The GreenBiz Executive Network Becomes Reality

The GreenBiz Executive Network Becomes Reality

In mid-January, we launched the GreenBiz Executive Network at a meeting just outside Chicago. My hotel wake-up call announced the high for that day would reach minus-one degrees Fahrenheit. As a Californian, that's a reading that seems more like an interesting concept than a reality -- kind of like trying to imagine what a $825 billion stimulus package would look like if you could actually see it in front of you. As I crossed the bridge over the frozen pond separating the hotel from the meeting room, I thought about the diverse collection of companies that had elected to become members of our network and how the network would begin to transform from an interesting concept to a reality.

The GreenBiz Executive Network is our member-based, peer-to-peer learning forum for sustainability executives. The idea: Bring together peers from across a broad spectrum of major companies and brands -- both in person any by phone -- provide them with research customized to their needs and help them improve their game. It's a recipe I'd used successfully for years in the tech field. Now, my colleagues and I were applying it to the world of green business.

The conversation that ensued during that cold Chicago day warmed my heart. A corps of men and women who mostly had never met before shared their challenges, successes and lessons learned. The conversation flowed easily and enthusiastically, as members shared their experiences, good and bad, inside their companies. While the specifics of the event are confidential (the group operates under the time-tested British tradition of the Chatham House Rule, whose American translation is something akin to "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas"), there are some general themes worth sharing. Here are three topics that rose to the top.

•    More commonalities than differences. We brought together companies from diverse sectors including retail, technology, chemicals, building products, food service, consumer goods and other industries. Throughout the day, what surprised everyone was that the issues they were dealing cut across company size and sector, that the specifics of their industry weren't as important as their strategies for addressing the issues. Several of the members expressed how difficult it is for them to tell their sustainability story to the outside world. In many ways, their story is viewed as "doing less bad." For example, a company may highlight a reduction in their carbon footprint only to be greeted by a public reaction of not doing enough. This can be especially frustrating for a company doing significantly more than their direct competitors.

Communication shouldn't be left to the PR department. Promoting a company's positive achievements can inadvertently expose negative historical practices. The challenge for large corporations is that the improvements they promote publicly often reflect only a small fraction of the successful, behind-the-scenes progress they have made. Many of our members cited the importance of being as open as possible with their communication. In that regard, several of them noted that while they may have initiated their sustainability or citizenship reporting to communicate to the outside world, the bigger value has come from their communication with employees and supply chain partners, who are then better equipped to share those stories themselves.

Organizational structures are evolving. While there is a growing trend of companies designating a Chief Sustainability Officer, there are others who are relying upon more of a committee or team-oriented structure. Regardless of organizational structure, companies are seeking to collaborate on green initiatives across all areas of their business so their efforts reflect the views of the company as a whole. In our discussions, many of the members noted that there isn't a single framework or model, as changes are coming quickly and organizational structures need to reflect the maturity of a company's sustainability initiative. During the next few months, we will be assembling a set of organizational models that reflect the leading practices for structuring efforts for sustainability.

There were other interesting topics we discussed during our day-long meeting as we worked out an agenda of topics for 2009, including how to integrate environmental and sustainability factors into operating policies for a wide range of activities, from purchasing to product design to supply chain operations. We'll also discuss leading practices for partnering with NGOs and ways to avoid greenwashing charges.

As a member-led group, we're off to a great start. We're continually expanding membership in the GreenBiz Executive Network, which is limited to executives from Global 2000 companies responsible for taking their company's sustainability efforts to a higher level of performance. (Consultants, universities, NGOs, or the media aren't allowed under current membership guidelines.) As a learning organization, we hope to provide insights for the broader community.

Our next meeting is May 21, in San Francisco. Let me know if you are interested in learning more.

John Davies is vice president of GreenBiz Intelligence, a unit of Greener World Media.