Sustainable Business Q&A: Fortune’s Marc Gunther
It wasn’t Marc Gunther’s columns at CNNMoney.com, articles in FORTUNE magazine or his four books that caught my attention. It was the regular attention he gives on his blog to many of the topics I’m paying attention to: CSR, sustainable business, energy and the environment. Gunther covers the impact of business on society from all angles. It’s not a new topic to him. He’s covered the underlying issues for years and has talked with many of the businesses and people that have impacted where we are today. I’m happy to share some of his thoughts with the readers of Clean PR.
Swain: A lot of large and small companies are starting from scratch with sustainability initiatives and are afraid to open the door to criticism by talking publicly; do you have any advice for when and how a company should approach this dilemma?
Gunther: The first thing you want to do is some homework, and then you want to start down the path to sustainability. No one’s there yet. No one’s perfect. Having said that, I’m a big believer in transparency, as well as in talking with people outside a company, including critics. You’ll get credit for openness. You’ll put a human face on your company. Your critics will appreciate being invited in. And you might get some good advice for free. Smart companies—Dell and Goldman Sachs come to mind—have told me recently that they have learned a lot by being open and talking about their business with NGOs.”
Some companies have successfully made sustainability part of their corporate brand identity; aside from having the products and business practices to substantiate the social responsibility message in their brand, are there any key things you’ve noticed some companies doing that separate them from the rest?
I don’t think there are a lot of companies, at least not big ones, that have made sustainability part of their brand identity. Starbucks, maybe, and Whole Foods are both admirable. Some small and mid-sized companies have also built brands around being green—Stonyfield Yogurt, Seventh Generation, Tom’s of Maine (which is now part of Colgate). I’m sure I’ve forgotten some. There are no secret strategies. You measure your impact on the environment, try to reduce your footprint, buy green power, promote recycling, sell organic products, and then tell the world what you are doing.
What role do you see technology playing in addressing the climate crisis; are you seeing some companies apply green technologies as a core component to their CSR practices? Any thoughts on which technologies or renewable sources of energy hold the most promise for corporate America?
I’m not an expert on either technology or renewables, but I’m told that many renewable energy sources have great potential. Everyone loves wind power, and it’s more economical than it used to be. The solar energy business (meaning PV installations to generate local electricity) is growing rapidly, thanks to some creative new business models. S.C. Johnson has done well by burning methane gas from a local landfill to generate electricity. PG&E Corp. is experimenting with everyone from wave power to cow power (burning manure) to plug-in electric hybrids. There are also big gains to be made in energy efficiency. Green building is taking off like crazy. It’s a very exciting time for renewable energy and once we get a tax or cap on greenhouse gases, things will only get better.
Some people have started to use the term greenwashing to describe a company who is exaggerating or misleading the public with their green credentials; how do you know the difference when you talk to a company? Also, when a company comes out making a big claim, do you check in with them at a later date to see that they are following through?
I probably don’t check back as much as I should. But when I find a company stretching the truth, I do try to report on it. Last fall, I wrote about Kimberly Clark which failed to keep its promises about sourcing pulp. Greenpeace tipped me off. I think some of the big investment banks can fairly be accused of talking bigger than they act. I don’t really care whether Citigroup buys recycled paper; I want to know whether they are underwriting coal plants.
Any thoughts about how the result of the 2008 elections could impact the progress of corporate sustainability?
I don’t think they will matter a lot. The big issue is regulation of greenhouse gases. It’s less and less a partisan issue—one leader has been Gov. Schwarzenegger. McCain and Lieberman sponsored a bill to regulate GHG.
Curiously, I think the absence of vigorous government regulation of business for most of the last 27 years has spurred CSR. Companies have stepped in to fill the gap.
There’s a combination of business, academia, government, non-profits and venture capital pushing this space ahead; is one group leading the way or is it a team effort?
NGOs are leading the way in the sense they are pushing change. They are also trusted by the public, for the most part. Business is close behind. I won’t be popular for saying this but I find that much of academia and government is irrelevant on these issues. There are exceptions, of course—people like Stu Hart at Cornell, CK Prahalad at Michigan, others at Berkeley, UNC and Yale have done great work and are influencing business. They’ve also taught me a lot, for which I’m grateful.
Have you heard from business leaders who read Faith and Fortune and became a more socially responsible business as a result?
Not so much business leaders as students or young people just getting into the business world. Some have written to me to say that they took away from the book the idea that they can make a positive difference in the world by working in corporate America. I’m a fan of groups like Net Impact and Business for Social Responsibility because they communicate that message.
Suggestions on how PR people can best work with you?
Well, I’ve been swamped with story pitches lately. If you don’t know me, a concise email to firstname.lastname@example.org is the best way to get my attention. I try to respond to all emails to me (as opposed to mass emails.) I’m sorry to say that I can’t return all phone calls; if I did, I’d never get any work done.
My first, best piece of advice is to visit my website and blog at www.marcgunther.com to see what stories I write for the magazine and for CNNMoney.com. I’m far more interested in big brand-name companies than in startups, for example. Like most reporters, I want to do stories that are surprising, ideally with a little conflict or drama. Stories that get people talking, or blogging. Because I only do about six to eight stories a year for the magazine, I want to make each one special.