Yesterday I had the chance to see one of my heroes of sustainability speak in Atlanta. Ray Anderson was promoting his new book Confessions of a Radical Industrialist: Profits, People, Purpose--Doing Business by Respecting the Earth at an author lecture series. Ray wrote the first book I read that dealt solely with the issue of sustainability, Mid-Course Correction: Toward a Sustainable Enterprise: The Interface Model and the logic put forward in that book really set me down the path of my interest (which is now a passion) for sustainability. Not only did we get to hear Ray speak and answer some questions (one of which was mine) but we were also able to watch about an hour of the film, So Right So Smart, which is a documentary chronicling sustainable business with a large focus on Ray's company, Interface Carpet, known as one of the most sustainable companies out there.
The documentary makes the case for why sustainability equals good business. From the documentary's website: "Those ahead of the curve already realize that fitting in to natural systems is more advantageous than trying to control them… and that sustainability is the most expansive profit frontier yet to be explored."
Interface and Ray Anderson get more focus than anyone else, but also featured are Patagonia, Stoneyfield Farms, Wal-Mart, and other sustainable leaders.
I really like the fact that Interface has a sustainability "dream team", made up of leaders of the sustainable movement who consult for the company. Members of this "team" are : Amory Lovins, Hunter Lovins, and Paul Hawken (the three authors of Natural Capitalism), Bill Browning, John Piccard, and Janine Benyus.
There were many quotes and ideas that I really liked in the documentary which include:
- Focus on corporations lack of accounting for externalities. For example, the value of a tree is not what price it gets at the lumber yard, but what that tree does for society by producing oxygen, storing carbon, preventing soil erosion, producing fresh water, etc., etc., etc.
- The interviews with CEOs of sustainable companies proving that there are businesses that are successfully doing this. As Ray mentioned in the movie, if a college professor or environmentalist tries to tell a business to be sustainable, the business will write them off. If another business-person tells them how to be sustainable, then they may pay attention.
- The fact that there are no sustainable companies, just ones that are less un-sustainable. It also mentioned green washing.
- John Piccard's comment that basically said that CEOs who look at Sustainability and say, "I dont see the ROI" are stupid and killing their chances of continued success (the word he used was "dead").
The overall theme was this: Businesses make money by making customers happy. If the customers start demanding more sustainable products from businesses, then business will begin to give the customers what they ask for. It is up to us (the public) to begin demanding that businesses take action, and hopefully the sustainable business leaders will show the other businesses how.
And now to the question I asked Ray. First, the set up. I attended an Association of Energy Engineers lunch meeting on the same day. At that meeting a gentleman mentioned that he interviewed with another large, global carpet manufacturer last year who didn't have an energy manager. Why would they need an energy manager you ask? The amount the company spent on all their energy purchases the year before: 200 million dollars! An energy manager can easily save a company 10% on their energy bills. The need for this company to have an energy manager is a no-brainer.
After recounting this story my question was basically, "Things like Energy Managers and Corporate Sustainability Officers make so much sense, but it's amazing how few companies have them. Are you surprised that more companies haven't embraced sustainability?" To which Ray answered, "Not really. Everyone has to wake up sometime and the American culture doesnt really embrace sustainability. It usually takes an eye opening experience for CEOs to get on board. And it takes one mind at a time".
Basically, Ray said that most CEOs just aren't aware of all the benefits of operating their companies sustainably, and it's up to us to help convince them.
So what does this mean for you and me? It means that one person can make a difference. Whether we just start with our homes, schools, places of worship, or businesses, we can all impact our organizations and help them operate more sustainably. If you're the CEO (of your home or business) then the first thing you need to do is re-dedicate your operating values, and incorporate sustainable principles. If you have the ear of the CEO, mention Ray Anderson and his new book. Mention how profitible Interface Carpet and others have become by operating more sustainably. Mention how the customers will not just view the company in a better light, but how those customer's grandchildren will also be able to live a richer life on this planet.