Fortune Magazine has been holding its Brainstorm Green conference for 6 years now, but things sure have changed a lot during that time. This year the event, held in Laguna Niguel, CA, attracted more CEOs than ever before, more women than ever before (hallelujah to that!), and incorporated real discussions and collaborations that could possibly manifest into sustainable change. We pride ourselves on being pretty knowledgeable when it comes to sustainability, but when you're in the company of people like Segway inventor Dean Kamen, IKEA Chief Sustainability Officer Steve Howard, Panasonic North America CEO Joe Taylor, iPod inventor Tony Fadell, environmentalist Harrison Ford, Coca-Cola Chief Sustainability Officer Bea Perez, NRG CEO David Crane and musician will.i.am, there's always more to learn. Read on for an easy-to-digest synopsis of some enlightening (but possibly hard-to-swallow) themes and ideas we picked up at this important event.
For those who think that environmentalism is just for hippies, actor Harrison Ford and Peter Seligman, Chairman and CEO of Conservation International, kicked off the conference with a discussion that approached the issue from another angle – national security. Ford gave the example of Somali pirates who have been attacking ships in the Horn of Africa. What most of us may not realize is that many of these pirates are born out of environmental changes in their towns – in this case, the collapse of local fisheries – that leave them jobless. Ford and Seligman made the argument that by helping communities prevent these types of environmental crises, we can bolster our own national security and eliminate threats in a peaceful, proactive way.
Steve Howard, Chief Sustainability Officer of IKEA, Hannah Jones, Vice President of Sustainable Business and Innovation at Nike and Rick Ridgeway, Vice President of Environmental Initiatives at Patagonia got together to talk about their steps to bring sustainability to the next level at their companies. Jones made a comment that seemed to resonate with the crowd – saying that the major players in the game needed to either achieve “system change or go home.” In other words, it’s no longer enough to simply make a few shoes out of recycled rubber. Entire industries need to disruptively change the way they source materials and also how they produce their goods.
Are people finally realizing that meat-free diets aren’t just for hippies and animal lovers? We were pleasantly surprised to see that the conference touched upon the theme of our diets affecting the environment a lot more than we expected. Scott Jurek, the author of Eat & Run discussed how he gains enough power to win ultra marathons on a vegan diet, and one of the challenges that took place at the event brought attendees together to try and figure out how to sustainably produce enough protein to feed the world going forward. We also heard from Ethan Brown, the founder and CEO of meat-alternative company Beyond Meat about how the $70 billion meat industry is losing 1% market share per year.
Roz Brewer, President and CEO of Sam’s Club revealed that the Walmart company is currently working on a point of purchase sustainability index that they’re hoping to roll out in the next 12 months. The pilot system would make shopping for green products easier for consumers by displaying detailed sustainability information right next to each item. Brewer also touched upon Walmart’s desire to make eco-friendly items just as affordable as their other products. “They should not have to pay more for things that are better for them,” she said of her company’s customers. We agree.
In a green version of American Idol meets the Apprentice, five start-ups, PK Clean, Beyond Meat, BrightFarms, SurePure and Yerdle pitched their sustainable solutions to judges Samir Kaul, General Partner at Khosla Ventures and Dhiraj Malkhani, a partner at RockPort Capital Partners. In the end, PK Clean, Priyanka Bakaya’s prototype system that takes waste plastic and reverts it back to usable oil won the audience’s vote, although Andy Ruben of collaborative consumption website Yerdle probably gave the most entertaining presentation in which he revealed that the wackiest item ever offered up for swap on the platform was a vibrator.
Speaking of swapping instead of buying new things, Rick Ridgeway, Vice President of Environmental Initiatives at Patagonia (and the first American to summit K2), agreed with Andy Ruben that the truly sustainable economy of the future will have to cut consumption of new products way down. If you don’t believe that the trade and sale of secondhand items is profitable enough to be a viable force in the economy, John Donahoe, President and CEO of eBay (a company that knows a thing or two about the subject) was also at the conference.
Bob McDonald, Chairman and CEO of Procter & Gamble had some important insight for anyone making and selling green products. He said that 85% of consumers won’t accept a tradeoff in exchange for sustainability. So, for example, a green detergent would need to work just as well as a regular detergent for most people to make the switch. It may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how many company models assume that consumers will purchase their goods just because they’re green and even if they aren’t as effective. McDonald received a lesson of his own when an audience member from Harvard Business School pointed out that she had no idea green P&G products like Tide Cold Water, Downy Single Rinse and Pantene in plant-based bottles were even green. McDonald agreed that perhaps the messaging for those items needs to be made clearer to indicate their eco-friendly benefits to consumers.
So we learned that most people don’t want to pay more for greener products and they also aren’t willing to sacrifice efficacy, but is there any way to influence consumers to pay a premium for sustainability? It seems that one workaround is to make products cool. But how do we do that? Tony Fadell, the inventor of the iPod (a.k.a. the Podfather) knows a thing or two about the subject. He shared how his new venture, the Nest, has turned something unbelievably uncool – a thermostat – into a really desirable item. He shared that people love the Nest so much that there is even a gifting economy around them with people giving them to friends and loved ones. will.i.am, another man who is fluent in the language of cool explained that he felt “the style and design that they put for the green stuff — it ain’t cool.” He created his consulting company, Ekocycle, to partner with brands like Levi’s, Beats by Dre, Adidas, and the NBA to make and market eco-conscious products that people will actually want to buy.
We all know that rooftop solar panels are a way to generate clean energy but installing them still isn’t a foolproof process. NRG CEO David Crane debuted an alternative at the conference that offers the same kind of benefits as rooftop PVs but without the worry of damage to roofs. Called the Solar Canopy, the structure offers shade and shelter just like a backyard gazebo but with the added benefit of also having solar panels on top. The company plans to roll out the Solar Canopy by the end of the year.
Doing good in the world can actually make you a lot of money too. Just ask Mountain Hazelnuts Group CFO Teresa Law, who spoke about how her company went into Bhutan and created jobs for 15% of the country’s people while also doubling their income (half of the employees are women). Despite its feel-good story that does right by the environment and the citizens of the country it operates out of, the company has simultaneously achieved strong returns for investors.
How does sustainability drive innovation? We heard differing perspectives from Joe Taylor, Chairman and CEO of Panasonic Corp. of North America, Adam Lowry, Co-founder and Chief Greenskeeper at Method and Vance Bell, Chairman and CEO of Shaw Industries, a Berkshire Hathaway Co. Taylor talked about Panasonic’s bold 2011 decision to center itself around the goal of becoming the #1 green innovation company in the electronics industry and chuckled over the fact that everyone at the conference seemed to assume that his company only made TVs when they actually produce an extremely varied array of products from electric-car batteries to solar panels to fuel cells and even many parts that make up the iPhone and other popular smartphones. Lowry shared a similar issue with Method products where people express that they had no idea the soap bottles were green in any way and just purchase them because they match their bathrooms. His reaction? One of delight rather than of dismay since he says getting people who are already green to buy Method is pointless. Reaching everyone else is what is really important.
What do the inventor of the Segway, the world’s most popular soda brand and the most punctuated Black Eyed Pea have to do with one another? It turns out that Dean Kamen has teamed up with Coca-Cola to make and distribute the Slingshot, a water-purifying module that can quickly and easily provide clean water in developing nations. will.i.am joined in the discussion to talk about how he supports Kamen’s First initiative, which helps build science, engineering and technology skills in American youngsters.
“The age of the highway city is over, we can’t afford it, and it’s not desirable,” said Peter Calthorpe, a principle at urban design firm Calthorpe Associates. Calthorpe, who calls cars “weapons of mass destruction” estimates that 3.5 billion people will be living in developing world cities by 2025 and that these future cities will need to be designed around public transportation in order to make sense. Jay Carson, Chief Executive of C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group says he thinks subway systems are too expensive and that more cities are looking to bus rapid transit as a more affordable solution.