Resources/Commodities Archives

May 24, 2008

Better Get Efficient...and Fast

[Posted at Huffington here]

It's pretty clear that the business world is facing dramatic change driven by environmental concerns. Over the coming years and decades, we're going to change the entire energy system and find new ways to design, make, ship, sell, and consume things. While it's uncertain if quality of life will suffer (and I hope not), the quantity of resources used will change dramatically - e.g., using a lot less energy, or at least carbon-driven energy, to power our lives.

And this change is becoming a business imperative regardless of whether you buy the climate change argument (and I really don't want to open that can of worms from my last post ). Just looking at the high price of everything from metals to food to fuels, the case for being radically more resource efficient is getting clearer every day. What's also clear is that the world can't currently provide for what will be nine or ten billion people who all want our lifestyle (the government of China has set a goal of moving half its population into the middle class by 2020 - that's 600 million people; if they all use oil at our rate, China alone will need more than the world produces by 2030 or so). At current technologies and modes of production, there isn't enough stuff. So there's a business need and a system overload requirement that we innovate and do more with less.

But don't just take my word for it.

The Wall Street Journal ran a stunning article recently that I've been mulling over for awhile and needed to get my head around. It was titled, "New Limits to Growth Revive Malthusian Fears." The shocking part of this article was the fact that it didn't malign the idea that we may run out of things, which Milton Friedman-esque business people have been laughing at for 200 years (since Thomas Malthus first drew an exponential population chart plotted against a geometric resource growth chart and said we'd all starve). Yes, those doomsayers have been very wrong in critical ways, mainly related to our ability to innovate and substitute out of products when we found new options (like from whale oil to kerosene to oil).

But the Journal was deadly serious, talking about resources like water that we can't substitute our way out of. The related point was that there's really nothing left to substitute to -- we know where pretty much everything is. Two quotes were fascinating: "Record highs in the prices for oil, wheat, copper...are signs of a lasting shift in demand as yet unmatched by supply". The "as yet" is a big qualifier, but it feels a bit like wishful thinking, especially given the second quote from ConocoPhillips CEO James Mulva: "I don't think we are going to see the [oil] supply going over 100 million barrels a day, and the reason is: Where is all that going to come from?" So even the oil CEOs are telling us there's not enough stuff.

So what does this mean for business and how is it connected to the green movement? First, rising prices for nearly everything mean we're entering the big leagues. Whether you call it "green" or "eco-efficiency" doesn't matter; either way, all the efficiency tools we have - such as total quality, lean manufacturing, six sigma - are going to be put to the test. If your company has a knack for cutting out waste and reducing resource use, it will survive and thrive. If you can't reduce your reliance on fossil fuels in your whole value chain - from sourcing to manufacturing to distribution - you may be in trouble.

Second, if you can offer a new "supply" to help bolster that side of the Econ 101 curves, you will have a giant market to satisfy (those billions of consumers). And I'm talking about smart supply growth, not the corn ethanol kind that actually exacerbates all of our problems. I'm talking new low-carbon energy, water saving technologies and processes, good design principles, building efficiency, and on and on.

The mad race for renewable energy technologies and the dramatic shift in car offerings are good examples. The venture capital money flowing to new technologies easily recalls the Internet boom. But is this one a bubble? It might be, but these entrepreneurs are working to satisfy existing multi-trillion dollar energy and resource markets, not trying to create new markets or needs. So money from the biggest, smartest names in Silicon Valley is flowing freely. This is a very good thing. There will be a shakeout, but some winners will win big.

As demand for resources outstrips supply, the Journal worried, what if countries just try to grab what's left in a big resource fight? Companies might go down a biggest is best path as well. But won't the best companies profit much more if they just find a way to need less? And won't the competitors that help their customers use less do extremely well?

September 30, 2008

$500 Oil? Why Not $1,000? Does It Matter?

Everybody in the world should read a new Fortune article about Matt Simmons, the oil analyst turned peak-oil prophet. As a lifelong Republican, Bush campaign and energy policy contributor, and Houston-based oil guy, he's an unusual leader of the peak oil theorists. Simmons has become convinced that Saudi Arabia and others don't have as much in reserve as they say.

Simmons is not alone. T. Boone Pickens, oil billionaire, has been making a lot of noise about how we can't drill our way out of this...and he's building the world's largest wind farm to demonstrate his commitment. Not a commitment to the environment, but to making money and enhancing national security.

Just to clarify: peak oil doesn't mean we've run out. It means we've hit the peak of production. There's still a lot in the ground, but it's harder and harder to get out. It's not just analysts warning about this. We're at 85 million barrels per day now globally, but clearly the world is growing. So can we supply the 100 million barrels and more we'll need in short order? Well, let's listen to James Mulva, CEO of Conoco Phillips earlier this year: "I don't think we are going to see supply going over 100MM barrels a day...Where is all that going to come from?"

So supply is a problem, but it's not actually the biggest one. My college days, when not spent on other pursuits, included a degree in economics. I can't claim to remember that much, but I do know one Econ 101 basic fact. If demand grows, and supply is "inelastic" (meaning it's really hard to change the amount), the price will rise, and sometimes very, very fast.

As much as supply is certainly inelastic - you know how hard it is to get oil from Canadian oil sands or from 5 miles under water? - the real story is demand. It's almost trite to say, but the growth of India and China is impossible to grasp and will drive prices of everything up and up. The highly respected business strategist, CK Prahalad, recently talked about some trends in India. Every minute 30 people move to the city, meaning India will need hundreds of new cities over the next 20-30 years. As these people desire more middle class lifestyles, consumption will rise. Just one example: If they all add a bit of chicken protein to their diet, Prahalad says, we'll need to double current global agricultural output to feed them. A lot of oil goes into agriculture, and that's just to satisfy India. China statistics are just as crazy (another Fortune article recently described a nice little Cleveland-sized community going up outside of Shanghai - and it's one of ten suburbs being built).

But in the end, the debate is almost moot. The problem is not just that it's harder to get oil - it's that we're all in deep trouble if we do actually get it and burn it all. Climate change and environmental damage are going to push us away from fossil fuels long before we get through it all. This is a hard reality for an industry to take, but we're going to have to leave a trillion barrels in the ground - or at least only take it out to make stuff from it (those molecules are really useful for chemicals, plastics, etc). Burning it is the problem.

Peter Schwartz, the futurist (a job that I absolutely love -- but how do you really know if you're good at it?), says some very wise things along these lines. He says the peak oil guys are wrong and couldn't possibly know how much is left, but he says it doesn't really matter:

"We are not going to run out of oil before the issue of climate change drives change. It'll be costly oil. But it'll be climate change catastrophes [such as sudden, unexpected displacement of large numbers of people, and massive property damage], and more expensive oil, not the fact that we're running out of oil, that will drive change."

I agree. But take your pick - constrained supply, rising demand, and climate change. All are pretty good indications of one fundamental reality: Energy will never be cheap again. There will be some incredible pain coming for people, companies, and countries that don't use energy wisely. Getting lean will not be only one element of a good, sustainable business - it may be the only thing that matters.

[This first appeared on Huffington Post]

April 1, 2010

Can Anyone Explain This Offshore Drilling Decision?

On the heels of one of the most active weeks in Presidential history, President Obama has confounded his supporters on the green side of the spectrum and opened up major areas of the U.S. coastline to offshore oil drilling.

The reaction to the decision has been in some cases predictable, but often surprising -- the New York Times came out in favor today. Of course key environmental leaders are dismayed (see this helpful, quality debate on the Times blog featuring varying perspectives from leading thinkers).

But I've been scratching my head and I'll admit that I'm completely confused by this decision, or at least by its timing. I can only come up with a few plausible reasons the President would support this, but none make real sense to me. Please comment and offer other reasons. Here are some lines of logic that some may support...

Answer One: President Obama, like all politicians, is 'in the pocket' of big oil and big industry.

This is way too easy an answer and is just part of the 'a pox on both your houses' attitude that's growing in the country. Yes, all politicians are beholden in different ways to different donor groups, but I don't think anybody can say with a straight face that Obama has tried to do just what some industries and donors want.

Answer Two: This is a political maneuver to buy Republican (and energy-state Dems) to the coming climate and energy bill debate.

This answer has the most currency right now. But I have two problems with its logic. First, the timing is odd. Why announce you're giving up one of your better negotiating positions before the real climate debate heats up? Why not hold that in reserve to get those votes you need? Or -- if can go out on a naive imaginary limb here -- why not hold it over the oil companies' heads to get some concessions -- like much higher fees for access, reduced subsidies elsewhere for fossil fuels, or demanding that they stop spending money on undermining climate science.

The timing just seems oddly nonstrategic, but, as environmental strategist Will Sarni pointed out (via a mini Facebook debate amongst my colleagues), it's just like the public option in health care -- Obama gave it up early on.

Second, and this should be obvious given the way health care went, Obama is not going to get any Republican votes on anything -- Senator McCain made that pretty clear by stating recently, "There will be no cooperation for the rest of the year." So maybe Obama is looking to shore up weak support for cap-and-trade in the Democratic ranks -- that makes some sense.

(As a funny side note on politics, has anyone noticed that he's opened up drilling pretty much around Republican stronghold red states? It's as if he's saying, "ok, you want a world of 'drill, baby, drill'? Then you can have it on your coastlines.")

Answer Three: The President and his Interior Secretary Ken Salazar actually believe this is a good decision and will help us achieve a measure of energy independence.

This answer actually seems the most believable to me, but it seems even more odd. I'm going to vastly oversimplify the economics and market structure of fuels here, but isn't oil fundamentally a fungible, global commodity? Meaning, even if we dig off our own shores, it's not exactly like it comes only to us. We're not operating a state-run oil company. If ExxonMobil digs up the oil, it basically enters the global market, continuing our addiction to oil and propping up what Thomas Friedman calls the "petro-dictators" around the world.

And even if the oil only came to our refineries and cars, there's nowhere near enough oil out there to make us independent anyway. True energy independence -- if that's even a worthy goal -- is only feasible through distributed generation, meaning a solar panel on every roof and wind turbine in every neighborhood. That's the energy shift we need to be moving toward as fast as possible, so I hope we use the rights and tax revenue to help support renewable energy.

In the end, I suppose this decision came from a bit of all three (and mostly the latter two). I welcome your comments on other plausible reasons, and please let me know if my Econ 101 assessment of global oil markets is fundamentally off-base.

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June 9, 2010

Five Lessons from the BP Oil Disaster

It's very easy to pile onto BP right now. The "accident," which may be due more to negligence, is bad enough. The company lost 11 employees — after losing 15 in a high-profile explosion at a refinery 5 years ago. The damage to the Gulf, its species, and the people who depend on it is almost incalculable. But surprisingly, it's even easier to criticize BP's behavior since the explosion — the company has tried hard to downplay the scale of the tragedy and it has moved slowly to stop the torrent of oil pouring into the Gulf.

The nightmare is not over and the repercussions in terms of regulations and the future of BP are far from certain. But it's high time to start sifting through the wreckage for some learning so we can avoid similar catastrophes. I'm sure there are literally dozens of good lessons (please post yours), and I think many companies already have a solid understanding of the key principles of good behavior. But why do we need to wait for each fresh disaster to relearn the lessons we already know?

Here are my top five lessons, running from geopolitical and philosophical to corporate-level branding and strategy.

1. Our reliance on old, fossil-fuel based technologies is devastating for the planet, for society, and for business. This spill is in many ways an expected result of the path we have chosen. Given the declining stocks of easy-access oil, our addiction is forcing us to dig up extremely remote oil — something very, very hard to do that comes with enormous complexity and myriad risks of catastrophic failure.

The assumption that we will continue to dig up more carbon-emitting fossil fuels may be called into question in a serious way by the Gulf oilpocalypse. Governments may very well ask for companies to invest far more in safety. It's a reasonable outcome that regulators demand that companies invest not only in the technologies to dig oil up, but also in cutting edge ways to greatly reduce the risk of it going all over the place. So far, the oil giants seem to be pursuing only the first part. Which brings me to...

2. Preparing for a world where things only go right is extremely dangerous. To hearken back to the recession for a moment, one of my favorite tidbits about the financial meltdown was something I read about the ratings agencies (you know, the groups that gave horribly risky investments triple-A ratings). In the spreadsheet models they used to estimate the value of mortgage-backed securities, analysts could only plug in a positive number in the "growth" cell. That is, they could not predict the value of those derivatives if housing prices actually went down. You have to wear very large blinders to build a model like that.

But the oil companies have done the same thing. They've invested heavily in exploration technologies, finding ways to do things — like dig a mile under water — that were only space-age fantasies until recently. But where are the technologies to avoid spills, contain them, and clean them up?

3. Downplaying your mistakes is, well, a big mistake. It's gospel in business schools that Johnson & Johnson set the bar on handling a disaster when it dealt with the poisoning of Tylenol (and thus murder of some of its customers) in 1982. The massive, and immediate, recall was unprecedented and set the standard for corporate behavior in the face of existential threats to a business.

Cut to 2010 where BP leaders apparently never read the J&J case study. CEO Tony Hayward infamously said that the spill was "relatively tiny" compared to the "very big ocean." That statement is both scientifically baseless and beside the point - the amount of leakage that the CEO should accept from his operations is approximately zero. Unfortunately, Hayward hasn't learned much in the way of media training as he told a reporter this week that he wants to end this disaster because, "I'd like my life back." Wow.

And the response has seemed awfully slow. Why, for example, has each attempt to stop the leak been done in a serial fashion? Meaning, when the "top kill" failed, why didn't BP have the next containment dome in position already instead of waiting a few more days? BP has been acting like a child that doesn't want to clean up its mess and drags its feet, which is strange, given the monumental risk to the company.

4. Environmental risks can threaten the viability of a business. Reducing risk was the core focus of environmental efforts for many years so it got a bit passé as a forward-looking argument for sustainability. But it certainly is making a comeback now. As someone who's written for years about how going green can drive profits and growth, I've probably also downplayed the role of risk reduction in creating green value. So let me make the very easy case for BP's poor risk management.

As of today, BP has lost over 40% of its market value, worth about $75 billion. The New York Times went so far as to suggest that BP could be vulnerable to takeover once all its liabilities for this spill are accounted for.

Of course for most companies, sustainability-related, enterprise-threatening risks are not quite as tangible as miles and miles of your product killing an entire ocean. But even harder-to-measure threats can destroy a business model. Think of the "stroke of the pen" risk from regulations that outlaw a component of a product due to toxicity (one recent candidate: plastics chemical BPA). Or consider at the risk to companies that do not meet the new sustainability-themed supply-chain demands from business customers. Or look at a company's ability to attract and retain talent based on how well the company manages its environmental and social performance. Ironically, BP leaders have told me in the past that their reputation as a green leader was making recruiting the best engineers far easier. But that reputation is shattered.

5. Companies can lose the reputation as a sustainability leader very fast. Warren Buffett famously said, "It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it." Having a reputation as a sustainability leader is valuable, but it's a tenuous thing, and it can be lost very fast. In the book I coauthored, Green to Gold, we open with two stories: one about Sony and environmental risk and the other about the money BP saved through carbon reductions. For years, the sustainability community has praised BP as best-in-class. In the 1990s, the CEO at the time, Lord John Browne, set BP on a path to go "beyond petroleum."

But over the last few years, BP has quietly reduced its investment in renewable energy to a negligible percentage of sales and profits. Under Hayward the focus has been on cutting costs, and the company has explicitly avoided talking about "green" initiatives in the media (give them credit at least for trying to reduce greenwash). Given the explosion of 2005 and this spill, it doesn't seem like much of a stretch to guess that the company has under-spent on safety.

BP nets about $20 billion a year. How much do you think BP should have spent on extra precautions and new clean-up technologies? Imagine if every well had a second, relief well nearly dug at all times. Expensive, yes, but so is the destruction of your reputation and business, not to mention an entire ecosystem.

The answer to how much BP, or any company, should spend to avoid these problems is somewhere between zero and how much the company is worth. Unfortunately for BP, that latter number is far smaller than it used to be.

[This post first appeared at Harvard Business Review Online]

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August 6, 2010

Why What you Drive Affects the Price of Bread

Russia is in the middle of the worst heat wave in its recorded history. The droughts have destroyed millions of acres of wheat. Russian farmers will harvest about 70 million metric tons of grain this year, down an astonishing 27 million tons. Yesterday, as the New York Times reported, Russia banned all exports of wheat.

According to the Times, Russian exports represent 17 percent of the global grain trade. Wheat prices have already leapt 90 percent since June, and this sudden restriction in supply won't help.

When I think about the forces making the pursuit of sustainability unavoidable, I often try to categorize or separate them to get a handle on what's going on. I think about climate change, water issues, natural resource constraints, greening the supply chain, and on and on, as problems in and of themselves. But this story from Russia shows how they're all inextricably linked.

The United States has been unable to pass a climate bill and factions of this country are in deep denial about the reality of climate change and how it will impact business, society, and our day-to-day lives. These real-life impacts in Russia are a stark reminder that nature, and the physics and chemistry of planetary change, don't care about our political battles.

But how do we draw these connections for everyone? The environmental movement, and even the growing business lobby that's behind climate legislation and action, have not done a great job showing people how our prosperity is threatened by inaction.

I know it's difficult for the average person to believe, but how we use energy and what we drive actually connects directly to the price of bread. And it doesn't really take that many "degrees of Kevin Bacon" to connect the dots.

We drive energy-inefficient vehicles which spew carbon dioxide...which captures heat in the atmosphere...which greatly increases the odds of record droughts and heat waves...which destroys crops and reduces grain supply...which raises the price of wheat and thus bread.

Part of the problem with the discussion on climate change is that it doesn't feel as tangible as other environmental challenges such as water and air pollution. It feels remote and not part of our daily lives. Somehow we need to make these seemingly bizarre connections between what we drive to the store and what's available once we get there.

If we don't start seeing the systematic challenges and tackling them, the system will come crashing down on us.

December 23, 2010

The Top 10 Green Business Stories of 2010

Here's my attempt to capture the most important stories that affected the greening of business in 2010. To keep this to blog length, it's going to be quick, so see the links for more on these stories.

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The first five are macro-level issues that affect the context for business:

1. The climate bill dies in the U.S. Senate. Any hope for a national approach to tackling the largest challenge facing humanity petered out pathetically this year (see the complete, sad tale in a Pulitzer-worthy New Yorker article). Unfortunately for every other country, this is a global story. When the U.S. can't get its act together, the world can't create global policies, and thus the Cancun meeting last week resulted in some nice agreements to raise funds for adaptation -- arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, anyone? -- but no binding targets on carbon.

2. Nature strikes back/Climate change is real. Ironically, given the rising debate in the U.S. on the science, the world got hotter, a lot hotter, this decade and this year. Russia saw its worst drought in 1,000 years (video), and Pakistan was overcome by flooding (video). Scientists will always give the caveat that you cannot blame climate change for any single weather event, but let's get real - this is what devastating climate change looks like on the ground. These weather events also directly affect resource availability, bringing me to my next point...

3. Resources get very tight. The drought in Russia destroyed 40% of its wheat crop, so Putin pulled wheat -- 1/6 of the global trade in the crop -- off the global market, driving up wheat prices. The floods in Pakistan helped double the price of cotton. And I could write a book on the topic of rare earth metals, those precious elements that make nearly every green technology possible and go into every iPhone. China mines 95% of these metals, and it needs them all now, making the U.S. "vulnerable to rare earth shortages." We're also vulnerable on fossil fuels. We learned from the massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico that readily accessible oil is a thing of the past -- we don't dig one mile under the ocean for the heck of it. So most natural resources are getting more scarce, from oil to metals to crops. Smart companies like Hitachi are trying to find solutions, such as its new plan to develop rare earth recycling technologies.

4. China, China, China. Did I mention rare earth metals? Or the rise of the world's largest solar producer from a manufacturing base of nearly nothing a few years ago? Or how about China's unparalleled (and some would say illegal) support for its renewables companies, which has the World Trade Organization fretting about trade barriers? China is very serious about its green ambitions, with support from the very top, and the business community is taking note.

5. Renewables are for real and moving fast. Ok, there's some good news. The market for renewables is growing fast. About 45% of Portugal's electricity comes from renewables, and this is up from 18% in just five years. Germany, not really the sunniest country in the world, added 1% of its electric needs in solar in 2010 alone (it took 10 years to get the first 1% online, and just 8 months for the second 1%). No wonder HSBC says the market for clean tech and climate change solutions will top $2.2 trillion by 2020.

Now for the company-level stories:

6. Supply chain pressure continues to rise (a.k.a., Wal-Mart doesn't slow down). Even coming out of the recession, this was a big year for green supply chain announcements. In February, Wal-Mart said it would eliminate 20 million metric tons of GHG emissions from its supply chain. Then in October, the retail giant announced it would double the amount of locally-grown produce on its shelves (and former sustainability exec Matt Kistler indicated this year that products getting higher scores in its Sustainability Index would get more shelf space). We also saw big announcements from P&G and Kaiser Permanente on supplier scorecards, IBM greatly increasing its demands on suppliers, and Pepsi using detailed carbon lifecycle data to make suppliers rethink how they grow Tropicana oranges.

7. Zero is the new black. Companies seem to be tripping over themselves on the path to "zero waste." GM announced that 62 of its plants now send zero waste to landfill, and UK retailer Marks & Spencer reached a 92% diversion rate on the way to its zero goals. And Sony one-upped everyone by setting a goal of zero environmental impact across its operations by 2050.

8. Big goals were back. Recession-schmecession. Sony wasn't the only one setting aggressive targets. Panasonic said it wanted its GHG emissions to peak by 2018 and it would greatly increase sales of eco-products. Unilever has probably gone the furthest, announcing it would double sales by 2020, but halve total environmental impact (among other big goals). Unilever's leaders are serious about driving these plans into the operations of the whole company.

9. Electric vehicles storm the market. The Nissan LEAF was just named 2011 European Car of the Year, and GE announced it would buy 25,000 electric cars. Since the auto industry is one of the biggest in the world, there will be ripples from this movement. Enough said.

10. Small guys can do it too. It's easy to get caught up in the tales of giant companies. So one of my favorite stories of the year is a simple example of eco-efficiency and savings from 10-employee Bowman Design with just 2,000 square feet of office space in Southern California (where else?). See founder Tom Bowman's description of his company's path to a 65% reduction in GHG emissions and $9,000 savings annually (ok, I'll admit that I didn't mind that Tom name-checked my book Green to Gold in his article, but I don't know him).

11. (Bonus!) The Military gets serious about green. Honorable mention to the government and military, which is technically not "green business". But they're not kidding around, from plans to greatly reduce reliance on oil and diesel in Army operations, to Navy sustainability plans and test flights of planes running on biofuels. Go military green!

Looking Forward to 2011

No list would be complete without utterly over-confident predictions of the future. It's obvious that the pressures/themes above will continue to get stronger in the coming year. In particular, and in addition...

  • Supply chain pressure will evolve and get more sophisticated (such as retailers who said in August they would not buy fuel from Canadian oil sands). This shift will be partly driven by...
  • A data explosion around green is brewing. Companies will know more than ever about their impacts up and down the value chain.
  • Water will become a very big topic for business (it began this year, but there will be some great stories in my 2011 wrap up a year from now). My first couple of blogs of the New Year will look at water strategy.
  • Biomimicry, the design principle that suggests looking to nature for great ideas, will gain currency
  • Energy innovation will be the order of the day (e.g., the Paris metro station that captures body heat to warm a nearby building)
  • But here's my final, shocking prediction: climate change policy won't matter (much). Even though the failure of the bill was my #1 above, #2 through 10 tells me that for business, the logic of green does not depend on believing in climate change, or in having a law in place. The natural resource, supply chain, innovation, and profit drivers are just too strong.

    Business will be getting a lot greener in every sense of the word, no matter what political battles are waging. We're going to stop debating climate in the business community and just focus on the larger case for prosperity, for companies and countries alike.

    I'm sure I missed many, many great stories. Please share your favorites here, and have a merry green new year!

    (This post first appeared at Harvard Business Online.)

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April 21, 2011

How Can We Build a Culture of Disruptive, Heretical Innovation?

The forces driving the business world toward sustainability are vast, powerful, systematic…and growing. In recent months, we’ve witnessed massive climate disruptions everywhere from Russia and Pakistan to Brazil and Nashville. Resource constraints are a reality, with serious discussions about peak oil, peak coal, peak coffee, and, well, peak everything. Technology-driven transparency is creating a mad rush to capture product and company sustainability data, and companies continue to push new demands aggressively up their supply chains.

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And the mega-force to beat all – the relentless rise of population and living standards in the developing world – continues unabated. So how will we provide a good quality of life to what will be 9 billion people on a resource-constrained planet?

In short, we need some very large changes to “business as usual,” requiring radically new ways of thinking.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve written frequently (in my last book Green Recovery in particular) about the need for “heretical” innovation – that is, asking very hard questions that challenge the very nature of a business or product. I wrote recently about two companies, Waste Management and Xerox, in the middle of deep transitions. From hauling waste and getting paid by the ton, to managing recycling streams and helping customers achieve zero waste goals. Or from selling as many printers as possible to helping customers reduce the number of devices and do less printing over all. Asking customers to use less of their core products – that’s heretical.

Some will point out that this is similar to the concept of “servicizing”, and of course it is. But I believe there’s a deeper heresy at work than just turning a product into a service. After all, Xerox could offer outsourced printing services and try to print as many pages as possible. It’s the combination of service and talking openly to customers about using less in total that makes it novel.

So I have a paradoxical task in mind: figuring out how to systematically and logically ask illogical, wacky, heretical, leapfrog questions. I’m looking for ideas from the assembled knowledge and experience of the sustainability leaders reading this.

My three main questions are:
1) How do we cultivate a culture of heretical innovation (how do we make it ok to ask wacky questions)?
2) How do we identify and support the true innovators, intrapreneurs, and heretics in even the largest organizations?
3) Is sustainability-driven innovation fundamentally different than ‘regular’ disruptive innovation, and how?

On the first question at least, I have a few broad ideas. Here’s a starting list for budding corporate heretics:

Start with value-chain data to identify big risks and opportunities. With solid data, managers can focus limited resources on tackling the real footprint and drive toward new ideas and questions. For example, Pepsi’s Tropicana brand is experimenting with low-carbon fertilizer after discovering that growing oranges was the biggest part of its GHG footprint. And more famously, P&G launched Tide Coldwater to address the largest (by far) portion of detergent lifecyle emissions, washing clothes in hot water.

Use open innovation. The hottest concept in innovation today is inviting people in to solve your problems. P&G has opened up its innovation pipeline to anyone with a good product idea. A few companies are sharing some of their best ideas (and patents) with the world – as Nike and others do with GreenXChange – and then hoping for reciprocal karma.

Try “co-creation” (the second hottest concept in innovation and a subset of open innovation perhaps). IBM has had great success in recent years with “Innovation Jams” that allow all employees and customers to throw ideas into the mix. Cross-fertilizing people from radically different disciplines, and from outside the organization as well, can lead to some novel questions.

Show personal leadership (walk the talk). Have senior execs take part in jams and brainstorms. Let them publicly generate wacky ideas and support pilot projects to explore them.

Systematize innovation. 3M and Google famously set aside a portion of everyone’s time for whatever strikes their fancy. More companies should emulate this practice, but also make a point of focusing specifically on sustainability pressures.

Award the wackiest ideas, even the ones that don’t pan out. Some public pats on the back and recognition for employees who show bravery and try new things can go a long way.

Create competition. Sharing data on sustainability performance internally can drive real competition and learning across divisions or products. Or utilize public prizes, like the famous X Prize or the $1 million Netflix Prize.

All of these paths can help us regularly ask the toughest, most interesting questions. Only then can we match the scale of innovation to the scale of the sustainability challenge.

These are just a few ideas (after all, this is a blog, not a book). There are many more. So please send me your thoughts on how to drive breakthrough innovation and how to find the heretics in the organization. Finally, any examples of heretical questions within your organizations are very welcome. (andrew@eco-strategies.com).

(This post first appeared on Corporate Eco-Forum's site.)

(Sign up for Andrew Winston's blog, via RSS feed, or by email. Follow Andrew on Twitter @GreenAdvantage)

December 22, 2011

Top 10 Green Business Stories of 2011

Yes, it's December again somehow: time to look back on what we've learned and oversimplify into a handy list. Here's my take on the 10 big stories in sustainability and green business this year:

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1. The usual sustainability drivers got stronger
Ok, this one is cheating a bit, but on a fundamental level, the top themes in green business haven't actually changed too much (see the 2010 list). So, rather than take up valuable list real estate with these perennial favorites and big-picture drivers, I'll quickly list them in one big bucket of mega-trends:

  • The rise of the consumer around the world, related to...
  • China, China, and China. From relentless demand for resources to bamboo-like 9% growth to vicious competition for the technologies and industries of the future, China will be the big story for a long time.
  • The greening of the supply chain. Big organizations keep asking more of their suppliers.
  • Increased demand for transparency and its close partners, (a) the quest to define and develop useful sustainability metrics and (b) the growing sustainability data explosion.
  • The military continues to lead the way on energy and climate.
  • The ongoing failure of policy at a global level (with the important exceptions of some successes/workarounds such as new mileage targets for cars and trucks and a carbon tax in Australia).

These drivers underpin a number of stories from 2011, but a few new themes came out as well. Here's the rest of my top 10 stories, with callouts for companies and examples that typify the trend.

2. Malthus strikes back: Coca-Cola takes an $800 million hit on commodity costs
Coca-Cola was not alone in facing increasing costs in 2011; one of my clients, Kimberly-Clark, took an earnings hit from record pulp prices. These companies are notable victims of a new reality: resources are constrained and input prices are fundamentally rising.

For over 200 years, from Thomas Malthus to the Limits to Growth gang, many people have made the case that it won't be long before we'll run out of food, energy, materials, and on and on. It's an idea that has enthralled many, but has seemed to be wrong. But this year, something felt different as we hit 7 billion hungry, striving humans on the planet. While "running out" isn't really the right phrase, it's clear that delivering many commodities to market is getting harder and more expensive (we don't dig for oil a mile under the ocean for the heck of it). And the dangerous mix of supply crunch and rising demand is only increasing, across nearly all commodities.

In January, China "seized" its rare earth metals (meaning it wouldn't export them anymore). In June, the New York Times declared a warming world hostile to food production. The best analysis of the resource scarcity mega-trend came from asset manager Jeremy Grantham. His analysis of commodity availability on a finite planet is compelling, thorough, and absolutely fascinating. Here's the gist: after 100+ years of fundamentally declining resource prices, the data show a rising trend for nearly every input into our society. Business as usual is no more.

3. Climate Change Arrives: Texas weather triumphs over (some) ignorance
Climate change is here. The list of "once-in-a-century" storms, floods, and droughts this year is too long to list. I know, I know — no single storm or season "proves" climate change. Was a year like 2011 possible in a world without climate change? Of course. But please. Was a year like 2011 likely? Not at all. In the words of climate scientist Jim Hansen, we've loaded the dice in favor of extreme weather events.

From Thailand to Pakistan to Texas, some areas are deluged with water, while others have absolutely none. Please look at the numbers for how dry and hot Texas was this summer (I'll wait). The data speaks for itself: Texas' heat was literally off the charts this year. What was once temporary drought is looking more like permanent change. For another angle on a changing "normal," read Jeff Goodell's piece in Rolling Stone on "Climate Change and the End of Australia." Finally, if the immediacy of the "look out the window" method of gauging climate change didn't work for some, at least one major climate skeptic changed his tune based on longer-term data. Richard Muller ran the models himself and discovered that, surprise, the thousands of scientists before him had gotten it right. It's probably wishful thinking, but I believe the climate debate is actually over (and a solid majority of Americans agree).

4. High-profile "failures" shake up clean tech: Solyndra has its day in the, um, sun
What can one say about the failure of solar company Solyndra? It certainly has become a media darling for clean tech skeptics. Soon after this quasi-fiasco, a few other stories seemed to indicate that corporate America was backing off of green tech. Google stopped its high-profile pursuit of cheaper-than-fossil-fuel renewables, and California utility PG&E quietly pulled the plug on its carbon offset program. In my view, none of this is all that distressing. So one technology and company failed miserably (and perhaps the government made a bad investment choice). And some initiatives didn't work out as planned. So what. Whether it's government money, venture capital, or corporate initiatives, you gotta place lots of bets to get some winners. These were all experiments, and you always learn from what doesn't work. But the real reason I'm not too worried is that...

5. ...clean tech is rising fast: Renewable investment tops fossil fuels for first time
Markets have a remarkable way of sorting the wheat from the chaff. While the overall carbon emissions news is not good, the renewable energy market is growing very fast. The sector is larger than most people realize, with clean tech investment hovering around $200 billion globally. Total investment in new power generation is a good indication of where we're headed, and for the first time renewables beat fossil fuels globally. Right now, the U.S. and China are entering a trade battle over solar subsidies, which tells me it's a real market now. They wouldn't be arguing if the prize were not very large.

5b. Nuclear on the outs

Following the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, the once-resurgent nuclear industry is flatlining: generation actually fell globally in 2011, with Germany alone shutting down 8 gigawatts' worth. In September, Siemens, one of the world's largest nuclear power plant suppliers, exited the business. CEO Peter Loscher declared Germany's plans to move aggressively toward renewables "the project of the century."

6. Water rising — both literally and as a serious issue for business: Honda's supply chain gets slammed, Levi's gets creative
A list of floods that devastated lives, homes, and countries this year would be tragically long. So it's no wonder that business started to wake up to the serious danger that storms and shortages present to their operations, both from direct damage to property and from massive production interruptions (i.e., "business continuity"). Think back to the January floods in Australia which covered an area larger than France and Germany combined. The extreme weather seriously disrupted coal production, one of the most important economic engines in the country. At the microeconomic level, consider what Thailand's floods have done to the market for disk drives, or to supply chains for Honda and Toyota (which are dealing with a double flood hit from the tsunami as well).

On the use side of the water issue, companies with products that depend on water in production (beverages) or in use (shampoo, apparel) are also seeing the writing on the wall and getting creative. Levi's announced a low-water jeans production method, Unilever started asking customers to shorten showers, and beverage companies are working with farmers and NGOs to drive water use down throughout the value chain (see my last blog, co-written with Andy Wales from SABMiller). In 2011, the phrase "water footprint" became a lot more common.

7. Value chain and transparency partnerships growing: The apparel industry bands together
One of my favorite new partnerships is the new Sustainable Apparel Coalition, an impressive mix of powerful retailers, apparel manufacturers, and NGOs. The group is leveraging extensive data from Nike and the Outdoor Industry Association on supplier sustainability performance (energy, water, toxicity, etc.) for "every manufacturer, component, and process in apparel production." The goal: to reduce negative environmental and social impacts of the $1.4 trillion market for clothes and shoes.

The larger trend here is the continued growth of "open" — open data and open innovation, including new value-chain business partnerships and cattle-call contests inviting in any and all ideas. The movement has been building for years, from P&G opening up its product development pipeline early in the 2000s to the launch of the GreenXchange for sharing green patents early in 2010. But the trend accelerated this year, with GE's expanded Ecomagination Challenge and other coalitions and open competitions.

8. Valuing and internalizing the externalities: Puma Calculates its Environmental P&L
A few very cutting edge companies are starting to ask some deeper questions about the value they create and destroy in the world. Puma, in a surprise leap to the front of the sustainability leadership pack, commissioned TruCost and PwC (full disclosure: I have a partnership with PwC) to assess the value of its total environmental impacts from operations and supply chain, including carbon pollution, water use, land use, and waste generated. The total: 145 million euros. In a similar vein, Dow Chemical launched a 5-year, $10 million partnership with The Nature Conservancy to "value nature" (so called "ecosystem services") as an input into their businesses. It's unclear what companies can do with these numbers since externalities are by their nature, well, external to the regular P&L. But it's the beginning of something very important — companies are starting to understand the real value and costs of their businesses, to themselves and to society. Watch this space.

9. The people speak: Keystone and OWS
Speaking of getting companies and governments to think longer term about value and costs to society: against all odds and expectation, the protests against the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada — led most prominently by uber-environmentalist Bill McKibben — were successful (for now). And what can one say about Occupy Wall Street? The movement is, in part, about this larger question of value and values. Do we value the right things (equity, fairness, justice) or just promote growth and profit above all? Currently, our businesses are driven entirely by quarterly profits. Pursuing the short-term payback can cause a firm to deviate wildly from actual, long-term, sustainable profitability. This disconnect was bound to stir some passions eventually. Whatever your politics, ignoring or dismissing this movement is a big mistake. The concerns underpinning the anger out there stem from concern about what's good for the long-term, and what's truly sustainable. None of these questions are going away.

10. A path to sustainable consumption begins to emerge: Patagonia asks us to buy only what we need
Perhaps the most heartening business story of the year came from perennial thought (and action) leader, Patagonia. Its Common Threads campaign/business model questions consumption at its core. The company announced that it would take back its clothing and refurbish, resell, reuse, re-whatever. The website proposes a grand bargain - we make clothes that last, and you don't buy what you don't need. A holiday ad got more specific and demanded we "Don't buy this jacket." Patagonia is testing new ground and it's not a gimmick — it's a sign of the future.

Looking Forward to 2012 and beyond: New business models coming
Patagonia has always been at the leading edge; it was one of first companies to buy organic cotton or to turn recycled plastic into fleece. Now it's showing the way to new business models. I've written about this kind of heresy before, but the few examples out there are generally B-to-B (Waste Management, Xerox). Patagonia's move is a warning shot over the bow that the consumer-facing consumption question is coming. The near future will hold more questions about how businesses can and should operate in a resource-constrained, hotter, drier (or wetter) world. And companies will increasingly question the wisdom of focusing on quarterly profits. It won't all come to fruition in 2012, but it's on its way.

As usual, I'm sure I'm missing many great stories in my list. I look forward to your suggestions. Happy holidays and Happy New Year!

(This post first appeared at Harvard Business Online.)

(Sign up for Andrew Winston's blog, via RSS feed, or by email. Follow Andrew on Twitter @GreenAdvantage)