Stakeholders: Customers (B2B) Archives

September 15, 2008

Green Business and "Compliance" -- the Government is the Least of Your Worries

For many years, environmental strategy - if you could even call it that - was about complying with environmental regulations. All you had to do was make sure your facilities didn't spew too much pollution into the air or water, or your products didn't contain any banned substances, and you could call yourself a good green corporate citizen.

Then the phrase "beyond compliance" came into vogue to describe environmental actions that weren't required by law. I never really liked this phrase, because it implied that anything above the bare minimum was not only voluntary, it was probably some form of philanthropy.

Today, legal compliance is an incredibly narrow view and is step zero in going green. Most execs certainly see the need to do more than what the government is asking. And many forces are coming to bear on companies, making green a profitable (not optional) path. I'm not just talking about forces such as the shocking rise in energy and commodity prices over the last couple of years. Even the biggest eco-skeptic sees that resource efficiency is good business. No, I'm thinking about a much broader sense of "regulation" which puts compliance in a whole new light.

Companies are facing mandates from a range of stakeholders, with the government often being just a bit player. I'm not saying that government doesn't matter -- in these heady political times, who ends up in the White House will make an enormous different to a range of industries. But other forces are strong and growing no matter who wins in November.

Customers are remaking some markets by setting their own standards. Mega-retailers are in the process of creating their own environmental screens that determine what they'll carry on their shelves. The lead dog here has been Wal-Mart (as usual), which set tough restrictions on heavy metals in toys. The surface coating for any toy that wants space on Wal-Mart's shelves can hold no more than 90 parts per million of lead...a stunning 85% lower than the federal regulatory standard. So if you're a toymaker, only complying with the law won't get you very far.

Other retail giants are phasing out any products with a range of chemicals that some studies indicate are dangerous to human health. Toys "R" Us, Target, and Sears are eliminating, respectively, BPA in baby bottles, phthalates in plastic toys, and PVC plastic (on the phthalates, the government followed industry's lead recently). For these big brands, the logic for setting tight standards is impeccable. When a lead scare runs through the toy business, it doesn't just affect the manufacturer (such as Mattel); the retailer gets hit hard as well.

If companies don't want to research and establish their own standards -- an expensive and tough process -- they can mirror current government programs. Verizon recently set energy performance standards for suppliers of its telecom equipment. Execs describe the program as a commercial product version of Energy Star, the consumer product-focused federal program.

Even better is to go beyond what the government is asking. Take the case of environmental regulations about air pollutants from diesel trucks. The new 2007 federal standard was the strictest yet, but the laws include phase-in, or "grandfather," periods. Manufacturers have some time before every truck needs to meet the new standard - that is unless they want to sell to Home Depot. The retailer has quietly told suppliers and distribution companies that its whole fleet must soon meet the 2007 standard. The company is forcing a faster changeover in mobile infrastructure than the government is asking for.

Pseudo-regulation goes further than clear mandates from business customers. What about more subtle, harder-to-measure "standards" consumers might have, or what current and prospective employees demand? What about banks that set their own standards on carbon output from the investments they make (Bank of America does this)?

If your biggest customers, your end users, your employees, or other influencers set tough new standards - specifically measurable or not - then to get shelf space or mindshare, you have no choice but to acquiesce. Clearly, the definition of "compliance" is getting a lot broader. The government will always play a critical role and its restrictions will only get tighter, but other players and their demands may matter far more to your business.

So if your company proudly says it will do everything it can to comply with the law, it's fair to ask...Whose law?

This post first appeared at Harvard Business Online

November 19, 2008

The Green Wave Marches On: Wal-Mart in China

You might think that the powerful green wave changing business will subside in a recession. True, some investments might wait a bit, but most companies I talk to are pushing ahead with the sustainability agenda. One important example is Wal-Mart, which doesn't seem to be slowing down.

I recently attended the Wal-Mart Sustainability Summit in Beijing. There are times you know you're watching something special. The point of the meeting was to bring Wal-Mart's Chinese suppliers (some 900 of them) together to hear Wal-Mart's sustainability agenda and the specific goals for the company's biggest supply partner. To put the relationship in context, if Wal-Mart were a country, it would be China's sixth or seventh largest trading partner (clearly the scale of both China and Wal-Mart is shocking).

After some opening talks that were fairly typical for these kinds of events, things took a historic turn. Wal-Mart's Vice Chairman, Mike Duke, explained what the event was really about. His "bad cop" talk covered a range of issues, and later CEO Lee Scott elaborated on some of the themes, but the critical discussion laid out what the world's biggest company was going to expect of its suppliers. Here are a few of main the commitments/ statements:

Supplier commitments: All suppliers will sign new agreements indicating compliance with environmental laws, starting with Chinese suppliers to the U.S., UK, and Canada in just 3 months. Over the next 3 years, all suppliers globally will sign.

Audits: Wal-Mart will "strengthen" its surprise and third-party audit program

Supplier goals: The top 200 suppliers will achieve 20% energy efficiency improvement, and most importantly, "By 2012, all suppliers that we buy from directly should source 95% of product from companies that have the highest ratings in audits."

Product goals and quality: Zero defective merchandise returns by 2012. Lee Scott connected quality to sustainability in very funny, specific terms: "Customers want a sock that will not fall down even if washed."

Transparency: Suppliers must reveal the name and location of every factory they use to make a product, as early as November for apparel, then home goods, toys, and others by the end of 2009. As Duke said, "If you sell us tennis shoes, we expect you to know and tell us where it was made and which sub-contractors were involved...If you don't pose these questions, our customers will...in this age of YouTube there is no trust without transparency." (Wal-Mart will have more insight into what's going on at factories than ever before thanks to the work of Ma Jun who runs an NGO that has compiled compliance data on every factory. See his group's stunning water pollution map here.)

Dropping suppliers: Wal-Mart will work with suppliers that fail to comply, but "if after a period of time, the supplier does not improve, we will move our business."

This last commitment is the one that gives all the others teeth and its worth repeating: for suppliers that do not live up to the standard, Wal-Mart will stop buying from them. This profound statement is truly historic. I've never heard a sizable company say this out loud. As Lee Scott said later, the companies that don't improve "will be banned from making products for Wal-Mart." Again, this clarity is unprecedented, but Scott made a business case for sustainability as a key screen for suppliers:

"A company that cheats on age of labor, dumps chemicals in rivers, or does not pay taxes will ultimately cheat on the quality of products...that's the same as cheating on customers and we will not tolerate that at Wal-Mart."

Scott is saying that sustainability ties directly to quality and serves as an indicator of a good or bad producer. This attitude demonstrates just how deep sustainability has gone at Wal-Mart. Execs truly believe that sustainability ties to core performance. Lee Scott said that "over the life of a product, it costs less to make product that passes testing, and over the life of the product it costs less to make one that's socially responsible and builds a loyal employee and customer base."

Clearly all of these commitments will not be easy to meet by any stretch of the imagination. First, Wal-Mart has to change the internal culture -- as one of the suppliers told me, "They sound serious, but with buyers it's still price, price, price." Lee Scott did address the associates directly during his talk and reinforced the message, but until buyers are paid or promoted differently, it's just talk.

Second, China is China. I met one of the keynotes speakers, Liz Economy, head of the Asia program at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The River Runs Black, a book about China's environment. As she pointed out in her speech, Chinese companies use 20% more water and 40% more energy than companies in rest of world, and only 25% of waste water is treated currently (which makes the goal of having 95% in compliance by 2012 all the more aggressive).

I don't know a lot about the country, but the general feeling I got from the suppliers and China-watchers I met there seemed be a cautiously optimistic attitude of "we'll see." Many organizations, including the Chinese government itself, have been surprised at how hard change in the provinces really can be.

Lee Scott did not gloss over the challenges, but painted a picture of the promised land: "A year from now, each of you who chooses to make a commitment will be a more sustainable company and that will make a huge difference for you, Wal-Mart, China, our customers, and, yes, the planet."

The challenges are vast, but if, in a number of years, we see a cleaner manufacturing sector in China, and thus a cleaner country and world, Wal-Mart's Summit will be seen as one of the turning points.

This post first appeared at Harvard Business Online.

July 23, 2009

"A Plastic Bag Is a Pain in the Butt"

[I've been delayed in posting my blogs from other sites, so i'll put up a few in a row, and they all happen to be about Wal-Mart -- lots going on with the giant retailer. This one is from Huffington Post here]

A few weeks ago in Sao Paolo, Brazil, I heard the distinct sound of "taps" being played for the simple plastic shopping bag. Wal-Mart Brazil had invited all its suppliers to come and discuss its sustainability goals -- and sign a public agreement to match them. The pact dealt with everything from saving the Amazon forest, mostly through bans on sourcing beef and soy that come from cleared lands, to reducing phosphates in detergents (see the agreements here). It was an historic meeting that covered a lot of ground (full disclosure: I was hired to speak at the event and provide context on the greening of business globally).

But aside from the much larger and thornier Amazon-related initiatives, one announcement was both fun and indicative of the green pressures coming to bear on companies and particular products. Wal-Mart Brazil is sponsoring a nationwide campaign, in conjunction with the Brazilian government, to drastically reduce plastic bag use. The minister of the environment, Carlos Minc, was on hand to co-announce the project. Wal-Mart's own internal goal is a 50% reduction by 2013 (a larger reduction than the company's global goal, which I've commented was perhaps not strong enough).

The humorous national campaign includes television ads featuring the hip "Junior" (only the coolest have one name), a leader of youth-oriented NGO AfroReggae. The slogan for the campaign, "Saco E um Saco," translates roughly into "A bag is a pain in the butt" -- or at least that's what the simultaneous translators tried to convey...they seemed at a loss on how to handle it. One Portuguese executive told me that it's closer to "A bag sucks" which plays on the double use of "saco." Either way, it's a funny, yet aggressive way to get people to stop using these things.

Brazil is hardly alone in the national effort to eliminate bags. China starting taxing all shopping bags and has cut total usage 66%.

Companies are also trying many methods to get customers on board. Charging for bags is one clear signal to consumers to use fewer. British retailer Marks & Spencer recently announced an 80% drop in use at its stores after adding a small charge (IKEA and others have witnessed 80-90% drops in usage as well after charging a nickel to any customer wanting one).

Wal-Mart Brazil has experimented with refunds instead. If you don't take the bags, you get a discount off your grocery bill (so it's revenue neutral to the company and basically charges those who DO take the bag, without raising anybody's bill).

All companies should take note of this kind of coordinated effort by governments and other companies -- imagine what happens if your product, manufacturing process, or sourcing strategy ends up on the societal bad list. I've talked about the risk to business from these kinds of market shifts on green principles before. While we might have some guesses as to what's next (did your meat come from cleared Amazon? Do you use too much water from dry regions in your production?), it's unfortunately somewhat unpredictable where the questions might come from.

Bags are not the only products facing this kind of challenge -- it's happening to bottled water as well. But nothing compares to the coordinated global attack on plastic bags. Once your product is declared a pain in the butt, where do you go from there?

July 28, 2009

Wal-Mart Asks, Where's the Beef (From)?

[Post #2 of 3 on Wal-Mart's activity in the last couple of months. This appeared at Harvard Business Online and then on BusinessWeek online]

In the last month, what event had the greatest potential for changing business as usual forever? If you said the passage of the climate change bill in the U.S. House of Representatives, it would be hard to argue with you. But I'm going to make the case for another event as the most influential (or at least a very close second): the Wal-Mart Sustainability Summit held in Sao Paolo, Brazil.

Following the model of the historic meeting Wal-Mart held for its Chinese suppliers last year, the President of Wal-Mart Brazil, Héctor Núñez, decided to hold a similar event for his suppliers. (Full disclosure: I was hired to give a keynote about the greening of business for larger context setting, but I have no consulting relationship with Wal-Mart).

Speakers at the event included the Brazilian Minister of the Environment and the director of Greenpeace Brazil, an organization that just a few weeks ago produced a damning report titled "Slaughtering the Amazon" that points the finger at the cattle industry as the primary cause of deforestation (growing soy is another leading cause). I had an interesting talk with Hector about his conversations with the aggressive NGO. He commented that "when you talk to Greenpeace, it's hard to argue with what they're saying."

But, I thought, arguing with the environmentalist perspective is exactly what business leaders normally do. But the world is changing fast. In fact, Hector's speech at the summit, with its soaring rhetoric about global environmental damage, made him sound more like a Greenpeace activist than a hard-nosed manager.

At the Summit, Wal-Mart announced significant goals and mandates to tackle some of the thorniest environmental and social problems in the world. Wal-Mart Brazil will now, in essence, ensure that its supply chain uses...

— No companies that employ slave labor; "forced" labor (read, slavery) is a rampant problem in developing countries.

— No soybeans sourced from illegally deforested areas; 20% of the world's carbon emissions (and 70% of Brazil's emissions) come from burning down trees.

No beef sourced from any newly cleared Amazonian land; globally, deforestation emits more carbon than all vehicles. Brazil and Indonesia are at the heart of this enormous challenge.

[For the rest of this column, please see BusinessWeek]

January 22, 2010

Top 10 Green Business Stories of 2009

Happy New Year all (ok, I'm a bit delayed, but I entered the new year and promptly got really sick -- lost over a week in there). So let's start fresh now!

Anyway, I took a bit of time at the end of 2009 and early 2010, with a couple weeks' perspective, to think about the stories that really grabbed me in 2009. The top 10 is below, but see my brief write-ups and logic on each at my e-letter site here.

1) Copenhagen fails or does it?
2) The debate over climate science rages on (in the U.S. at least)
3) The EPA steps in
4) Wal-Mart keeps the pressure up (and saves the rainforest?)
5) Domino's employees deliver a new kind of openness.
6) IBM starts building a "smarter planet"
7) GM goes bankrupt
8) Some of our biggest capitalists get serious about carbon
9) China emerges as a green tech leader and the world's biggest emitter
10) The bottom of the pyramid becomes a source of innovation

And the bonus, theater of the absurd, wacky story...
10 1/2) Forbes names Exxon green company of the year

May 6, 2010

Wal-Mart: The Largest (Sustainable) Company Ever

The 2010 Fortune 500 list just came out and I'm completely blown away by Wal-Mart's size. We all know that the retail giant is the largest company in the world. But it's by how much that gets me.

Wal-Mart clocked in at $408 billion in revenues in 2009. The second-ranked Exxon Mobil, brought in $285 billion. If the difference between the two --$124 billion -- were a company, it would be ranked 7th on the list. Let me say that again: Wal-Mart is bigger than the next largest company by the equivalent of an AT&T.

Let's exclude the oil companies from the list for the moment, since their revenues depend heavily on the price of oil and swing wildly -- Exxon's revenues were over $400 billion last year. Looking at companies that make anything but oil, Wal-Mart is basically three to four times the size of the largest ones, including Ford, HP, Citigroup, GM, IBM, and so on.

All of this scale matters a great deal to the green movement. Wal-Mart's pursuit of sustainability in its operations, and in particular in its supply chain, is changing the way products are made globally. The company's five-year shift in strategy and in its approach to the external world (which I consider the largest strategic shift that we've ever seen) has spread beyond Wal-Mart's own walls and is influencing how the rest of us do business.

The company has improved fleet fuel efficiency 30%, and started experimenting with new fuel and engine technologies for its fleet, creating a very large impetus for truck manufacturers to build new models. Its push to adopt lighting technologies and energy management systems is helping to drive scale into new technologies that everyone can use.

But it's the supply chain pressure that really matters. I've covered this topic many times (see my pieces on Wal-Mart's trips to China and Brazil (here and here) to put pressure on suppliers). From my conversations with people in the retail space recently, including a top consumer products exec this week, it seems that nearly every other retailer is behind on this front. Sure, many are working on their own energy and waste projects, and doing well at it.

But only Wal-Mart has built tools of scale like the Sustainable Value Networks (bringing together partners in the value chain to work on big sustainability issues) and the packaging scorecard it made everyone fill it out, or got so involved in the sourcing choices of its suppliers.

Many people will, perhaps rightfully, still find fault with Wal-Mart on many social issues, such as health care or pay (and this week they even got fined on the environmental front for not handling hazardous waste well in California). But still, it would be very hard to find another company doing more. The race is on, even during and coming out of the recession, and Wal-Mart is winning. But it doesn't matter, as their scale will force everyone else to speed up as well.

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July 29, 2010

IBM's Green Supply Chain

While the "greening of the supply chain" has been in the works for decades, the movement has really taken off in 2010. In the last few months, a number of corporate giants have announced new initiatives that pressure suppliers to do much more to measure and manage their environmental impacts. The big guns asking the questions include Pepsi, P&G (more in a future post), and IBM.

For years, most supply chain programs have included a similar, somewhat narrow range of demands: stay on the right side of the law, keep operations within regulatory levels of air and water pollution, avoid child labor, and so on. Wal-Mart has already pushed that envelope to dive much deeper into supplier practices (packaging, fossil fuel use, and even how some things are sourced). These new announcements also expand the demands in different ways. In recent years, most of the high-profile supply chain initiatives like Wal-Mart's have taken hold in the consumer products and retail arenas, and Pepsi and P&G are no exception.

But IBM brings a new value chain — electronics and IT — to the discussion and thus broadens the movement. Other electronics companies are also pressuring suppliers; the biggest players in the industry launched the Electronics Industry Code of Conduct (EICC) for suppliers in 2004, and members now include Apple, Cisco, Dell, Hitachi, HP, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Sony, Xerox, and many more.

But IBM is helping expand the definition of a green IT supplier by upping the demands. To get a sense of what IBM is asking of its 28,000 first tier suppliers, I spoke with Wayne Balta, IBM's VP of corporate environmental affairs and product safety.

Balta described IBM's work as "just the latest step in a long-standing continuum." In 2004, the company launched its own IBM Supplier Conduct Principles, which helped define the EICC standards. Even earlier, in 1998, IBM asked suppliers to consider adopting the international green operating standards, ISO 14000. But the new announcement makes this "request" more of a mandate, and that's at the core of the new demands.

In short, IBM is asking for four things and telling suppliers they must:

1. Define and deploy an environmental management systems (EMS).

2. Measure existing environmental impacts and establish goals to improve performance.

3. Publicly disclose their metrics and results.

4. "Cascade" these requirements to any suppliers that are material to IBM's products.

The mandate for deploying an EMS helps suppliers build their own capacity to manage environmental issues. But most of the biggest suppliers already have some EMS in place, and that means they will have some metrics already. So I find the third and fourth elements even more important. These demands differentiate IBM's program from most of what's come before. They give heft to the requirements and expand their influence.

The third element makes companies publicly disclose their data — they don't just need to report their information to IBM; they need to make it clear for all to see. Transparency is a very powerful tool, and the new openness will benefit every customer of these suppliers. It will encourage improved performance like no other incentive (good, open data, drives competition and results in many ways - see my post Five Ways to Use Green Data to Make Money).

The fourth component, "cascading," means that IBM's requirements will ripple up the supply chain. Businesses will move a step closer to the holy grail of environmental measurement — knowing the footprint of every product without conducting a costly and time-consuming lifecycle analysis. In essence, if every link in the value chain tracks its footprint closely, and uses the tools of cost accounting to distribute these impact measurements across components, it becomes much easier for companies to estimate the value-chain impacts of their products.

IBM didn't undertake this initiative lightly. Balta explains that "we thought carefully about how we would feel about having these requirements ourselves from our customers." In essence, they're not asking anyone to do anything they have not already done themselves.

IBM execs know that the green path is a profitable one, so they're pushing suppliers to operate leaner, better, and smarter. As Balta says, "Our goal is not to punish people, but to have them succeed."

(This post first appeared at Harvard Business Online.)

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February 14, 2011

Ask Customers to Use Less of Your Product: The Big Heresy

I recently attended an Executive Sustainability Summit hosted by Xerox, Waste Management (WM), and Arizona State University. The short conference brought together public and private sector managers working on environmental and social issues. Xerox asked me to attend and give my thoughts on what I heard and saw*.

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What really struck me is that both Xerox and Waste Management are doing something mostly unheard of: they're working with customers to help them use less of their traditional product or service. The plenary panel during the Summit included execs from both companies proudly talking about these fast-growing, service-oriented parts of their businesses. And what's really important is that these are not just niche product lines, but fundamental shifts in what these companies do.

In some sense, this shift is not optional, as both companies are in the throes of fundamental transformations of their industries. Xerox has been navigating the shift to digital documents for years, and WM is facing an existential threat. As CEO Dave Steiner put it, "When your company is called Waste Management, and your customers all talk about 'zero waste,' you better change your business model."

So both corporate giants are handling the industry transitions by embracing sustainability to the core. Xerox's president, North America , Russell Peacock, speaking for the company at the event last week said, "Sustainability...is what is driving the transformation of Xerox to a services-led business."

Xerox advises companies on how to save money on document handling, and holds a sizable 48 percent market share in the broadly defined, and surprisingly large, $7.78 billion "managed print services" (MPS) industry (according to research firm IDC). Part of this new strategy is an outsourcing play — they'll take over all your print needs for you — to grab share. This is clearly not a niche business-this is a firm that existed on selling devices, paper, and machine servicing, so the more it's used the better.

But at the core, what Xerox is offering is less total printing. That's a big shift in business as usual.

Xerox has worked with multinationals such as Dow (case study here) to drastically reduce the number of printers sitting in individual offices by thousands, shifting instead to many fewer centrally-located multifunction devices. But at the Summit, Xerox execs gave an example from their corporate backyard. The company helped the city of Rochester, NY slash the number of printing devices from 459 to just 168, saving a very budget-constrained local government millions of dollars over the next five years.

These printing retrofits save clients up to 30 percent of their document-related costs. And the sustainability story is significant. In addition to using less energy to run machines, slashing paper use also saves large amounts of energy and water upstream in the paper production process.

For Waste Management's part, the story their execs told was similar but goes beyond cost savings and has a measurable financial upside. When WM helps customers reduce waste to landfills — which is how WM has made all its money until recently — it diverts those waste streams to recycling facilities which segregate materials to resell or to waste-to-energy (WTE) plants.

Recycling streams can generate income for customers. So instead of paying to dump garbage, customers may get paid for valuable material, which adds up (GM, for example, has made $2.5 billion on recycling over the last five years). Meanwhile, the other stream of waste will create a potentially significant source of clean energy (adding to the sustainability win). In its WTE plants, WM now produces enough energy to power 1 million homes, more than all the solar power in the United States. From waste hauler to energy company — that's a transition for sure.

These two companies are not the only ones out there going down the "use less" path. It's increasingly common in the B2B space. Another client of mine, Kimberly Clark Corporation, has similar conversations with its customers for its K-C Professional division, which supplies paper and cleaning products to public and private sector organizations. The customers appreciate supply partners that help them save money.

Let's be clear: Xerox, Waste Management, Kimberly Clark, and others are purposely cannibalizing their own businesses. The wisdom of such a strategy has been discussed in business circles for years, most notably in the work of Harvard's Clayton Christensen (The Innovator's Dilemma). My tweak to Christensen's famous term "disruptive innovation" is to describe sustainability-driven creativity as even more heretical; it's about questioning the entire consumption model — it's heretical innovation.

It can be painful for companies to threaten their own cash cows, but what's the other option? I interviewed Xerox's CEO Ursula Burns for my last book, Green Recovery, and asked her about this strategy. Talking about Xerox's service business strategy and its "solid ink" technology, both of which displace existing printers, she said, "Will these new products cannibalize our machines? Maybe, but someone else doing it is much worse."

So the choice is not between asking your customers to use less of your product and ignoring the trend...it's between you doing it or your competitor. That's the risk reduction logic. But a related logic relies on improved customer service and deeper customer relationships. As Waste Management's Steiner said last week, "We're cannibalizing our own business to give back more to our customers."

Xerox's VP of Environment Patty Calkins probably put it best during the Sustainability Summit: "Who would think that Xerox would help you reduce printing or that Waste Management would move toward zero waste?"

Who indeed.

(*Both Waste Management and Xerox have been clients of Winston Eco-Strategies, LLC. I attended this meeting at Xerox's request. This post first appeared at Harvard Business Online.)

July 6, 2011

A Swedish Burger Chain Says "Minimize Me"

Last week I wrote about how eating less meat was the best way to reduce your food's carbon footprint. But what do you do if you want to be a responsible corporate citizen and you sell fast food? Well, I think your company would look a lot like Max Burgers, based in Sweden.

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I recently spoke to Richard Bergfors, the CEO (and son of the founders) of this unusual 44-year-old "fast" food chain. With 3000 employees and about $200 million in revenue, Max Burgers is a great example of how a midsize company can carve out a profitable niche through a focus on sustainability — even in an unexpected sector.

In 2000, the company set a new strategy focused on the word "fresh." The leaders looked closely at every ingredient and reduced fat, salt, and sugar, and eliminated genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and trans fats. The menu got healthier, with multiple side options besides fries, 10 drinks with no added sugar, and a selection of darker, healthier breads. The company now sources 100% of its beef and chicken — and 90% of all its product — locally.

To explore its broader climate impact, the firm started working with Swedish thought leaders Natural Step, which, not surprisingly, identified beef as the biggest problem for the company (80 to 85 percent of the footprint). Bergfors acknowledges that industry-wide climate-friendly beef is still a long way off, so Max Burgers plants trees in Africa to offset its carbon footprint. New stores also use solar panels for 15 to 20 percent of electric needs.

But perhaps the most surprising thing this company does is try to influence its customers to buy less meat. Quick reminder: the chain is called Max Burgers. This counterintuitive strategy is the kind of heresy I love — asking customers to use less of your core product. Max Burgers accomplishes this by adding more non-meat items to the menu, prominently displaying climate footprint data in store (there's transparency for you), and suggesting customers buy chicken, fish, or veggie sandwiches periodically (a là Meatless Mondays).

In 2004, a golden marketing opportunity came along with the launch of the documentary Supersize Me, which followed director Morgan Spurlock as he ate only McDonald's food for 30 days. Max Burgers decided to launch a tongue-in-cheek "Minimize Me" campaign. A customer, much like Subway's famous Jared, ate only Max Burgers for 90 days and lost 77 pounds. Two years later, the company re-ran the promotion with multiple people competing on the Max-only diet.

The result of all these efforts is a more sustainable burger chain that's telling everyone to eat less meat, and doing so profitably. The mix of non-beef products is 30% higher than it used to be. But the profit margins are very high.

Bergfors reports that his stores are averaging 11 to 15 percent profit margins versus 2 to 5 percent at the big name competitors. He says Max Burgers is the most profitable, fastest growing chain in Sweden, expanding at 20% per year (and 5% same store sales growth) in a flat market. Granted, higher-end niche brands generally do have higher margins, but this is not an overly small company, and it doesn't seem to be sacrificing anything with its "minimize me" strategy — quite the contrary.

Of course a family run company always has more leeway to act on values (see Patagonia, the prime example). As Bergfors told me, "we've always done things a bit differently — the goal is greater than to just maximize profit." But it's still a business, and in the next breath he said, "we're profit driven and like to make a profit like everyone else...but we don't put profit first...we don't have to maximize profit and we can care for people and the planet we're living on."

But given Max Burgers' profit levels, it seems that maximizing all value, not just profits, can be darn good business.

(This post first appeared at Harvard Business Online.)

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October 10, 2011

What Sustainability Should Learn from Steve Jobs

The passing of Steve Jobs was in no way surprising – we knew it had to be serious for him to leave the company he loved. But it’s still a shock that we’re robbed of his brain and all the amazing things that he would have invented.

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I had always hoped that this once-in-a-generation genius would turn his prodigious mental powers to solving the world’s largest challenges. Imagine a Jobs-designed, must-have iCar that people would want as badly as an iPad…Or an iHome that uses drastically less energy with its iFridge and iWasher…Or how about an iCity or iTrain to tackle urban design and transportation challenges?

We’ll never get those products from Jobs, so other innovators will have to fill the void. But there is one incredibly important lesson that sustainability-minded leaders can learn from Jobs’ legacy: you should lead your customers and show them a better way.

Steve Jobs did not ask people if they could use a tablet computer. In fact, in a long list of amazing quotes from the man, one of the most powerful is this: "It's really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them."

Before the iPad came out, plenty of pundits asked why anyone would really need a tablet. After all, laptops were fairly small already and we had connectivity and games on our phones. Why add this midsize device to our lives? Steve Jobs made us want to.

In my experience, most large companies today are “fast followers” – a strategy that has seemingly lower risk for a public company. But just look at the playing field littered with tablet computer also-rans to see how expensive second-place can be. And yet it still seems like the preferred (or default) approach for most companies.

This fiscal and strategic conservatism breeds a culture where execs prefer to wait and talk to customers before doing anything drastic. Of course customer (and other stakeholder) perspectives are critical. But as with tablet computers, when it comes to sustainability, often the customers don’t really know what they need.

Companies often gather data on what their business customers think a sustainable product should be, and the survey might show that including recycled material is important, even if that’s a tiny part of the real footprint story. Nobody knows the value chain of your product and service as well as you do (or if someone else does, get them in the room pronto). So figure out where the impacts really lie and what you can do to reduce your customer’s footprint in ways they hadn’t considered. This might require asking heretical questions about whether the product should even exist in its current form or should be converted into more of a service.

Do most people think they need a hybrid car, or would they even imagine that they’d share a car using a service like ZipCar? Probably not, but if the experience can be made fun and profitable enough, perhaps they will. The Toyota Prius has sold well, in part, because it did some exciting new things (ran quiet on no gas at times) in a familiar midsize car framework, much like the iPad looked like a big iPhone but could do so much more.

I wish I could come up with more examples of companies truly leading with sustainable products. It’s a sparse field for now, but that will change. The next generation’s Steve Jobs will most likely focus on sustainability since that’s where the largest challenges and business opportunities lie. Consider the case of William Kamkwamba, a boy from rural Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world. At 14, this self-taught “Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” built a working wind turbine from scraps. He’s now at Dartmouth College.

The world contains some true innovators. Will our big companies find these leaders and harness them…or be brought down by them? I know which one I’d pick if I were normally a “fast follower.”

Here’s hoping we find the next Steve Jobs quickly, someone who can bring us green things we never knew we wanted so badly. Rest in peace, Steve.

September 6, 2012

Your Competitive Position Is Always Eroding

Note: I've been out on a leave of absence -- thanks to those who wondered why my blog and twitter feed had gone quiet. I'm back and have some new blogs coming in the next week...but I discovered that I never posted this one from HBR from the spring...

Whenever I share stories about "green" business strategy, someone inevitably asks me whether pursuing sustainability is against a company's best interests. The question is understandable, but unfortunately it's based on deep misconceptions about how businesses need to operate in a world of constant change.

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Here's a concrete example: I often talk about how Xerox (along with all its printer-making peers) ishelping customers print less. As part of the fast-growing "managed print services" sector, the company shows organizations how to reduce the number of printers they use. The shift helps customers reduce their environmental impacts and costs by cutting back on paper, energy, and waste.

To me it's a clear story of serving customers better, but recently an executive at one company I was working with asked me, "Doesn't pursuing those green goals reduce Xerox's profits and eliminate jobs?"

There are a couple core answers to this question: First, as Xerox's CEO Ursula Burns replied when I asked her basically the same question, "Maybe, but someone else doing it is much worse." In short, if your company doesn't implement green, customer-friendly solutions, someone else will, and you'll be cannibalized from the outside rather than proactively innovating from within. But a second reason has become increasingly clear to me lately, and it is fundamentally important to the way that we understand sustainability in a business context.

I think many of us harbor a dangerous misconception (perhaps even a cognitive bias?) about the nature of "business as usual" — namely, that there is such a thing. It's taken as a given that when we're considering any change — in business or in our personal lives — that we compare it against a world where things stay as they are.

But the reality is that any company's competitive position is always eroding: the status quo is on a downward trend. As the great guru on innovation Clayton Christensen has said, we base our thinking on "an assumption that the status quo in the business will maintain itself into the future. You're comparing the upside generated by this innovation with the present state of affairs. But the present status quo...is on a declining trajectory of performance which will accelerate over time."

As Christensen's warning implies, this misconception is dangerous in strategic contexts because it makes us miscalculate the risks and rewards of preparing for different futures. But we have to consider — where will our customers be in five, fifteen, thirty years? How will our competition evolve to meet those new needs? How will systematic pressures like rising commodity and energy prices, or water and resource scarcity, affect our business and our customers? These are the kinds of questions we need to ask and plan for.

Consider the printing business again. Customer expectations are changing fast, along with competitive actions to meet them. Even without sustainability pressures, change would be the norm. Xerox and its brethren are always competing to offer the highest print quality in dots-per-inch or fastest printer speed. But the sustainability lens offers a deeper understanding of market forces. No printer company — whatever the dpi of their printers' output — would stand a chance against those who go beyond normal product innovation to the whole business model. The competitors that help customers reduce their footprint and cost will win. Seeing the business through a sustainability lens provides an increasingly critical way of understanding those ever-evolving market needs and future business models.

So, to circle back to answering the main question, in a competitive world of scarce, more expensive resources and rising customer demands, green goals are not at odds with a company's "best interest" — they're one in the same.

The companies that don't pursue deep, sustainability-driven innovation that challenges business models will become irrelevant. "Change or die" has always rung true, but now big-picture sustainability forces are creating conditions for much deeper, much faster changes to the status quo.

In the end, it's better to create the new, sustainable norm than to wait for it to crush you.

(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)

December 22, 2012

Top 10 Sustainable Business Stories of 2012

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It's time once again to try and summarize the last 12 months in a handy list. But before I dive in, some quick thoughts.

It was an odd year for green business, and it began with some mixed signals about how far companies were coming on sustainability. A GreenBiz report indicated that progress had slowed or even regressed, but MIT and BCG also declared that sustainability had reached a "tipping point" with more companies putting sustainability "on the management agenda."

In reality, both views were right. Corporate sustainability lost some of its sexiness from previous years, as it grew more entrenched in day-to-day business. Some parts of the agenda — eco-efficiency and resource conservation for example — are widely accepted now, and it's rare to find a big-company CEO who doesn't have sustainability on his or her radar.

The mega forces driving sustainability deep into business — such as climate change, resource constraints, and transparency — are getting stronger. We may not be keeping pace with these pressures, but leading companies continue to evolve more sustainable strategies and tactics. Let's look at some top macro- and company-level stories.

Macro Trends

1. Historic drought and Hurricane Sandy sweep away (some) climate denial
For many people this year, climate change moved from theoretical to painfully real. Mega weather took many lives and cost over $120 billion in the U.S. alone ($50 billion for the drought, $71 billion for Sandy). After Sandy raged across the eastern coast, Businessweek blared on its cover "It's Global Warming, Stupid." New York Mayor Bloomberg, a Republican, endorsed President Obama in the election, titling his open letter, "A Vote for a President to Lead on Climate Change."

As bad as Sandy was, the relentless drought across the middle of the country may prove more convincing in the long run. Corn yields per acre fell 19%, food prices rose, and water disappeared —the Mississippi River may soon struggle to support commerce. Individual companies are feeling the bite: analysts at Morningstar estimate that input costs at Tyson Foods will rise by $700 million — more than its 2012 net income.

Over one-third of the world's largest companies surveyed by the Carbon Disclosure Project arealready seeing the impacts of climate change on their business. So with life-and-death consequences and vast costs, we must have moved quickly to tackle climate change, right? Sort of...

The year ended with the failure, yet again, of the international community to come to some agreement on climate change. But country-level and regional policy moved forward: Australia passed a carbon tax, South Korea approved carbon trading, and California just began its own trading experiment.

Many countries also committed serious funds to build a clean economy: Saudi Arabia pledged $109 billion for solar, Japan declared that a $628 billion green energy industry would be central to its 2020 strategy, and China targeted $372 billion to cut energy use and pollution.

In the U.S., a backdoor approach to climate policy took over. The Obama administration issued new standards to double the fuel economy of cars and trucks, and the National Resources Defense Council (an NGO) proposed using the Clean Air Act to reduce emissions from power plants by 25%.

2. The math and physics of a planetary constraints get clearer
Arithmetic had a big year: Nate Silver's nearly perfect predictions of the election gave him the oxymoronic status of rock-star statistician. The math and physics of sustainability got some serious attention as well.

Writer and activist Bill McKibben wrote a widely-read piece in Rolling Stone about climate math — how much more carbon emissions the planet can take — and followed it up with a national awareness-building tour. Based on similar numbers, both McKinsey and PwC UK calculated how fast we must reduce the carbon intensity of the global economy (PwC's number is 5% per year until 2050).

And on the resource constraint front, Jeremy Grantham, co-founder of the asset management firm GMO ($100 billion invested), continued his relentless numbers-based assault on the fallacy of infinite resources. In his November newsletter, he demonstrated exactly how much of a drag on the U.S. economy commodity prices have become.

Nobody can really deny that, in principle, exponential growth must stop someday. Grantham, McKibben, and many others are making the case that someday has arrived.

3. The clean economy continues to explode
The rapid growth of natural gas production (the biggest energy story of the year) and the high-profile failure of one solar manufacturer (Solyndra) have confused people about the prospects for clean tech. In reality, the clean economy is winning. The share of U.S. electricity coming from non-hydro renewables doubled to 6% in the last 4 years. On May 26, Germany set a world record when it produced 50% of its electricity needs from solar power alone. In a mini political tipping point, six Republican senators publicly supported an extension to the wind production tax credit in the U.S. (which will expire in days), and got an earful from a Wall Street Journal editorial.

It wasn't just energy. One auto analyst declared 2012 the "Year of the Green Car," with more high-MPG models, 500,000 hybrid sales in the U.S., and plug-in sales up 228%. To cap the year, the pure electric Tesla Model S was selected as the Motor Trend Car of the Year.

Company Stories

This year, there were countless eco-efficiency stories about companies saving millions of dollarsand developing new tools to make buildings, fleets (Staples and UPS, for example), and manufacturing much leaner. Aside from that overall theme, the following stories grabbed me because of their connection to larger trends.

4. The green supply chain gets some teeth: Walmart changes incentives for buyers
This year, Walmart finally added a key element to its impressive green supply chain efforts. The retail giant's powerful buyers, or merchants, now have a sustainability goal in their performance targets and reviews. For example, the laptop PC buyer set a goal that, by Christmas, all of the laptops Walmart sells would come pre-installed with advanced energy-saving settings. It was by no means a hiccup-free year on sustainability issues for Walmart, with deep concerns about corruption in its Mexican operations. But the subtle change in buyer incentives is a big deal.

5. Transparency and tragedy raise awareness about worker conditions
Early in 2012, Apple took some serious heat for the working conditions at Foxconn, the giant company that assembles a huge percentage of our electronics. Later in the year, tragedy struck Dhaka, Bangladesh when a fire at the Tazreen Fashion factory killed or injured hundreds of people. The company that owns the factory serves Walmart, Carrefour, IKEA, and many others (but in fact,some companies didn't even know that Tazreen was a supplier). It's unclear if any of these human and PR disasters will affect the companies downstream, but transparency and knowledge about the lives of the people who make our products will continue to rise.

6. Data gets bigger and faster: PepsiCo and Columbia speed up lifecycle assessments
The rise of Big Data was an important theme in business in general this year, but especially in sustainability. And nowhere is good data needed more than in the onerous and expensive task of calculating a product's lifecycle footprint. PepsiCo has had great success with the method, finding ways to reduce cost and risk for key brands, but execs wanted to apply the tool across thousands of products. To make the exercise feasible and affordable, they turned to Columbia University, which developed a new algorithm for fast carbon footprinting. This isn't just a wonky exercise: As PepsiCo exec Al Halvorsen told me, "the real reason you do an LCA is improve the business, to put more efficient processes in place, and innovate in the supply chain."

7. Sustainability innovation opens up: Unilever, Heineken, and EMC ask the world for help
This new world of social media, where everyone has a voice, can be tough on companies. Consumers can gather around a green issue and pressure companies to change their behavior. Some notable change.org campaigns this year challenged Universal Pictures (about its green messaging around The Lorax), Crayola (recycling markers), and Dunkin' Donuts (Styrofoam cups). But companies can also use "open" innovation tools to generate new ideas and invite the world to solve problems together.

Unilever, which has my vote for leader in corporate sustainability right now, held an online discussion or "jam." Then the company posted a list of "Challenges and wants" and asked for ideas on solving big issues such as how to bring safe drinking water to the world's poorest regions.Unilever has received over 1,000 ideas and is "pursuing 6 to 7 percent of these with internal teams." Other notable open innovation models this year included Heineken's $10,000 sustainable packaging contest (which yielded some very fun ideas like a roving tap truck) and EMC's eco-challenge with InnoCentive on e-waste.

8. The economy gets a bit more circular: M&S, H&M, and Puma experiment with closing loops
On the heels of Patagonia's "Don't Buy This Jacket" campaign (one of my top 10 stories from last year), British retailer M&S began a program called "Schwop" that asked customers to bring back old clothes every time they bought new ones. This month, H&M also rolled out a global clothing collection and recycling effort.

Puma, after making last year's list with it's Environmental P&L, kept the momentum going andannounced a new "InCycle" collection with biodegradable sneakers and shirts, and recyclable jackets and backpacks. Remanufacturing has been around a long time, but closing loops is getting more popular every year.

9. Dematerialization gets sexier: Nike's knitted shoe shows off sustainable style
Keeping the apparel theme, um, running, check out Nike's new shoe with FlyKnit technology. The upper part of the shoe is constructed from a single strand, which greatly reduces waste and lightens the shoe dramatically. It's a great thing when a more sustainable design also coincides perfectly with customer needs. Enough said.

10. Zero becomes more the norm: DuPont, GM, and John Elkington show the way
The idea that organizations should send zero waste to landfill was once a niche idea, but it's quickly becoming the ante to enter the waste management game. Announcements on waste may not be exciting, but they demonstrate how companies can turn a cost center into a source of profit. DuPont's Building Innovation Products business reduced its landfill waste from 81 million pounds to zero in three years. GM announced that it would ramp up its already extensive waste reuse and recycling efforts, which are now generating $1 billion a year. And a plug for a fellow writer: In a new book, sustainability thought leader John Elkington made the case that the future would belong to the "Zeronauts," the "new breed of innovators determined to drive problems such as carbon, waste, toxics, and poverty to zero."

Five Questions For 2013

Some other promising stories are in the "too early to tell" stage, but bring up some key questions:

1. Can we standardize sustainability, which some smart folks began to do around rankings (GISR) and accounting (Sustainability Accounting Standards Board)?

2. Will we find a way to value externalities like ecosystem services and internalized, intangible benefits? (A focus of some of my work as an advisor to PwC US). For example, Microsoft launched an internal carbon tax and some major companies (Coca-Cola, Nike, Kimberly-Clark, etc.) pledged to value natural capital at Rio+20.

3. Will government get in the way or help, like when the U.S. Senate allowed the military to keep investing in biofuels?

4. Hertz and B&Q (Kingfisher) have delved into collaborative consumption (see WWF's Green Game-Changers report), but will the sharing economy make a dent on sustainability issues?

5. Finally, how much will we challenge the nature of capitalism, and what will that mean for how companies operate? (This is the focus of my next project.)

So many stories, so little time... on to 2013. Happy holidays and have a safe and wonderful 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 @AndrewWinston)