In the green business movement, profitability has somehow fallen by the wayside. Some may even consider it crass to put profit first in a sustainable business. Maybe we should instead see profit and success as tools to further sustainable businesses and create change? The Opportunity Green Conference is all about “being green and being profitable” (it is, in fact, their slogan).
This year’s gathering was held last week, at LA Center Studios, on the soundstage where Mad Men is taped. One could draw some interesting parallels there. As the ad men of Mad Men had some trouble sticking to the truth in crafting their clever campaigns, so greenwashing — the increasingly common practice of using deceptive marketing strategies to make companies that are not particularly green seem so — has entered the mainstream. If Don Draper was working in today’s advertising world, he may just eloquently be pushing the benefits of yet another unnecessary disposable thing made from corn plastics.
Eco-Maverick award recipient and actress Michelle Rodriguez told attendees to “embrace the new era of capitalism.” Only by embracing good business and profitability can we accomplish change at the pace at which it is needed.
Brian Suckow from Cisco Systems highlighted changes his company has made to lessen their environmental impact, changes that also turned out to be very profitable. By optimizing travel and increasing telecommuting and the use of teleconferencing technology, Cisco has saved over 900 million dollars and avoided 214,000 metric tons of CO2. Liba Rubenstein talked about how her employer, media giant NewsCorp, has found that employees feel more engaged when they know the company they work for is taking positive environmental actions. At NewsCorp, this kind of successful employee engagement has resulted in 37% less absenteeism, 16% higher productivity, 18% higher profitability as well as 25-50% less turnover. The company also found that having a good environmental policy helped attract employees from the younger generation, who expressly care about these issues.
As Rick Ridgeway of Patagonia pointed out, there is no such thing as a sustainable business. All business has impact, and our goal should be to minimize it as much as possible. The company’s motto is “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” Patagonia is a founding member of 1% for the Planet, a non-profit designed to help companies give back. Many of the other businesses represented at Opportunity Green are also members, all of whom give 1% of total sales (not profits — a very important distinction) toward environmental causes. Patagonia’s current environmental initiative is called Freedom to Roam, and is a coalition of business, government, and conservation groups working together to conserve wildlife corridors across North America. Ridgeway’s presentation emphasized the power of storytelling by telling us about M3, “the most badass wolverine ever” and said badass wolverine’s incredible migration route over the tallest mountain peaks in the roughest conditions. Allegedly, politicians became quite fond of M3. Many times, you have to appeal to people’s emotions to get stuff done.
Many other speakers also talked about the power of storytelling. Mark Dwight of bag company Rickshaw said that “The key to communicating your values is storytelling. I strongly recommend video to communicate with your customers and stakeholders. Get yourself a $199 Flip video camera and make your own videos. It’s free!” Rickshaw uses “the power of zero” as their benchmark, knowing that zero impact can never be achieved but also that aiming high gets us farther than aiming low. Dwight also talked about Rickshaw’s “three F’s” of designing for sustainability: Form, Function, Footprint, and the importance of teaching new designers the fundamental principles of sustainable design.
Speaking of teaching, the most popular panel (according to my very unscientific polling) was “Sustainability by Design” where five students from the Art Center College of Design showed incredibly innovative product design concepts they had developed at the school. Mark Huang showed a bike helmet — named the “Vespera” — designed to be made from one single material and without any adhesives. Most bike helmets are “monstrous hybrids,” meaning they cannot be recycled because they’re made from so many different materials (many of them toxic), so this would be a big step. The Eco Deck by John Phillips is a skim board designed with Life Cycle Analysis and recyclability in mind. Daniel Huang showed a concept for the “Environ,” a flat-pack steam iron that can be assembled without adhesives (there’s a theme here!) and fasteners. The design celebrates the materials and parts instead of hiding them, embodying transparency both visually and technically.
Magdalena Pauch’s “Spirit” car seat also employs LCA to make a lighter (requiring less gasoline), less toxic car seat that is designed for disassembly. Sharon Levy focused on a totally different issue, the amount of water and energy that is wasted when one overfills a tea kettle. This is apparently quite common, and not something we really think about. Her “Moietea” set includes single-serve cups and a carafe and is cleverly packaged with tea leaves used as protective padding.
The future, seen through the eyes of these students, is certainly bright and filled with innovation. The thing that strikes me about their designs is that they are simply well-done. The sustainability of the products is inherent, not something that was forced into the picture later. Could it be that all truly good ideas are inherently sustainable?
The ultimate goal for the “green movement” is to be making environment-friendly behavior so mainstream that we stop calling it “green” once and for all, Los Angeles Councilman Eric Garcetti told attendees. There are so many definitions of green, and as a result consumers are confused and companies take advantage of that confusion. This is why education is so important. When we all understand the basic principles of sustainability, it will be impossible for companies to greenwash their products and services. I would like to see a world where sustainable principles are so deeply rooted in every aspect that a business has to explain why they are NOT green versus why they are.
On the food-front, Ojai-based farmer Steve Sprinkel discussed the challenges of producing organic food in an age where we have grown accustomed to the perfectly round tomato and the perfectly triangular carrot. Many vegetables don’t always look picture-perfect and regardless of the fact that they taste just as good many are discarded because people simply do not want to buy them, not even at Farmers Markets. If we could only become a bit more comfortable with imperfection we cut cut down on food waste tremendously. It’s a good example of how a simple change in behavior could have a massive impact.
Another highlight of the conference was the OG25 competition for the most innovative green start-up. This was the second year Opportunity Green did this, and for the first time a Product Design category was added as well. Each company got a minute to give their elevator pitch (the ones unable to attend had the option of instead sending in a minute-long video). For those of you who may have been at the conference and would like to learn more about these companies, Goodlifer will cover many of them more in depth in an article series in collaboration with Opportunity Green. Look out for the first one next week.
The main goal of a conference is to inspire and inform; talking to people over these two days I was excited to hear several stories of how people had attended Opportunity Green in previous years (this is the conference’s fourth) and been inspired to change their careers or start a business. One example is Vapur, a foldable reusable water bottle designed to go anywhere (as a woman I appreciate this because I can put it in even a small purse!), whose co-founder, Jason Carignan, had the idea for the bottle at one of the previous conferences. In the words of Pete Campbell: A thing like that!