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Question: What businesses have emerged as major players in the sustainability movement?

Joel Makower:
Big, big companies from auto companies to Wal-Mart, to footware and apparel companies like Nike, or Coca-Cola in the food and beverage. And many others are now not only thinking about this deeply, but imposing standards on all of their suppliers which can number in the tens of thousands and making requirements of them to ship them less packaging, less waste, more energy-efficient, less toxic products and materials. 

This does not make them green companies... because I don’t even know how to define it.  We don’t have a standard yet for a green company.  Nobody claims them to be green, including these companies.  But that means that they’re looking at both large and small things and at the scale in which they operate, even small things can have a huge, huge impact. 

I'll give you just one little story.  And there are thousands of these.  A few years ago, McDonald’s eliminated the embossed golden arches on their napkins.  Right?  It’s a little embossed golden arches probably no environmental impacts of embossing that, there’s no toxic dyes or heavy metals, maybe there’s a little heat used in that embossing process, but what would happen as a result?  Well, it made the napkins 24% thinner, which means they can fit 24% more napkins in a box.  24% more boxes in a truck or tractor trailer eliminating the need for shipping by the equivalent of about 100 tractor trailers a year.  Just from napkins. 

Now, that doesn’t make McDonald’s green, they’re not green.  But the point is, they’re doing hundreds and hundreds and thousands of these things, and so are most companies out there.  We don’t hear about them, they don’t talk about them.

Question:
Why don’t companies publicize their sustainability efforts?


Joel Makower: You’d think that companies doing green things and having significant impacts would want to shout this stuff from the rooftops, but these... in fact, every company wants green stories to tell.  Everybody feel they need to have one, but the reality is that green stories are hard stories to tell.  For three reasons, first of all, most of them are all about doing less bad, right?  So, if you have a widget and this widget, say hey this widget has 54% fewer toxics than last year, that's a significant thing from an environmental perspective, but it still means that, hey, we're beating our wife 46% of the time.  All right?  So, that’s not a very easy story to tell however impactful it might be. 

The biggest reason is that a lot of these things have no value to the consumer in terms of the reason they buy a product.  So, if Anheuser-Busch, or Coca-Cola figures out how to wring out a third of the aluminum out of the aluminum can, which they’ve done over the past decade or so.  And if you think of that... consider the environmental impacts of mining bauxite to make aluminum, or the fact that manufacturing aluminum is so energy-intensive.  It’s one of the top three or four or five greenhouse gas emitting industries, that’s a significant thing for an environmental achievement.  But they’re not gong to put a green seal on Busch and Bud.  That’s not why people buy the stuff.  Or, if Frito Lay, or McDonald's, or somebody who makes potato chips sources potatoes from a processor that now uses closed loop washing instead of flushing the rinse water down the drain every time they wash a load of potatoes, they now recycle it and use it over and over, filter it, and you know, all of that, saving hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of gallons of water a year.  Again, a significant thing to an environmental prospective, but they’re not going to put a green label on a holster of fries or bag of potato chips. 

So these are things that you can’t always put on a hang tag or a label or a package or an advertisement.  But the third reason is that when companies start talking about what they’re doing right, they often unwittingly illuminate problems that the public didn’t know that they had.  So a few years ago I learned that Levi Strauss, which at the time was the largest cotton buyer in the world, had started sourcing 2% of their annual cotton buy organically.  And I thought that was a really interesting story and I called them.  I wanted to write about it.  And they said, "Well, we don’t want to talk about it."  And I persevered and I knew people there and I eventually got them to talk with me about it.  And of course, one of the questions I asked them was, "Why don’t you want to talk about it?"  And they said, “Well, look at it from our perspective.  When we go out to tell this story, we have to explain why we’re doing this.  First of all that cotton is one of the hardest crops to grow, incredible intensity of pesticides and fertilizers and water.  It’s very hard to grow.  And then we have to talk about the impacts of all of that, these pesticides and fertilizers and the groundwater runoff and the impact on worker health and safety and how that affects the birds and the trees.  By the time we tell that story, we risk our customers saying, 'So you mean 98% of what you make is bad for people on the planet?  Why only 2%?  Why not 5... you know we’re going to do campus boycotts until you commit to 10% organic cotton.'"  You could sort of hear that conversation unfolding in the marketplace and the conversation that unfolded at Levis is unfolding every day at big companies, which is to basically as the question, "Do we do it or do we talk about it, or both?  And if we talk about it, how do we talk about it?"

Question:
Should businesses be responsible for promoting healthy lifestyles?

Joel Makower: I think it’s the responsibility of business to make products in a green way and make products that are perceived to be responsible both in terms of the products themselves and how the companies behind them operate.  Companies can only go so far in terms of getting people to eat well, or exercise, or not abuse their bodies in any number of different ways and not abuse the planet, as well.  But there’s a lot that companies can do.  Companies have a tremendous communications cloud.  And a lot of companies I talk to say, "Well, customers aren’t demanding that.  We’re not hearing that from the consumer."  Well, consumers buy lots of things they didn’t demand.  It’s things that we make available tot hem that we convince them that they want.  And so there’s an opportunity here to help promote a lifestyle that’s more environmentally responsible.  Probably healthier for families and communities as well. But they have to, as I said, be better products, or perceived to have some value beyond that. 

People want to change without changing.  When it comes to change, people love the noun, hate the verb.  Right?  So, it’s very hard for people to really, you know, want to make dramatic changes in their life unless they see some specific improvement for themselves. 

So the unfortunate part, but it is the reality, is that when it comes to "saving the planet" it’s really about, what’s in it for me?  Me first, and then the planet, so I’m not going to make the big change in my life.  I’m not going to switch brands, I’m not going to go out of my way; pretty much I’m not going to pay any more for the privilege of doing the right thing.  I have to get something out of that.  And maybe it’s just pride, it maybe that people just do that, maybe it’s a badge of honor, maybe it’s just self-satisfaction.  But in more cases than not, it has to be some financial or performance or other kind of benefit. 

So I think to the extent that companies can help us understand what those benefits are and can, in fact, design products and services that aren’t just greener, but better, there will be opportunities here. 

One of the other realities is that companies aren’t very good at storytelling around this stuff.  Companies are really good at storytelling in general, but when it comes to the environment, storytelling takes on a particularly important part of this. When you think about what we’re talking about here.  On one hand we’re talking about incredible complex, geeky, scientific, technical issues about which even the experts don’t always agree.  And on the other hand, we’re talking about our bodies and our families and our kids and our community and our future and our planet.  So, it’s head and heart.  Right?  And if you ever spent any time talking to anyone about this, you know, that if you go one millimeter too far in either direction you lose your audience.  You’re either too over-you-head, I don’t know what you’re talking about.  This is too complex for me. Or you’re too sort of California woo-woo around this and you lose your audience in either case. 

And so storytelling is how we integrate head and heart.  It’s how we take complex things and make them accessible, and companies haven’t done a very good job of doing that.  You know, there’s this line that’s just, you know... if I just say Kermit, you’ll know exactly what the line is.  "It’s not easy being green," is the song lyric that Kermit sang.  You know how long ago that was?  Forty-one years ago, in 1969.  It’s older than Earth Day.  And that still represent the state of the art of green marketing. 

I get press releases every day, come-ons, pitches, advertising slicks, all kinds of things from copywriters, advertising agencies, PR firms, and the like.  And I know that the person... they contain that Kermit line and some version of it, "It isn’t that easy"—and I know the copywriter that wrote that thinks the she or he is the most clever person for having come up with that.  And the fact is, it’s tired, it’s hackneyed, and it’s not even true.  It’s not that easy being green.  It actually takes some work.  So we need to find better ways to communicate and tell those stories.

Question:
What’s a better way to tell these stories?

Joel Makower: You know, in the 1990's, during the dot-com boom of the late '90s, there was this, this axiom that "content is king."  That those companies that had content would be the ones that ruled the universe in the new connected digital internet world.  And a lot of those companies, most of them went away.  And it turns out that it wasn’t content that was king, it was context.  Context is king.  And if you look at the companies that survived, the eBays and Googles and Yahoos, and others, those are the ones that... Craig’s List, and those are the firms that made sense in all that massive information out there that give it some kind of context.  Some ability to organize and find things and have things elevate to... things that are the most important of all and relative to your interests or relative to your friends.  And so context is what's missing here in terms of company storytelling.  They want to know that something is good or better for the environment.  They want to know the context.  Because if you say this is green and don’t know if you should buy it, well how green, or is it really green, or how is it... is it the only issue that product as.  Is the company trying to say you're green as a result of that? 

So I think people want to know that you understand as a company, what your environmental issues are.  They want to know that you know your problems, that you’ve done your homework.  And then they want to know that you’re on the case; that you’re doing something about that, that you’ve got some plan and some kind of commitment. And that you have some... and that you’re talking about this openly and authentically and not just waving your arms and quoting Kermit and saying, hey aren't we green.  But actually putting it into context and giving it some, some sense of this is what we’re doing right now, but this is part of a journey that we’re on.  This is a part of a long-term proposition.  We’re not claiming that by doing this that we’re a green company. 

I think that people who... the companies that can demonstrate that they understand their problems from an environmental perspective, have a plan in place to do something about it—even if it’s long-term and imperfect and never gets them to be perfectly good, which no company really ever will be—and are talking about that openly and authentically will be in... will have laid a foundation for being able to make specific environmental claims and put out environmental products and talk about environmental issues in a credible way and even to innovate and fail and still land on their feet and not be charged as green washers, or as phonies, or just ignored.  And I think that companies don’t lay that foundation, they don’t create that context that the need in order to make that specific environmental claims. 

Recorded on June 8, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman

 

Big Think Interview With Jo...

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