Changing the world is tricky business, but it can be done. Being surrounded by hundreds of forward-thinking minds at this year’s Opportunity Green conference at UCLA in Los Angeles, it was impossible not to be inspired by all the drive, passion and hope on display. OG, for short, is a gathering like no other. It is a business conference, yes, but goes way beyond people in suits. People from every possible industry — design, corporations, fashion, food, consumer goods, entertainment, journalism, art — were in attendance. On stage, amazing people shared their stories. Just to name a few: Freya Williams of Ogilvy Earth introduced the brilliant Hopenhagen campaign (sign up!) she has spearheaded, Annie Leonard and Jonah Sachs from Free Range Studios talked about what they learned about storytelling when making Leonard’s Story of Stuff, race car driver Leilani Münter gave an inspiring presentation about her fight to try and spread the green gospel in the racing world, and Yves Behar of Fuseproject, Julie Gilhart of Barneys and Zem Joaquin of Ecofabulous talked about the paradigm shift in the fashion and design world.
Being green is profitable, simply because it’s the smart way of doing things. Many of the changes at big businesses, like Procter & Gamble, whose Len Saunders was a speaker, are driven my simple cost-efficiency measures, cutting down waste and redesigning supply chains is green, sure, but mostly it saves green (the kind that all CEOs care about).
The problem with trying to “green up” existing businesses is that many of them have been doing things the wrong way for so long that any kind of efficiency revamp is bound to produce amazing metrics. Which does not mean they’re good. If you start from a very bad place and get to a not-quite-as-bad place, you still have a lot of work to do. Doing less bad does not equal doing good. Case in point: Clorox, whose Beth Springer spoke at the conference. The company did some really great work developing their completely plant-based GreenWorks line of cleaning products, but they still make bleach, which is jam-packed with dioxins and other neurotoxins that accumulate and stay in our systems forever and wreak all kinds of havoc. Why not do all good, instead of just a little good and the rest bad? Springer said they have been working very hard to develop formulas that are more and more concentrated (which means less packaging and more efficient shipping), but she said the consumer just does not want it. Strange, because I do.
Another good case study is Nike, who came under a lot of criticism for their labor practices a decade or so ago. They have since established Nike Considered, an in-house green think/design tank that have come out with very innovative ways to bind substrates together and get rid of excess and toxic materials. The question was raised, quite vocally, to Lorrie Vogel, head of Nike Considered, why they could just not make shoes that last longer. A good point, and one that Vogel could not quite talk to. What she said was that the consumers just do not want to wear the same shoes for three years. There is was again: “The consumer does not want that.” Says who?
I bet the first time someone drank water from a plastic bottle they thought it was gross, but now, bottled water is very much part of our everyday lives in this country (unless we consciously choose to opt out). The organizers of Opportunity Green proved them all wrong without even trying. In their swag bag, each attendee was given a Kor “hydration vessel” as well as a set of reusable bamboo utensils from To-Go Ware and a People Towel. These were all to be used during the food breaks, since no disposable cups, utensils or napkins were handed out. You would think this would not sit well with at least a few people, but everyone loved it and even had fun refueling their vessels and rinsing their little towels in the bathrooms. People are incredibly adaptable and tend to get used to everything fairly quickly.
What I find interesting about my native Sweden is the lack of selfish over-questioning of things. Swedes assume that someone put a lot of thought into whatever changes are made or suggested and are very good at just going with the flow. Americans, individualists by nature, tend to immediately ask why (perhaps because we have a problem with changes that we did not initiate ourselves)? We live on a changing planet, there’s no longer a question about that. Whether we will thrive of simply try and survive will depend to a large degree on how we choose adapt — we must have a vision, chart the course, choose our flow if you will, and just fearlessly go with it and create the future we want.
Perhaps the best proof of this are the amazing companies (and people!) that make up the first ever OG25, a crowdsourced list of 25 notable conscious start-ups. The ones that were able to come to the conference were each given one minute of stage-time to introduce their company and what set them apart from the bunch. It was very intense and entertaining to listen to this lighting-round of inspiring stories.
Check out the full list here (we have written about two of them already, but expect to see more in the near future) — transportation solutions, innovative building materials, sustainable fish, raw chips, gourmet mushrooms grown in used coffee grounds, DNA-tagging, healthy vending, green pizza boxes, mission-drive snacks, energy measuring, green roofs… the list goes on. A winner was chosen, but it hardly mattered, the point was, in my mind, to show that you don’t have to be a big company to do big things. These cool start-ups have a huge advantage in that they have been able to design their businesses from the ground up to be sustainable. Green thinking and sustainability principles will influence every part of our lives, whether we like it or not. We can either design our future or passively sit back and wait for Mother Nature to redesign herself (since we humans are basically her main problem, the second option will probably not be very beneficial to us). Leave it to these inspiring entrepreneurs to make the case that, if we design it right, the future is bright, green and filled with opportunity.
Photos courtesy of Opportunity Green.