Live from Ceres Conference: Doing Well, But How Do We Do Better?

Live from Ceres Conference: Doing Well, But How Do We Do Better?

Awards ceremonies are notoriously fluffy affairs: Whether it's the recipient thanking everyone from significant other to childhood pet or the band bringing up the music in the middle of a speech, awards have long had a reputation for inessentiality.

Not so at the Ceres Conference.

During the lunch sessions at the 20th annual conference, the recipients of the 2008 Ceres-ACCA North American Awards for Sustainability Reporting repeatedly challenged both Ceres and all the companies in attendance to raise the bar.

Dell, which won the award for the best emerging-issues reporting, was the first to ask the question. Tod Arbogast, Dell's director of sustainability, during his acceptance speech, told the crowd, "[T]he last 20 years are great and deserving of celebrating, but the next 20 years are just critical."

Similarly, Seventh Generation's Dave Rapaport, who accepted the award for best small- to medium-sized business CSR report, asked an even more pertinent on winning best SMB CSR report: "Can CSR reporting even drive the scale of change that we need to really make a difference?"

Gatherings like the Ceres Conference are energizing because they bring together thought leaders from any industry you can think of -- during breaks and at lunch today I've met the heads of CSR from companies as diverse of General Electric and S.C. Johnson, to name just two.

But at the same time, the excellent attendee list at this event is also self-selecting for people who are already on board with sustainability. Their companies have varying levels of buy-in already, they've made the business case for their projects, and in short they're several major steps ahead of the vast majority of companies in the U.S. and around the world.

So it should be of added significance -- and possibly added concern -- when the presenters and attendees alike are calling for even more efforts on environmental goals.

The plenary panel that immediately followed lunch, "Innovation in Action: Creating the 21st Century Sustainable Corporation" only furthered this discussion.

When asked how green initiatives are paying off at Nike, Hannah Jones, the company's VP of corporate responsibility, said bluntly, "I think we ought to stop asking the question 'Is sustainability paying off?' I'm tired of being apologists for this."

It was an idea echoed throughout the afternoon sessions. Jones explained further: "The real question not is there a business case for sustainability, but how does sustainability hold the keys to your business's survival?"

Two paths for solutions were presented by panelists and award winners during the afternoon: the idea of continual improvement from within, and the idea of partnering with other groups to spur innovation and share ideas.

Frank Mantero, GE's director of corporate citizenship, illustrated the first thread while he was accepting the award for best overall sustainability report. After explaining the short honeymoon his company experienced after releasing their first report four years ago, Mantero said "Stakeholders should continuously challenge us on what is important to include in reports."
After feeling pressure from those stakeholders to move beyond metrics-oriented reporting toward reporting GE's overall impacts, the company made the shift, and won the ACCA award for best overall report for 2008.

Panelists on the "21st Century Sustainable Corporation" panel repeatedly illustrated the second point: in addition to striving for sustainability from within, looking outward to what your competitors, peers, or even unrelated companies are doing can be key to rapid innovation.

Dan Reicher, the director of Google.org's climate and energy initiatives, discussed a new initiative that Google is developing to help individuals measure their homes' energy usage.

"We have 100 or more Google employees that are monitoring their energy use and we're learning all sorts of interesting things about our homes and ways we can cut energy," Reicher explained. "I think there's real opportunity for success here; we can show that this stuff works."

While Google's solar program is a kind of partnership with their users, the company is also working with GE on policy (see Marc Gunther's blog post for more on that); and the other companies on the panel also highlighted the benefits of intra- or inter-industry partnerships for building innovation.

Lauralee Martin, the CFO and COO of Jones Lang LaSalle, held up the recent energy efficiency retrofit of the Empire State Building as a promising example of how partnerships can leverage significant change.

"That one building has a carbon footprint that's over half the carbon footprint of JLL's global operations," Martin said. By working with Johnson Controls, the Clinton Climate Initiative and the Rocky Mountain Institute to drive down the building's energy use by 40 percent, they're makng the case to the New York City, to San Francisco and other cities, as well as to other companies, to show the business and environmental cases for these kinds of projects and put them at a scale that makes huge impact.

Nike's Hannah Jones laid out two very different partnerships that address the company's future in a limited resource world. After facing the dawning realization that the future of consumer-goods companies will somehow involve being less about selling stuff and more about diversifying their product offerings -- a terrifying prospect, Jones admitted -- they looked at the what Nike's mission could suggest to them.

"Our mission isn't to produce stuff -- our mission is to bring inspiration and innovation to athletes around the world," Jones said. A resulting partnership is their work with Apple to incorporate iPod technology into running shoes and gym machines to boost athletic and exercise performance.

A more sustainability-focused partnership Jones offered up is Nike's GreenXchange, which stemmed from the realization that Nike, and presumably its colleagues in the industry, is just sitting on intellectual property that's either no long innovative or not generating any business value for the company.

Similar to the Eco-Patents Commons that we've covered on GreenBiz.com, the Green Exchange brings together companies to share innovations that can improve efficiencies and reduce impacts. Jones offered the example of Nike and Puma's parallel but unshared efforts on shoeboxes -- both companies spent significant amounts of money to drive innovation on shoeboxes, "and we both have the same boxes," Jones said.

The Green Exchange works on the Creative Commons platform, and Jones said that Nike is going to put all of their sustainable innovations into the program. "You can use what I've done if I can use what you've done, and we can both go farther, faster," was how Jones summed up the program.

The afternoon panels, as well as the Day Two panels and plenaries at the 20th annual Ceres Conference are all still to come -- we expect to find even more ideas for solutions and ways that companies are taking to heart the goals of always doing better.
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