Chemicals/Toxics Archives

December 4, 2009

More to Deal with Than Just Climate: 25 Years Since Bhopal Disaster

Yesterday was a sad anniversary -- it's been 25 years since the Bhopal disaster raised the specter of chemicals and toxics as a deadly serious environmental issue. In the late 60s and 70s, rivers catching on fire and dense, opaque air above cities forced our attention on solving the pressing, tactical issues of air and water pollution.

But perhaps no environmental disaster grabbed people's attention quite like the gas leak at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India on December 3, 1984. Estimates vary, but at least half a million people were exposed to toxins and thousands died within a few days. Birth defects and other serious lingering effects still plague the population in the region, affecting hundreds of thousands of people. (See the Bhopal Medical Appeal for more info).

This one event drove awareness and contributed mightily to the momentum building to reduce human exposure to toxicity. It was the beginning of a quarter century of action. One of the first real industry-driven initiatives in any sector, Responsible Care, grew out of the tragedy. A few years later, the U.S. created the Toxics Release Inventory which mandates transparency on a range of industries. The measurement and disclosure of toxic pollution by facility has forced a lot of soul-searching and kicked off long-standing sustainability efforts at companies like DuPont (which discovered it was the #1 polluter in the first TRI reports).

The movement has evolved a great deal in recent years as part of the larger green wave that's swept business, especially the powerful trends of supply chain greening and transparency in all we do. Wal-Mart, never one to pass up a chance to increase pressure on suppliers on sustainability issues, quietly introduced a new tool, GreenWERCS, to assess products on its shelves on chemical composition. Companies like SC Johnson, Nike, and HP have made significant efforts, some for years, to reduce toxicity.

High-profile stories of lead in toys, toxic drywall, and melamine in milk products (all tied to Chinese supply chain practices), as well as concerns about chemicals like BPA leaching from baby bottles here, have also raised awareness dramatically. As the world contemplates vast policy action on climate, it's worth noting that government pressure has continued to rise on toxics, with a large number of powerful laws around the world. Regulations in EU over the last decade, such as RoHS and REACH, have changed the game dramatically (shifting responsibility to prove safety from government to business). The U.S. has gotten into the act in recent years as well, with bans on phthalates in toys, the controversial and stringent Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, which targets toys in particular, and regional actions like California's new regs. Companies cannot avoid questions about what's in everything and how their products might affect human health.

But what's really interesting is how the approaches companies take to handling toxics have been shifting over years from end of pipe solutions to pollution prevention to a new movement under the banner of "green chemistry." Rather than demonizing chemicals and chemistry -- when they continue to play a critical role in meeting human needs -- this new approach seeks a third way.

The leaders are starting to design chemicals and products in new ways to reduce toxicity. Do this right, the thinking goes, and avoid tons of regulation, liability, and health problems altogether. There's enormous upside potential for the companies that can innovate and find ways to create the same material or chemical properties that we need with much lower risk to humans and the environment. So this is not all about regulations and risk-reduction - it's about getting smart about your own products, and it's about profit.

With all the extensive, and justified, coverage of climate change and the Copenhagen Summit, it's easy to forget that there are other serious environmental issues out there. This anniversary today certainly reminded me. From water to biodiversity to waste, a range of other problems continue evolve and create pressing challenges, for society and for business. Of course most of these, especially water, have deep connections to climate change, so it's right that we make that a priority issue.

But the issue of toxicity and chemicals is one that lies somewhat separate from the climate discussion. While it gets lost in the shuffle sometimes, the pressure on companies to deal with it just keeps rising and rising. It's worth, today, remembering why.

[Originally posted on Huffington Post]

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November 2, 2010

Are Green Marketers Still "Sinning"?

[Note: Below is the blog I posted at Harvard Business Online last week about Terrachoice's new "Sins of Greenwashing" report. It received some passionate commentary, particularly from friend and green marketing guru Jacquelyn Ottman. I've reposted her comment and my response below the blog. See also Joel Makower's excellent criticism of the report.]

The green marketing research firm Terrachoice released its annual "Sins of Greenwashing" study last Tuesday. I got a sneak peak on Monday and spoke with Scot Case, one of the key execs behind the report.

For the past few years, this study has been one of my favorite reviews of the pitfalls of green marketing. It's always a clever piece of analysis based on painstakingly assembled data about thousands of consumer products. This time their researchers explored 34 stores in Canada and the U.S. (from chains that have over 40,000 locations) and looked for any product that made a green claim — all while managing not to get arrested as they trolled store aisles for hours. They then counted how many products made any of seven mistakes, or "sins," that Terrachoice has previously identified.

Check out the report (page 10) for the exact definitions of the Seven Sins, but they include making claims that are vague ("all-natural"), having no proof (from, say, third-party certification), or stating irrelevant details (such as "CFC-free" on aerosol cans —the substance has been banned for 30 years).

This year's report is very well timed. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission just proposed changing its Green Guidelines, the standards for what marketers can legally say. The new, stricter rules are open for public comment (PDF) now. I'll be keeping a close eye on that story, but in the meantime I'll point out what I see as the key findings of the report. This report houses some of the best data on what marketers are trying to do and the pitfalls you should avoid. Here are the big picture findings:

1. The number of products making some kind of green claim is rising fast.
This year, Terrachoice cataloged 5,296 products. In just the two dozen stores it visited both in 2009 and 2010, the number rose from about 2,700 to 4,700, a 73% increase. Given the economic climate, this increase is particularly impressive. Because greener products are often considered to be (or actually are) more expensive, marketers would be forgiven for avoiding that pitch in a recession. Clearly there's a belief that consumer interest is still rising. (Side note: The overall increase in green claims has not gone unnoticed by certification and safety giant Underwriters Laboratory, which bought Terrachoice this year to help round out its UL Environment business.)

2. The vast majority of products with green claims are still committing at least one "sin"
In the first report in 2007, literally one product avoided all the sins. Terrachoice tries to put a positive spin on the new data, which shows a moderate increase of "sin-free" marketing. But the percentage of products that are still sinning remains very high at 95%. This level of greenwash, no matter how minor, leaves companies wide open to significant risk in the marketplace.

3. The mix of sins committed is shifting, and the sin of "worshipping false labels" is on the rise. An amazing 70% of these products now have no proof of their claims, and 31% go so far as to include some kind of label that looks like a third-party certification. As the report put it, "ease of access to false, completely meaningless eco-labels has become almost comical." The labeling world is much in flux and it's incredibly over-populated - the group EcoLabel Index is currently tracking more than 350 labels officially, and something like 600 in reality. Companies have to be very careful about this one - inventing your own label to make a claim is dangerous for the brand and could bring actual penalties.

4. The product and industry sectors with a longer track record of green marketing are doing better. Almost 30% of products in categories with a history of green claims, such as building and construction materials, include a legitimate certification (but still may sin in other ways). In newer categories such as toys, less than 15% include a certification. This finding bodes well for the future though, as companies learn and get more careful.

5. Claims about toxicity are on the rise, particularly in toys and baby products. A few years ago, nobody had heard of the chemical BPA or of phthalates. These substances help make plastics malleable or line the inside of canned goods, among other things. The focus on these chemicals, which may mimic hormones and screw up our endocrine system, has increased greatly. States and countries like Canada are banning the substances in kids' products. Not surprisingly, this year the number of products making "BPA-free" or "phthalate-free" claims rose 577% and 2,550% respectively.

Finally, the report comes to one interesting conclusion that I'm not sure I agree with. Larger retailers apparently have a lower percentage of sinning products than boutique and specialty green stores. Terrachoice uses that data to conclude that larger retailers are more trustworthy. But as far as I know, retailers are not really checking the product-level environmental claims that their suppliers make at this point. There are a number of initiatives in the works to provide some standards in the B2B world, the largest of which is the Sustainability Consortium, started by Wal-Mart. But none of these groups are close to rating or checking every product.

I believe that retailers, out of necessity from lack of data, are accepting the claims pretty much the same as consumers are. My explanation for the discrepancy that Terrachoice notes is that the bigger retailers carry a different product mix with more of the larger brand names that face more scrutiny and are thus more careful about claims. No matter what the reason, there are fewer false claims in larger stores. But even so, nearly every product surveyed made some mistake.

Luckily for business, these sins are not actually all that difficult to avoid. So take a good look at this report and explore some of the solutions offered by Terrachoice and in other guidelines — such as the Ogilvy & Mather greenwash guide I've discussed previously.

The standard marketers need to reach is not perfection, but speaking honestly about environmental impacts and not over-positioning the benefits (which is why it's sometimes hard for marketers to avoid). If you don't manage this communication well, you'll confuse your own customers and increase risk to the brand. On the up side, being known as an honest broker of green claims can only build loyalty. We all sin sometimes, but our products don't have to.

Jacquie Ottman's Comments on HBR Online

“Sinning”, Really? “Painstaking” research, Really?

Andrew, you and I are friends and we usually see eye to eye on all things green, but I have to use my the little bully pulpit provided by this comment box to come clean on what I have long thought of this research —and it’s only been reinforced by Terrachoice’s new “Home and Family edition” (What is this, some type of board game?)

On his webinar Thursday afternoon, Scot MacDougal admitted his firm has not intended to be malicious in their use of the word “sins”. Ironically, however, this report is having the effect of maligning the entire green marketing-related industry—creating skeptics, even cynics, out of the press and consumers. (How many people, especially in the press, do you know who now use the terms “green marketing” and “greenwashing” interchangeably?)

The big issues here in my opinion are as follows. This research admittedly sheds light on some of the issues associated with making green claims in the current environment, but it isn’t close to being credible, “painstaking” research. Terrachoice are third parties themselves, but their research wasn’t even conducted by a respected third party — Roper, Gallup or even the guys in the suits with the briefcases on the academy awards— but probably a bunch of twenty somethings who don’t know beans more about green than the average Joe.

Macdougal also admits that he believes that most of the “sins” being committed today are likely to be inadvertent, the side effect of a fledging industry without self-regulation. Pity then, that this “research” is having the net effect of wiping out an important tool in a market-based economy loath to regulate consumer product manufacturers.

Any research that finds that 99.98% (or whatever astronomical percentage) of the world is not doing one thing or the other, in my experience, has set the bar too high; I can only surmise that Terrachoice, who has a stake in third party labeling, is likely on a witch hunt in self-interest.

The nerve of calling the world of largely well-intended marketers “sinners”! A 35-year marketing veteran, I understand the power of hyperbole —and most consumers do, too. However, as you pointed out in your April 2010 HBR blog post, most “sins” can be classified as mere missteps, and in my opinion, this is not surprising in a fledging market.

As reported, the number of green claims is rising fast, likely in response to consumer demand for greener products. Let’s hear it for a 2,550% increase in (hopefully legitimate) “phthalate-free-claims” to try to protect our children. Rather than maligning their activities and inviting the shackles of wary in-house counsel, let’s encourage this activity by first giving this growing group of green marketers credit for trying to make a difference. (Do you realize how many of these folks are putting their life savings on the line to support their efforts? One of my clients cashed in his entire IRA to support his fledging new green product.)

Let’s put the energy expended by and about this specious research to positive, not negative effect. Let’s work together to: fill in the gaps in what businesses can do to improve internally, perfect life cycle assessment and multi-attribute labeling schemes, certify industry professionals, work positively with FTC , NAD and other bodies to put out comprehensive guidelines and to enforce them, and celebrate the successes. Only by doing these things can we help green marketing live up to its promise of voluntarily skewing the marketplace to the genuinely greener goods and services.

Andrew, thanks for this post — and the opportunity to express my opinion on this. Our respective opinions won’t be agreed with by all, but hopefully airing them in this way, we’ll cause others to chime in, and ideally help trigger some positive change for our industry and economy.

My response

Thanks as always for your passion and strong opinions. While it may seem like it on the surface, i don't think we disagree that much. I have a few reactions/comments.

- I can't really comment on the quality of the research they've done -- i'm not sure why it's inherently lower-quality than Roper or Gallup. It seems like a fairly straightforward analysis, which i'm sure has flaws, but is directionally correct.

- I think I take the "sin" language a little lighter than you do. Terrachoice has always used this funny cartoon character, so I think it's meant to be a bit tongue-in-cheek. But, perhaps the "Goofs of Green Marketing" or something like that would be less judgment-laden.

-I’ve actually never heard someone say ‘greenwash’ interchangeably with ‘green marketing’ and I certainly don’t consider them the same. It’s like the difference between testimony and perjury. And I actually think there’s very little of what I would truly call ‘greenwash’ out there—outright lies or misrepresentation on purpose. Only one of the “Seven Sins” is that egregious, and it’s very rare.

- I certainly can't speak for Terrachoice at all, but for myself, and I certainly do not want to belittle or damage the green efforts companies are making, or their attempts to communicate with their customers. Going BPA or phthalate-free is a good thing, full stop.

But this is where I think reports like this are important. It’s because so many companies are working so hard and putting out mostly legitimate claims (even if they haven’t secured a third-party certification yet), that we need to be very careful about claims in general. One high-profile case of outright lies (like something that says it has no BPA, but does), and it casts the entire green marketing world in a bad light. For that reason, setting a very high bar which, yes, only 5% perhaps reach today, is appropriate. The number of claims is confusing to customers, so why not proceed with extreme caution and put fewer claims out there until every ‘i’ is dotted and ‘t’ crossed?

Overall, I’m certainly with you on your call to improve measurement, LCAs, and guidelines, and then make sure they’re enforced.

Thanks for your thoughts!



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May 1, 2011

Consumers Never Liked to Pay More for Green to Begin With

A week ago, the New York Times breathlessly declared in a cover story that during the recession, "As Consumers Cut Spending, 'Green' Products Lose Allure." It's a nice headline and makes it sound like the green product and business movement is in trouble. But the story, while interesting, doesn't really change the reality for business.

First, consumers never liked to pay more for green and, second, consumer pressure is not the biggest force driving the greening of business.


Here's the story. The Times piece focuses on the rise and (sort of) fall of Clorox' Green Works cleaning products. Launched with much fanfare in 2008, Green Works quickly became the biggest player in the niche green cleaning space, hitting $100 million in sales before falling to $60 million in the recession (which is still a very respectable number in this market space). The Times crows that "As recession gripped the country, the consumer's love affair with green products, from recycled toilet paper to organic foods to hybrid cars, faded like a bad infatuation." So green products are on their way out, right?

Not quite.

First, as the next sentence points out, "sales at farmers' markets and Prius sales are humming along now" (fyi, Prius sales jumped 70% in February as oil prices rose). So two of the three categories the Times uses to make its point are actually growing, not fading.

Second, at the end of the article, a fascinating chart shows the "green share" of household products holding steady at about 2 percent over the last few years. The conventional brands like Clorox have flattened out — even as Clorox sales dipped, the total number of entrants has continued to grow. The niche brands, such as Method and Seventh Generation, have continued to nibble away at market share and actually grew during the recession.

To the extent that the premium-priced green products named by the Times have taken a hit, consumers' disdain isn't news: Recession or not, mass consumers never loved paying extra for green.

Asking people to pay more for green is usually doomed. Green has always been most effective as the "3rd button" (as my co-author and I called it in our book Green to Gold) to press in marketing pitches, after price and quality. The Prius is the premium-priced exception that does not disprove the rule. It's is a special case, since the purchase confers a range of emotional and value-laden benefits that household products just don't have (critics call the pride of ownership smugness — and, yes, I own one).

Therefore, in the trenches of consumer product development, the real story is the pursuit of more sustainable products that, as P&G execs say, create "no tradeoffs" for customers. Why ask people to pay more?

As more companies present green products at no additional cost, Wal-Mart and others will be happy to give them more shelf space, because what's really happening with consumers is subtler than a supposedly fading infatuation with green. As the Times story indicates, there is no rise in the percentage of "true green" consumers who will pay more for sustainable products. But there is a serious rise in the number of so-called "conflicted" or "conscious" consumers, which has been building for years. These buyers, which are quickly becoming the majority of consumers, not a niche segment, want it all. They demand more sustainable products at the same or lower price. The last sentence of the Times article actually captures this phenomenon:

"Sarah Pooler, 55, said she did not normally buy green products but would pick them up if they were on sale...'Bottom line, if it's green and it's a good deal, I'll buy it', said Ms. Pooler.

And so the race is still on to provide green products at the same price and quality.

But exactly because Ms. Pooler and millions of other buyers are still waiting for that price equality, I would argue that what is and has been driving the greening of business is not consumer pressure but a mix macro-level forces and operational sustainability success stories, the countless examples of reduced packaging, lowered toxicity, and condensed versions of products(in detergents for example) that save shelf space and tons of energy in shipping and storage.

At the macro level, the greening of products and companies is accelerating because the sustainability drivers are only getting stronger. Rising resource prices, ever-increasing transparency demands about what's in every product, and continuing pressure up the supply chain from business customers are just a few of the big forces.

Does anyone in the consumer product space seriously think Wal-Mart (and other retailers) will stop demanding sustainability-driven operational and product changes just because of the recession? On the contrary, the need to lower costs in the face of rising commodity prices is making eco-efficiency even more economic.

So even if consumers develop fickle infatuations with certain products, the business world is clearly developing a deep, abiding love of — or at least growing respect for — the power of sustainability.

(This post first appeared at Harvard Business Online.)

September 12, 2011

Weak Environmental Regulations Show Little Faith in U.S. Business

Before the big job speech, President Obama made an important decision about the economy and public health. About 10 days ago he reversed himself and his own EPA to stop a regulation that would've reduced smog-causing pollution. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Republican Congressional leadership quickly declared this a major victory for "job creators" and business in general.

It's anything but.


I'll give a major concession on this argument and put aside for the moment the danger of ignoring solid science and what it tells about public health (which is that, in the words of NRDC Director Frances Beinecke, "strong smog standards would have saved up to 4,300 lives and avoid as many as 2,200 heart attacks every year...[and] made breathing easier for the 24 million Americans living with ashthma...").

Ok, let's imagine those health benefits don't matter. Even from a business perspective these laws make sense and it's ridiculous to keep them weaker than they should be.

Choosing weaker environmental regulations actually makes our country less competitive and shows amazingly little faith in our business community to innovate.

Just because something may be difficult doesn't mean it will be expensive as well. For decades now, every major environmental regulation has met significant resistance from the industries most affected. That should be expected, but let's deal in reality, not hyperbole.

This time, industry opponents say it will cost enormous sums of money to comply with a regulation that moves the standard from 75 parts per billion to 60 to 70 ppb. We've heard this argument before. The claims of economic destruction, outrageous costs, and lost jobs are almost always seriously overblown.

Every now and then, a business leader admits the falseness of these Chicken Little cries. Former BP CEO John Browne once told Fortune, "Every time there's a new piece of regulation, we say it's the end of our industry...[we have] an appalling track record in this regard."

The most famous example, though, is the battle over the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, ultimately signed into law by the first President Bush. This law established the first major "cap and trade" system; it didn't restrict carbon dioxide as current iterations propose, but mandated reductions in acid-rain-causing sulfur dioxide. At the time, industry claimed compliance would cost up to $1,500 per ton of SO2 reduced. For the next decade, the industry never spent more than $200 per ton, and usually far less, as Dan Esty and I discussed in Green to Gold (see p. 75). So business was off on cost estimates by a factor of 10.

But it gets better every time. Friday's laughable assertion from Representative Eric Cantor that changing the smog standard would cost the economy $1 trillion and millions of jobs makes the acid rain cost claims seem quaint.

Granted, the fiscal logic for stricter pollution standards doesn't seem as clear as the cost-saving potential of energy efficiency standards such as those for light bulbs and cars. (Of course politicos are fighting those as well, even though the fact that they truly drive innovation and save everyone money has already been demonstrated repeatedly). But this seeming lack of economic logic applies if you only consider one side of the ledger, the cost to companies most affected. But on the other side we have public health savings, which are estimated at $37 billion per year, and the benefits to other industries.

What about the companies and entrepreneurs that create cleaner ways of operating or provide the pollution-reducing technologies? Those are real jobs too, aren't they? And our companies will be more competitive globally as every country struggles with pollution. Or just consider the productivity benefits to all companies of having their asthmatic employees breathe easier.

But here's what really galls me: saying that stricter pollution standards will cost enormous sums of money shows a staggering disregard for our capacity to innovate.

If American business is the engine of growth that our politicians make it out to be, why can't we find new ways to do things that save money, cut pollution, and make our companies more competitive. When given constraints, the tough and smart get going and innovate (and, by the way, the new standard wouldn't go into effect until 2013, giving us some time).

I have faith in our businesses.

Why don't our industry and political leaders?

(This post first appeared at Harvard Business Online.)

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May 24, 2012

3M's Sustainability Innovation Machine

Planes are now held together by tape, not bolts. It's really, really strong tape, but still. Who knew the maker of Post-It Notes could help keep aircraft aloft?

This somewhat frightening factoid is just one of the fascinating things I learned in a recent visit to the St. Paul, MN, headquarters of the perennial innovation leader, 3M. During my daylong visit, I observed a quiet, longtime sustainability leader plugging away, creating new products that will help the world save energy, water, waste...and lots of money.


For good reason, the $30-billion company has long been held up as a role model of how to manage innovation. In the sustainability realm, 3M pioneered what now seems like an obvious idea: avoiding pollution before having to clean it up. The company's simply named Pollution Prevention Pays (3P) program has saved many billions of dollars over 36 years.

The environmental results of its near obsession with eco-efficiency are frankly astonishing. In the last two decades, 3M has slashed toxic releases by 99% and greenhouse gas emissions by 72%. It's the only company that has won the EPA's Energy Star Award every year the honor has been bestowed.

3M's sustainability leadership has come mainly from its eco-efficiency success, but these practices are increasingly the norm in business. So I was happy to observe abundant evidence of the company pivoting to make sustainability a driver of business growth as well.

Before my presentation at an employee event, I listened as CEO Inge Thulin and senior execs from each of the major divisions laid out their strategies. Thulin spoke about sustainability being " our new vision" of growth and innovation. Other execs bragged about the high percentage of their division's sales coming from sustainability and "energy preservation."

But most importantly, I heard about some great new products and technologies. When you're describing a company that launches an average of 20 new products every week, it's hard to pick favorites. But here are a few examples of what sustainability innovation looks like:

  • The world's highest reflectivity mirror film, which can take sunlight from a roof and carry it deep into a building — the length of a football field, in fact — all while losing less than half of the light. I saw this technology paired seamlessly with some regular fluorescent lighting and working well in an interior conference room. As one exec said, somewhat heretically, "Why build solar panels to convert sun to electricity to then turn on lights if you can do this?" (Note: I'd do both!)

  • Pipe linings: Every year, due in large part to 250,000 water main breaks, our cities lose 1.7 trillion gallons of treated water (equal to the total water use of the 10 largest cities). To help solve this problem, 3M launched a product that sends a machine down into pipes to apply a fast-setting lining which structurally reinforces them, without having to go to the significant expense of digging them up first.

  • An industrial paint application product/service that reduces toxic solvent use by 70% and is saving customers, mostly auto repair shops, $2 billion from simpler paint operations and reduced waste. It's also a sizable business for 3M.

  • 3M's Novec Fluids, which provide cleaning, coating, cooling, and fire suppression for the electronics industry (chip manufacturing, datacenters, and so on) in a non-flammable, non-ozone-depleting way. It's also remarkably safe for users and technology — you can safely dip an iPhone in the stuff.

3M is a refreshingly humble company: every estimate or "boast" is carefully and conservatively calculated to not overstate the case. For 36 years, the company has used only first-year savings to tally the benefits of pollution prevention projects — that's an effective discount rate of, well, infinity. And with the water-pipe-lining technology, the payback calculation for customers includes only labor savings and overall construction efficiency. A more thorough accounting would add in the significant water and energy savings, as well as reduced impacts on local economies (traffic and business disruption).

But there are signs of a feistier attitude brewing. The new CEO is making sustainability, growth, and innovation a powerful trifecta. With Novec Fluids, the team is not only working with key customers and early adopters, but it's also pushing the market toward greener options by advocating for tougher government standards and regulations. This kind of pro-environment lobbying is an advanced sustainability strategy that only real leaders can pull off.

Finally, I toured the company's relatively new innovation demonstration center. It's a customers-only, hands-on science museum that proudly demonstrates all that 3M can do through cool combinations of its 46 base technologies.

Bottom line: sustainability is deeply integrated in 3M's innovation pipeline, which is the engine of the company. The company's core new product development process includes key sustainability questions and criteria for designers to address.

Many companies start talking about sustainability efforts before they've really made significant changes to the company or its products. Although 3M may have the opposite problem — getting too little brand and marketing value out of its efforts — it is usually smarter to execute first, and then tell your story. In 3M's case, it's nice to see the engineers at this quiet company just out there doing it.

(This post first appeared at Harvard Business Online.)

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