their brand equity.

So, we had to shift about a half a dozen years after we were founded, in the mid-1990s, having hit our head against the wall so many times. It's hard to remember, but back then there wasn't social media or the Internet or much e-mail. In order to get to consumers you had to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for advertising. So, we shifted our focus more to the institutional market as we began to understand and appreciate that one-third of the economy was government purchasing primarily, but also other large institutions like universities, multilateral organizations, things like that.

And that's what we did. Starting in the mid-1990s, we had a program that we launched as an alternative to certification in order to stoke the demand of institutional purchasers. We called it the Environmental Partners Program and had a couple of hundred members at one time. We put out guidance on how to buy green products and services, even though we didn't have a lot certified, but what look for under as “categories.”

We have had a number of consumer-oriented product standards and a few service ones as well, right from the beginning, but they haven't had much impact on the market the way our institutional work has. At this point, 25 years later, consumer spending is what we see as the next big frontier, because that's two-thirds of the economy. So, if we're really trying to turn the economy around and make it more sustainable, it's kind of hard to do that with just one-third of it.

Makower: What have you learned about consumers along the way in terms of just their willingness to engage? Do you understand them better than you did 25 years ago?

Weissman: I think we do. As you know, it's hard to categorize them as one monolithic group, or that they have one particular characteristic. There are many things and they're all contradictory. They're apathetic. They're interested. They couldn't care less. They vitally care.

There are many different segments but overlooking at them as a whole, it’s clear that right now, still, even 25 years later, they're not the driving force that they could be and I think should be in order to really move the market.

There's just still this great lethargy in the consumer market on everyone's part — not just the consumer, but also the retailers. They're waiting for the manufacturer to come through with the greener products. And manufacturers are waiting for the consumer to rise up and say, “We demand this.”

I think we've been doing it the wrong way. We've been expecting consumers to make all the technical choices. That's absurd. What we know now, 25 years later, is how complicated it is to make a great product or service. It's not impossible, but it is complicated. And asking a consumer to do it in the 20 seconds that they have to make a choice in the aisle with the limited information they have — it's just totally absurd.

Makower: Do you hope that something will change that will lead to some tipping point where consumers start getting engaged?

Weissman: Absolutely.

Makower: So, what's that tipping point?

Weissman: I sure hope it isn't because of some horrible crisis, like another Katrina. I don't want that to happen. But I think something needs to galvanize people's attention, and not in a guilt kind of way but just to kind of wake people up that it's time to really turn this thing around.

And everyone could do it simply by asking, demanding, requesting — making it clear that this is something they care about because they see this as the future of their world and of their children's world. It's really that simple.

Makower: It doesn't strike me as being simple at all because, as you tease that out, then you have, “Well, what do we care about and how do I determine what's a good product or what's a good company?" And that's where Green Seal is supposed to come in.

Weissman: It's always been a chicken-and-egg thing for us in terms of manufacturers only caring about doing this if they see consumer demand, but not being able to get the consumer demand unless there are green products for them to actually buy.

When you take away the multinational kind of negativity or the trade groups’ negativity toward any leadership standard, you see a general consensus by the people who have the technical knowledge about what constitutes a more sustainable product or service. I don't think that is the fundamental issue. When that's brought up, I think it's largely a red herring.

And if you can get enough people in the consumer market to show that they're concerned, then the question is, “Okay, how do we ensure that what is promoted as green or more sustainable is truly more sustainable?” And yes, that's where Green Seal comes in.

I'm not saying the whole process is simple. What I'm saying is, from the consumer's point of view, what I would like them to do is relatively simple as opposed to what we've seen in recent years, so many people or so many efforts to get consumers to make very difficult, technical choices about products, which they're really not equipped to do. It's just like asking them to run a power plant or something. It gets to the point of absurdity.

Makower: Let's move over to the B to B side because in some ways, that — at least from my perspective — feels more hopeful. What have you learned about what it takes to transform the market for a given product or product category?

Weissman: The main thing that we've learned is that you have to be very careful about which market you get into. You have to get to know the players. And you have to get to know the technical and the market issues in that sector. You can't just blithely decide you're going to do a standard for any particular category and put it out there and expect it's going to be taken up.

That's something we just really didn't know much about in the early years. And we've learned more and more about it and we still learn about it. We realized that we have to do always more than we think we do to get into a particular market segment.

Makower: Where have you tried to change the market and struggled? And what did you learn from that?

Weissman: Green Seal has had a lot of uptake in the institutional building maintenance area, and particularly, the janitorial maintenance. We decided to complete the portfolio of our standards in that we would do a standard for laundry products. Well, it turned out, that's actually a whole different set of players than in cleaning products. And different trade associations, different conferences.

We got some of them involved when we developed our two standards there — GS-48 and GS-51 — but we didn't do enough. And we've had to do a lot of catch-up in the last year or so to try to learn and get involved with these people because if they're not really informed about Green Seal and what we're trying to do, they're going to see us as sort of outsiders who are coming in and imposing something that they don't really understand or appreciate. They just think that we're creating problems for them.

Makower: You’ve also had a decent reception in the hospitality sector.

Weissman: We do have some good programs going. We have one in Chicago with the city. We have one currently in Los Angeles with more and more properties certified. It's the Los Angeles Green Lodging Program. It has been a sort of beacon for hoteliers who really want to go to the highest leadership level.

Makower: So, looking forward, where do you see Green Seal going in the next few years?

Weissman: We've been thinking about that quite a lot. What we see is, first of all, continuing very strongly in the institutional market, where we have pretty good influence, though we want to strengthen that. And, as I alluded to earlier, we want very much to start making some headway in the consumer market.

Another thing we're doing is to try to be much more open to innovation. You've probably heard that canard that eco-labeling programs stifle innovation. We don't really believe that but we do believe that it's important to demonstrate and continually apply innovation in our programs. Last month we came out with a proposal for something called the Green Seal Standard for Environmental Innovation (PDF), which gets to one of the oldest problems eco-labeling programs have had: there are so many different categories of products and services out there, how do you develop standards for all of them? And this basically says, if we don't have a standard but it's an innovative kind of product — not just a greener one but an innovative one — we'll take a look at it and we'll use a life-cycle approach to determine whether it could be certified as such.

Makower: Sounds like there's a heck of a lot more to do. Are you still having fun?

Weissman: We're never bored here.

What Kimberly-Clark learned from 5 years with Greenpeace

Lisa Morden

For Greenpeace's perspective on this partnership, read this article by Rolf Skar, Greenpeace's forest campaign director.

In August, Kimberly-Clark Corporation and Greenpeace marked the fifth anniversary of a milestone agreement on sustainable fiber sourcing, which established a framework for collaboration towards long-term solutions to protect forests. The relationship between Kimberly-Clark and Greenpeace remains a healthy one today—one that is anchored in some shared values, including the desire to protect the forests of world, and the environmental, social and economic values they create.

Creating the partnership

Not a lot of companies can say they have such a positive relationship with Greenpeace. And this wasn’t always the case for us either.

Between 2004 and 2009, Greenpeace engaged in a negative public campaign regarding Kimberly-Clark's use of fiber sourced from the Canadian boreal forest. The “Kleercut” campaign involved direct actions, including Greenpeace activists interrupting Kleenex marketing events and blockading manufacturing sites, in order to draw attention to forestry practices in the boreal. While we felt that our practices at the time were very responsible, this high-profile conflict with a leading NGO raised questions and concerns with customers and overshadowed our good environmental performance.

By 2009, it was clear that we needed to take a different approach. We had to set aside difficult experiences and perceptions to push for a different outcome. By engaging key leaders from both organizations, we were able to identify a mutually agreeable approach. And so, together we signed an agreement that set us on a path to increase the use of environmentally preferred fibers (including fiber certified to the Forest Stewardship Council and recycled fiber) in Kimberly-Clark products.

The result was also a step in the right direction for the industry at large. With the new agreement, we embarked on a journey to work with our suppliers to encourage Forest Stewardship Council certification and protection of high-conservation-value forests, while at the same time using our brands to increase the awareness of the importance of certification.

The collaboration with Greenpeace furthered our appreciation of the value of—and need for—partnering with the right stakeholders. These partnerships deepen our understanding of environmental issues by seeing them through a different lens—this new perspective can create the impetus to change direction, accelerate plans or deploy improved practices. For us here at Kimberly-Clark, the collaboration with Greenpeace and other stakeholders such as the Forest Stewardship Council has helped us gain insights into ways to improve the sustainability of our products and supply chain.


At Kimberly-Clark, we’ve set higher standards for ourselves in the area of responsible fiber procurement, and we continuously push ourselves to meet them. We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished so far.

First, we reached our goal to source 100 percent of virgin wood fiber from suppliers whose forestry operations or wood-fiber procurement activities are certified by a third-party forest certification system.

In addition, we have a clearly stated preference of Forest Stewardship Council-certified fiber, which has contributed to global growth in FSC-fiber supply through supplier partners. We’ve increased the use of FSC-certified fiber in our global tissue products by 111 percent since 2009 .

Finally, we have increased the use of environmentally-preferred fiber, which includes FSC-certified fiber and recycled fiber, in our global tissue products to 83.5 percent from 54.6 percent.

Lessons learned

Of course, we’re pleased to no longer be a target of Greenpeace’s creative campaigning activities, but more importantly, we’re still learning from each other. Here are 5 lessons learned from Kimberly-Clark’s perspective:

1. Common ground is within reach

Kimberly-Clark and Greenpeace learned that we both want forest management practices to improve around the world, but we had to work on being open-minded with each other. At first, it was hard to truly listen.

2. Transparency and trust are key

Both parties must be transparent regarding their objectives, plans and processes. We had to push past our hesitancy to share internal information, which was critical to building trust.

3. Both parties’ reputations are on the line

We learned that Greenpeace has just as much at stake as Kimberly-Clark does. Both teams highly value their reputation with their stakeholders and want to be respectful to all as they work together.

4. Know the customer

Understand the value drivers, priorities and processes of your customer. This is critical to finding the middle ground and a principle that applies equally to NGOs.

5. Set the pace of change

NGOs want to see change happen faster than a company may be prepared to realize. Thus, expectations may be seen as unrealistic or not financially viable. By striking an ambitious timeline for change, there is an opportunity to demonstrate leadership ahead of the curve and, perhaps, realize value you never anticipated you could.

Image of tissue box by ChicagoStockPhotography via Shutterstock

What Greenpeace learned from 5 years with Kimberly-Clark

Rolf Skar

For Kimberly-Clark's perspective on this partnership, read this article by Lisa Morden, Kimberly-Clark’s senior director for global sustainability.

More than five years after the formal end of the "Kleercut" campaign, Kimberly-Clark and Greenpeace are still hanging out. Why? Well, first of all, Kimberly-Clark has delivered on its commitments. That makes Greenpeace happy, and makes it easy to continue our mutual engagement. Also, it turns out that the end of the hard-hitting campaign marked the beginning of the real work and learning for both sides. Here are five lessons learned from the Greenpeace perspective.

1. Dare to trust

When asked what it was that turned years of conflict to collaboration, it is hard to pretend there weren’t a mix of issues at play. That said, things began to change when lead negotiators from both sides started to trust each other. That’s not an easy thing to do. Campaigners have, for good reason, a healthy suspicion of companies and their spokespersons. Too often companies try to pass off greenwash for real change. And, it’s not hard to understand why it may be difficult for those within companies to be comfortable trusting someone who beat up their brands for years.

However, trust building has a natural momentum to it. At first, it is risky. Then, when it turns out trusting was the right decision, it gets easier to do it again. That is why trust-building has continued between Kimberly-Clark and Greenpeace over the last five years. I don’t think either side has ever blindly accepted what the other side has said. But, we both now know that anything but transparency, clear communication, and acting in good faith will end up backfiring.

2. Don’t limit potential benefits

The Greenpeace Kleercut campaign stemmed from concerns about the Canadian Boreal forest. And, while Kimberly-Clark has had a positive effect on Boreal forest conservation since 2009, the effect of the new policy and our collaboration has had a much larger effect. After all, the Kimberly-Clark fiber buying policy is global. I’m reminded of this when I see Kimberly-Clark products in airport bathrooms, hotels and store shelves worldwide.

And, it’s not just procurement for product lines that has been affected. Kimberly-Clark and Greenpeace collaborate on issues of common interest. At the recentForest Stewardship Council General Assembly, the engagement of Kimberly-Clark helped Greenpeace craft and pass a motion to conserve Intact Forest Landscapes. This improves the world’s most respected forest certification system and will have positive effects on forests far beyond the Kimberly-Clark supply chain.

And, for Kimberly-Clark, what began as shifts in procurement standards has turned into more of a cultural shift. No, the 100-plus year-old company is not totally different. But, as subsequent product innovations and announcements show, the company is building on, not just fulfilling, commitments made in 2009.

3. Let the haters hate

Greenpeace is no stranger to controversy. Over the years, I’ve gotten used to rhetorical slings and arrows, as well as real-life threats. Arm-chair advocates, from the comfort of the internet, accuse Greenpeace of somehow selling out to companies (note: Greenpeace does not take money from corporations and never will). On the other side of the spectrum, anti-conservation ideologues erect absurd conspiracy theories that pit Greenpeace against jobs, freedom, America, and apple pie (note: I think apple pie, like freedom, is delicious).

The announcement of the new Kimberly-Clark fiber buying policy in 2009 was no exception. Some environmentalists said Kimberly-Clark’s plan wasn’t good enough. Anti-conservation hacks said Kimberly-Clark had made a big mistake. We even saw a company lash out against Greenpeace and Kimberly-Clark, cynically seeking to boost its own sales on the back of the media attention our collaboration was garnering. Over time, the haters fell silent as benefits to forests and the bottom-line proved them wrong. You can’t make everyone happy, but you can do what’s right and wait out the hate.

4. Waiting can be worth it

Some companies move quickly when called out by Greenpeace, but that was not the case with Kimberly-Clark. The Kleercut campaign was a long one, spanning almost five years. At times, some thought there might never be resolution to the campaign. After all, we were asking the company to make new global procurement standards for the main ingredient to its core products. New pulp buying standards could mean an increase in price...something competitive companies try to avoid at all cost (pun intended).

When Kimberly-Clark and Greenpeace finally did reach agreement, the company’s commitment to its new procurement policy may have been stronger than it may have otherwise been. There was a lot at stake for the company to make it work. Over the years, media and stakeholders paid attention to the issues raised by the Greenpeace campaign. We reached millions of potential customers around the world. Back-tracking or pursuing the new commitments with something less than real ambition would doubtless backfire.

And years of campaigning meant that a lot of people in the company were affected. Those that experienced what it was like to be in conflict rather than in a collaborative position with Greenpeace probably don’t want to go back to that anytime soon. We learned that lasting change sometimes requires a bigger investment up front, and though Greenpeace did not plan it this way, we are glad about the results.

5. The "end" is the beginning of real work

Unlike the haters, a lot of people are ready for good news. So, when conflict ends and collaboration begins, it is easy for people to applaud and assume the problem (whatever it was) has been fixed. Not so. Many corporate commitments have faltered…some famously so. And, NGOs like Greenpeace often find it easier to run advocacy campaigns than to resource long-term implementation work that creates real results on the ground.

While Greenpeace has invested in following through with Kimberly-Clark, there are plenty of things we can do better. For example, it shouldn’t take five years for us to take a step back, celebrate what’s been accomplished, and communicate that to the world.

How to communicate your sustainability story

Taz Burwaiss

You can use social media and storytelling synergistically to target an audience and build brand awareness. By itself, social media is proven to help build relationships with your stakeholders, become a "thought leader" in your sector and identify new business leads, while also helping you better use market and customer research.

Recent research has shown that storytelling can enhance your communication by presenting content in a more engaging, human and inspiring way. If you use five goals to focus your efforts, you can strengthen the power and the reach of your sustainability story. 

Goal 1: Raising awareness

Social media and the power of branding are excellent tools for raising awareness.

Identify what stakeholders/ decision makers you want to engage with. This may be your internal workforce, your customer's, the media publications within industry/ sector, your supply chain, the community your impact takes place within or perhaps public authorities you plan to collaborate with. By segmenting your audience in this cross sectorial way you can begin to think about raising awareness in a smarter, more targeted way.

Focus on building PR relationships. Engaging with the media and turning them into media partners will help you multiply your reach, so that your content doesn't just reach your own audience but your partners’ audience, too.

Branding is a complex topic, but the general rule of thumb is to ensure your brand speaks the same language as your audience. If you're communicating to individuals on the community level you may want to brand yourself in a more emotionally charged way that comes across as fun and quirky. If your story is targeting potential funders, you should communicate in a more corporate and slick style with an emphasis on graphs and statistics.

Goal 2: Engaging your audience

Keep your communication style specific to the audience. Several studies have identified that individuals are more likely to accept information if delivered by messengers with whom they share a cultural affinity. For example, the former chief economist of the World Bank, Nicholas Stern, lent much credibility to the green growth message among the business community by volunteering to lead the analysis for the U.K. government of the economics of climate change.

Collaborate with celebrities or exciting talent within your sector. Not only the message, but also the messenger is important. Credible and trusted messengers are very much needed to make the case for deviating from business as usual. You may not be able to afford Angelina Jolie, William Hague or Leonardo DiCaprio to be the face of your campaign. But there should be plenty of highly sought-after, industry-specific experts worth teaming up with.

Identify a protagonist within your story. Psychological research shows that we interpret our experiences, and seek to understand the world, by creating stories of protagonists acting with intention to achieve a goal. These stories are called "meta-narratives," "paradigms" or sometimes "frames" because they provide frameworks through which we create meaning and make judgments.

Bring it down to earth. Demonstrate the complex benefits of your sustainability project in terms that can be understood and experienced in your target audience's daily lives — for example, how energy efficiency can reduce household costs or how reducing air pollution can improve health. The most effective communication strategies demonstrate these benefits at the individual level.

Identify and use the hot "keywords" in your sector. This significantly will improve your SEO and engagement with each segment you are targeting, as well as build trust with your audience.

Be transparent. Being full transparent and honest also will help you create trust with your customers.

Goal 3: Educating your audience

Creating impact is about winning people's minds as well as their hearts. Your communication strategy also will require an underlying basis in fact that is robust to challenges from vested interests. Messages should therefore be balanced, with plenty of facts and figures to back up your claims, while also clearly stating both the winners and the losers in the transition to a greener economy.

Goal 4: Inspiring your audience

Be persistent and consistent. Creating one or two pieces of content isn't enough. Your sustainability battle will be long and hard, so you will have to expect this to be a long-term campaign in which consistency in how you communicate is of utmost importance. Essentially this is shaped by your brand identity and strategy.

Focus on the benefits. In the coming years the sustainability sector must prove that its triple bottom line model can deliver "smarter" development results than the traditional economic model. This will involve an emphasis that clearly demonstrates the benefits of your project. Benefits can include reducing the likelihood and impact of climate change, improvements in attracting investment in innovation, creating green jobs and industries, conserving natural capital and advancing sustainable rural livelihoods.

The basic premise of sustainable development is that future generations should not be any worse off than the current generation, and that there must be a balance between economic, environmental and social sustainability.

Goal 5: Encouraging your audience to take action

Don't just leave your call to action until the end of the article. Find creative ways to weave your call to action into your story. Once the editorial is done, include a few ways people could get involved.

Empower your audience. Focus less on making people feel bad that they're not doing enough and instead empower them to feel as if they too can get involved. It's no longer about your organization as the hero, but rather about giving the reader the opportunity to become the hero.

This post was originally published on the site 2Degrees Network and is reprinted with permission. Photo of inspiring book by LilKar via Shutterstock.