Behind the Scenes at the Brainstorm Green Circus

Behind the Scenes at the Brainstorm Green Circus

The unexamined life is not worth living, said Socrates.

"Leading an examined life in business is a pain in the ass," said Yvon Chouinard.

Chouinard, the legendary founder of Patagonia, spoke yesterday at Brainstorm Green, FORTUNE's conference about business and the environment.

He was talking about the challenge that companies will face as Wal-Mart and its partners in a broad-based sustainability consortium go forward with their sustainability index, a bold effort to measure the environmental impact of tens of thousands of consumer products. It may not be easy for companies to track -- and disclose -- the pollution caused by their products, but it's a vital step in the right direction.

Brainstorm Green is, in part, about the examined life: We try to take an honest look at the environmental impact of business, and see what progress if any we're making towards a more sustainably economy. For three days this week in beautiful Laguna Niguel, CA., we brought a diverse group of business and environmental leaders together to talk about ways in which corporate America can help solve environmental problems. We discussed electric cars, renewable energy, nuclear power, the smart grid, energy efficiency, water, sustainable supply chains, oceans, engaging employees around green, food and agriculture, green marketing, geoengineering and what sustainable consumption might look like.

We had a great lineup of speakers, more than 100 in all, including Chouinard, Bill Ford, Lee Scott of Wal-Mart, Stewart Brand, the explorer Sylvia Earle, Lew Hay of FPL, NRG Energy's David Crane, Bill Gross, Starbucks' Cliff Burrows, Scott Griffith of Zipcar, Sally Jewell of REI, the leaders of the Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, Nature Conservancy and Sierra Club..

This year, we added a new, er, twist to the event, as you can see below in a photo by Brad Markel.

For the first time, we featured animals at Brainstorm Green, thanks to the fabulous Julie Scardina of Sea World. She brought a menagerie -- hawks, an eagle, a lemur, an adorable baby kangaroo, flamingos, and a 14-foot-long boa constrictor that took a liking to FORTUNE's managing editor, Andy Serwer.

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 That was hilarious -- you can see watch it unfold on video here -- but not so funny were the reminders from Julie that climate change and habitat destruction are putting the squeeze on numerous species of animals that play valuable role in the earth's ecological systems, particularly in the tropics.

Discouraging, too, was much of the conversations about what's going on, or not, in Washington. (Chouinard was among those who said government will never solve the climate crisis. It will take activism and business, he argued.) I moderated a panel with the NRDC's Frances Beinecke, Mike Brune of Sierra Club, David Yarnold of EDF and Mark Tercek of The Nature Conservancy in which they said there's no better than a 50% chance that Congress will pass comprehensive energy and environmental legislation in the next 12 months. Lots of people at the event expressed hope that Senators Kerry, Lieberman and Graham could break the logjam with a bill that will combine a cap-and-trade system regulating the utility industry (though it won't be call cap and trade), a tax on gasoline (which will be called a fee, and returned in some manner to consumers), no immediate regulation of industrial emissions (to defuse opposition from manufacturers) and incentives for nuclear power, energy efficiency and renewable energy. It will be far from perfect but better to get started than to do nothing.

Whether they succeed or not, Kerry, Lieberman and Graham deserve kudos. "They're showing a great deal of creativity. And how often do you hear creativity and Washington in the same sentence?" asked FPL's Lew Hay.

The conference closed, thank goodness, with a couple of encouraging conversations.

Listening to Chouinard, John Fleming of Wal-Mart and Tom Miller of the consulting firm BluSkye talk about the sustainability index reinforced my belief that this could be a big, big deal. It may or may not drive consumer behavior -- it's hard for me to believe that people will buy this or that brand of orange juice or jeans based on the carbon footprint or toxic chemicals that went into them -- but it will force consumer products companies across America to measure the environmental impact of what they sell.

And while some certification and labeling programs today confuse as much as they illuminate, there's enough muscle behind this plan to suggest that it will emerge as a near-universal standard. "We need one standard, one version of the truth," said Fleming, Wal-Mart's chief merchandising officer.

Eco-labels could report on the carbon footprint, water use, toxics and social impact of products, Fleming indicated. "We're moving into a world that is increasingly more transparent, everything from politics to business to retail prices," he said. That's all to the good.

Then Bill Ford closed out the event, and he was a big hit.

What he and CEO Alan Mullaly have done to turn around the iconic American automaker is truly impressive, but he wasn't ready to take any credit. "We've got to run scared every day," he said.

A heartfelt environmentalist, Ford was a man ahead of his time back in the 1990s and the times have finally caught up with him. Ford Motor is pushing ahead with all-electric cars, hybrids, cars that run on biofuels and more efficient internal combustion engines. For the first time, he said, Ford will be able to make money manufacturing small cars in America.

Ford sounded most excited about the coming of electric cars, and said the company was less interested in hydrogen-powered vehicles, which Detroit has been talking about (and researching) for years, with little to show for it. "It's an interesting technology, but moving to the back burner as electrification gains momentum and credibility," he said.

He explained that, in contrast to Toyota with the Prius, Chevrolet with the Volt and Nissan with the Leaf, Ford will not create a vehicle that will be purely hybrid or electric. Instead, the company will offer hybrid or electric versions of the vehicles in its lineup that are also available with gasoline engines.

That will make it easier to adjust production to meet customer demand for electric cars, but it will leave Ford without a signature "green" vehicle that consumers will be able to buy as a badge of the environmental commitment.

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Ford also talked about providing "mobility," which is different from the business of selling cars and trucks. Noting that there will soon be more than 40 cities in the world with 10 million people or more, Ford Motor needs to find ways to help people in those cities get around. He praised Zipcar's car-sharing business model as an example, and said that in Hong Kong people use a stored-value card known as Octopus to pay for transport on the subway, buses and taxis.

"The notion of shoving two cars in every garage in every part of the world doesn't work," Ford said. People are "going to need very different mobility solutions."

Ford, by the way, arranged to have lunch one day with the brilliant and iconoclastic Steward Brand, whose book, Whole Earth Discipline, had people talking during the event. Chouinard, another iconoclast, had dinner with Eduardo Castro-Wright, a top exec at Wal-Mart. Sally Jewell of REI (pictured below) led a hike along the beach with, among others, Curtis Brainard of Shell and Frances Beinecke. And organic rice farmer Jessica Lundberg shared ideas and business cards with Monsanto's Jerry Steiner.

Those are the kinds of connections we love to make at Brainstorm Green.

REI's Sally Jewell, brainstorming along the Pacific Coast in Laguna Niguel

 

GreenBiz.com Senior Writer Marc Gunther is a longtime journalist and speaker whose focus is business and sustainability. Marc maintains a blog at MarcGunther.com. You can follow him on Twitter @marcGunther.

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