At the same time that publications around the world are learning and writing about clean tech and sustainable business practices, some still seem to be confusing things. Joel Makower discusses a flopped opinion piece in Friday’s issue of the Wall Street Journal. I was an economics student and the Journal was our bible. Economics. Businesses that sell products and make a profit are good, right? Imagine a scenario where these businesses are contributing to the greater good at the same time as turning a profit. That sure would suck, huh? Check out Joel’s, “The Paradox of Climate Profiteers.”
For all of us that weren’t able to make it to last week’s clean tech event in Palm Springs, Dana Childs of inside greentech gives us the inside scoop, “Postcards from the Clean-tech Investor Summit.” According to Steve Westley, former controller for the State of California and former senior vice president of eBay:
“There’s about to be another shakeout – you can count on it – and it will come down to how quickly you can move,” he said to the crowd. “You’re either going to be a steamroller, or you’re going to be roadkill. And it’s better to be the steamroller. The entrepreneurs that will survive will be those that move quickly.”
I get that green has gone mainstream, but to have cover stories in The Economist, Business 2.0 and BusinessWeek in a one week period? It’s easy to understand when you factor in the smart editorial planning to time these issues with the political events of last week. Regardless, the green noise is loud, and probably more mainstream than ever. Can someone come up with a noise vs. progress meter? The challenge is differentiating between the two.
Here’s a summary:
Business 2.0 does what it’s good at and presents entrepreneurs with humanity’s 9 biggest problems, giving its readers ideas and a challenge to go and build profitable businesses that confront little things like global warming, oil dependency, hunger, dirty air and water, overfishing, epidemics, etc.
BusinessWeek looks at the current green climate through the eyes of investors and Global 1000 companies who are starting to implement more sustainable business practices.
The Economist published a special report on: “Green America: Waking Up and Catching Up.”Definitely check this one out. A few of the highlights:
Many factors lie behind the party’s shift. Most have to do not with sudden sentimentality in the face of Nature, but with national security (a motivation that lies, too, behind Ms Pelosi’s new committee and Mrs Clinton’s patriotic posturing).
…a growing number of evangelical Christians are beginning to see global warming as a moral issue. They argue that mankind, as steward of God’s creation, has a duty to protect the environment.
Even big business, which stands to lose most from stricter environmental regulation, is beginning to accept that change is in the air….Lots of firms are growing healthily on the back of America’s sudden enthusiasm for alternative energy. Americans invested almost $30 billion in the sector in 2006, according to New Energy Finance, a research firm. American venture capitalists lavish seven times more on greenery than their counterparts in Europe. Ethanol production was expected to double in the next few years, even before the latest boost from Mr Bush. Wind and solar power are also booming. And the bigger green firms become the more influence they will have over politicians.
Despite all this grassroots environmentalism, America remains the biggest contributor to global warming, accounting for roughly a fifth of all the world’s emissions. The federal government’s recalcitrance on the subject remains the biggest obstacle to an effective global scheme to tackle the problem. But whereas in Europe or Asia new ideas often flow from the centre to the regions, in America the states are the incubators of big shifts in policy. This means that change is coming—fast.
One thing is clear. The engine is running, crowds are cheering and in typical American tradition, another gold rush has begun. We need to get this one right. It can’t be like the diet fads we’ve lived through for the past two decades, where something is popular one day and proved obsolete the next, ending right back where we started: eat lots of fruits and vegetables, steer clear of highly saturated fats, exercise and eat/drink in moderation. I don’t know exactly what it is but there’s a sustainable recipe for this global green transition, and it’s not the easy way out that we’re trained to look for.
As a PR guy, I can’t help but laugh at yesterday’s green wombat blog posting from Todd Woody of Business 2.0. A few days after launching a major green initiative (which Woody covered), Salesforce shipped a bunch of swag to the reporting team over at Business 2.0. The funny part is that the Salesforce office is directly across the street from Woody and his team. He tracked the journey of the swag and its extra packaging across the bay to Oakland before arriving right back where it started. An honest and understandable mistake in my book, but a good reminder that we all need to walk the walk if we’re going to be taken seriously. And in all fairness, Salesforce has one of the tech industry’s top PR teams – they created their own category, which can’t be said for many companies.
It’s always nice to start off a Friday morning with a green cover story in one of the top business publications. The article, Beyond the Green Corporation, presents a thourough and grounded perspective on the state of the industry. BusinessWeek’s sub-head says it well:
Imagine a world in which eco-friendly and socially responsible practices actually help a company’s bottom line. It’s closer than you think
This isn’t BusinessWeek’s first foray into sustainable business coverage. They’ve been doing a good job reporting on the topic for the past year. Check out their special report in August.
Todd Woody of Business 2.0 just reported that Salesforce.com has gone Carbon Neutral. According to Todd:
…the bill for offsetting the greenhouse gases produced by its (Salesforce.com) corporate operations in 2006 comes to $126,000, or about $6.40 per ton of carbon emitted. The Web-based software company today announced Earthforce, an initiative to neutralize its contribution to global warming by funding alternative energy and forest conservation projects. Salesforce.com worked with the non-profit Cool Air Cool Planet and Native Energy, a Native American owned renewable energy company, to calculate that the San Francisco tech company’s data centers, offices and corporate travel produced about 19,700 tons of carbon last year. To compensate, the company’s Salesforce.com Foundation will help finance Native Energy wind farm projects in Alaska and South Dakota, a family farm wind farm, and a methane digester to produce electricity from cow manure – cower power – at a family-owned dairy farm. Salesforce.com will also work with Conservation International to preserve the threatened but ecologically rich Makira rain forest in Madagascar.
Salesforce.com has always stood strong behind its beliefs. The software-as-a-service (SaaS) industry wouldn’t be what it is today with them. And they continue to drive changes with things like Appexchange. If they stand behind this, and continue their efforts to become more sustainable, hopefully they will again set a trend for others in the technology industry to follow.
Jan. 23 addition: For some great commentary on this topic, check out Joel Makower’s most recent blog post, “Is ‘Carbon Neutral’ Good Enough.”
Does anyone like that term? I think we should stop using it. It is referenced in another article titled, Industry climate moving toward green practices in PR Week. To make sure that phrase and all of the negative implications it represents for the green industry dies, we should ask ourselves a few simple questions before pitching a story:
- Did your green/CSR story originate and end in the PR department?
- Is your company telling a green story because they don’t want to miss out on the news of the day (or the year)?
For a lot of companies, the answer to these questions is probably yes. Embrace that and come up with your Corporate Social Responsibility strategy. The story will follow.
A story that has real roots in sustainability is pretty hard to come by; it needs to be engrained throughout the organization and that requires a culture of sustainability. Not just some messaging and talking points. Look at a few local California companies like Patagonia and Clif Bar. Sustainability is part of their DNA. It goes from their production processes and their choice of materials, to how they treat their employees and how they give back to the community. It wasn’t always in their DNA. Their business practices and choices have evolved over time to become more sustainable. It has taken a long time, and the praise and brand building that comes with the choices they made is part of the process, but it’s not why they made the choices they did.
Obviously not every company can be a Clif Bar or Patagonia. But if you fall on the opposite spectrum and you’re “chasing” green for the sake of being green, than you’re inevitably going to hit the greenwashing wall. There are critics and they will call you out and the shelf life of your story will be short-lived. This doesn’t mean you can’t discuss a roadmap for your CSR initiatives if you’re still early in the process. Your customers or shareholders will likely be interested, and it will help lay the groundwork for when you have results to show. This greenwashing term applies to the people claiming exaggerated or false truths, thus adding confusion and slowing progress and mainstream acceptance.
The greenwashing concept applies much more to the hundreds of PR firms who have current clients looking to jump on the bandwagon and tell a CSR/green story, not to be confused will all the companies currently creating green products and services aimed at making sustainable business and living a reality. A lot of the true clean tech companies don’t yet have formal public relations efforts in place. They should be excited about the opportunities ahead of them. The organizations making an effort to adopt more sustainable practices need new products and services, and they won’t know what to buy without a proactive and well thought-out approach to communications.
The reason for this blog post. The idea of greenwashing concerns me. Most people and companies are relatively new to green concepts and probably are not aware that the green community might view their good intentions as greenwashing. Taking this viewpoint and assuming that people are for the most part good, the PR industry must move forward with great energy, but also great care. I studied economics and have worked mostly with venture capitalists and technology companies. I understand clean tech and PR, but I cannot yet call myself a corporate social responsibility guru. Not many people can. That leads to mistakes. But an honest, educated and grounded approach to communications can get us to where we need to go.
My reference point for this is what I’ve seen at my firm, Text 100 Public Relations. We’ve had enthusiastic, smart, ethical, experienced and driven people in offices around the world raising their hands to join our clean tech group. They believe in its potential. I’m proud to be part of the initiative, and am confident that we can do our part to take this industry forward, greenwashing not included.
Good reading: Let My People Go Surfing by Patagonia founder Yvon Chouninard.
Michael Dell is the opening Q&A in this week’s issue of Time. The theme:
In the past year, though, rivals have gained on him. So this year he’s going for a green advantage: he wants to erase some of the environmental cost of running computers by offering a way to neutralize the carbon dioxide emitted by a PC.
Assuming there is more to the story for Dell, they could have used this opportunity to lay out a clear plan of what they are doing internally, not only that they are giving consumers a chance to spend more to offset the environmental impact of their purchase. Coming at this with a critical eye, it’s similar to if an auto company looking to sell more SUVs says, “hey, we’re not doing anything to make our SUVs more efficient, but don’t worry, you can buy a carbon credit and that will be enough to clear your conscious and then we (auto company) don’t actually have to do anything on our end to improve.” To give them credit, Dell does mention an energy calculator for consumers but I just typed it in on their home page and nothing relevant popped up in the first search results.
My point – Dell must have more to their green story and they could have spelled it out in a few bullets. Is Dell changing the amount and type of material used in production and packaging, do they have a consumer awareness program educating the public about ways to save money and energy using a Dell PC, are they increasing X percent of R&D for energy efficient design, have they developed any breakthroughs that serve as a best practice for the industry? Consumers would probably like to know this stuff, and after following the lead of GE Ecoimagination and now companies like Wal-Mart, investors may respond well to a computer companies green roadmap.
Maybe the problem is that everyone is so quick to jump on any big company when they come out with a green story. It’s never enough for a lot of people. Instead of rewarding them, we bring out our critical eyes. As I just did. Incremental progress is progress. More trees are great. And a company the size of Dell can probably plant a whole lot of trees. But we need to be tough on people so that the improvements get bigger. Leaders recognize accomplishments while continuing to push people to their potential. Maybe that’s where we are. Recognize, reward and keep pushing.
The PR side of this. If you have a story, be honest and tell the whole story (or as much as you can recognizing the needs of your shareholders). Here’s where we are, here’s where we can improve and here’s where we’re going. People are going to be critical. Don’t leave gaps for questions. Considering Dell had less than half of a page for this, he did a good job. But I still have questions.
Question #1: is Dell matching the any percentage of the $$ they’re asking their customers to spend on carbon credits?
I was just checking out Martin LaMonica’s blog at CNET and it looks like the 2006 clean tech numbers came out from the Cleantech Venture Network. $2.6b invested in clean technologies; 78 percent increase over 2005. Even better, Martin references a recent study by the National Venture Capital Association showing that VCs plan to maintain investment levels in “hot” sectors such as energy and the Internet in 2007.
Lots of money. Lots of startups. Lots of VCs building their clean credentials. Let’s hope the path to commercialization is fast and successful.
We’ve hit it big. Reality TV has gone green. This sounds like fun and I’m not even a fan of reality shows (although my cousin didn’t do too bad on the first Amaging Race so I had to be a supporter of that).
Check out the write-up for HDTV’s newest show, Living with Ed:
TV and movie actor Ed Begley, perhaps the greenest man in Tinsel Town, rides his electric car to the Academy Awards and powers his home with the sun and his stationary bike. But Living with Ed and his environmentalist passion isn’t always a walk in the park for wife, Rachelle. This first-of-its-kind reality green show chronicles life with an earth-friendly fanatic with humor and heart. Check out this fresh unscripted docu-soap about the lifestyle of a diehard activist who puts his money and his time where his mouth is 24/7. Definitely not recycled TV.
A fun show with a sustainable message. I’m looking forward to watching. The PR opportunity? Green product placement goes mainstream, maybe? You can only imagine all of the things Ed Begley Jr. will test out. You’ve got a product or idea that can make a difference. Tell Ed! Maybe he’s listening.