Posts Tagged ‘green’
I find it difficult to avoid the topic of Wal-Mart when speaking of sustainability and marketing. The company came up again today at a breakfast presentation by two professors of business from the University of Portland, sponsored by the Oregon Natural Step Network. And once again I find myself bristling at the notion of Wal-Mart playing any part in the ultimate sustainability solutions for our planet.
Good piece in the June issue of Sustainable Industries (subscription req.) on Dave Williams, CEO of ShoreBank Pacific bank and a resident of the Portland area. The magazine named Williams one of its 20 Leading Green Executives for his success in taking ShoreBank Pacific into the black using a triple-bottom-line (people, planet, profits) approach to its business.
A couple of Williams’ comments struck me as right on. One was his comparison of the cultures of Oregon and the Bay Area around sustainable business development:
“Oregon has historically been a small-business state, so the strength of any particular community is dependent on the strength of the business in it,” he says. ”But in the Bay Area, business is oddly independent of community.” Williams attributes that to a venture-capital mindset in the region. “The thinking is, ‘How do we build it and make it international then sell it off and do something else?” he says. “There’s a different approach to business and community that you get in Oregon where the feeling is more that we need these businesses and we’ll keep them going for the next 100 years.”
From my two decades in high tech, I know the VC model of the Bay Area (and elsewhere) has its place, especially in fostering innovation. But Williams perfectly captures the limitation of the VC business culture: it operates independent of community.
The mindset of fund it, build it and sell it has yet to translate into most urban areas, much less rural areas. That’s certainly the case in Oregon. What’s needed and wanted in most communities are stable, locally rooted businesses that provide solid jobs over many years and understand their success cannot be divorced from the communities in which they operate. The VC model doesn’t serve that need.
Williams, a Portland area resident, also drew an important distinction between green and sustainability. He says his bank distinguishes itself from other banks by focusing on sustainable communities not just green.
“My sense is there will be a backlash over the next three to four years about sustainability, caused by concerns about ethanol and rising food costs, and we need to be prepared for that and consistent in telling our story and why it makes sense.” In the end, Williams says ShoreBank’s commitment to sustainable communities may help it weather a shift in public opinion. ”People who only characterize themselves as being ‘green’ will be under more stress than those that focus on community development and building sustainable communities.”
I agree with Williams. Green is often more about how businesses see themselves, while sustainability emphasizes the interconnections among business, community and environment. In other words, sustainability is not all about you, the business. It’s about operating from a larger mission or purpose than simply finding ways to make money from your customers’ interests in green products or services. And I believe over time, people will reward those businesses, like ShoreBank, that understand the difference.
I maintain an ongoing love-hate relationship with consumer electronics. I hate the constant promotional bombardment by electronics manufacturers for cellphones, flat-panel TVs, mp3 players, games and countless other digital distractions. I also hate the waste stream produced by household electronics. Last month, the New York Times Magazine published an excellent piece on this, “The Afterlife of Cellphones.”
While many of us try to recycle our phones, the reality is they too often eventually end up randomly disposed of in developing countries, exposing human and other life to dangerous materials. According to the Times:
In a study published last year, 34 recent-model cellphones were put through a standard E.P.A. test, simulating conditions inside a landfill. All of them leached hazardous amounts of lead — on average, more than 17 times the federal threshold for what constitutes hazardous waste. Under a stricter state of California test, they also leached four other metals above hazardous levels.
The E.P.A. says modern American landfills are designed to keep toxics stewing inside from leaking out, so they don’t contaminate surrounding soil or drinking water. But landfills do fail, says Oladele A. Ogunseitan, an environmental-health scientist at the University of California, Irvine, and an author of last year’s study. More important, he notes, such landfills don’t exist in the developing world. In many places, garbage is tossed into informal dumps or bodies of water or burned in the open air — all dangerous ways of liberating and spreading toxics.
The article doesn’t paint a completely hopeless picture. Industries are developing to reclaim precious metals from e-waste and to refurbish used cellphones and resell them to those who can’t afford new ones. The latter, in theory, reduces the need to make new phones and the energy and materials consumed to produce them.
Which brings me to what I love (I use the term very loosely) about consumer electronics: the innovation harnessed and applied in their design. The innovation I care about most is reducing the environmental impact of electronics. CNET gives coverage today to the Green Gadgets conference in New York. Check out some of the product innovations that promise to do less harm and in some cases improve the quality of life for some of the world’s poor.
My favorite is SunNight Solar’s solar flashlight. The company is also focusing on social issues by encouraging their customers to buy and give one of the flashlights to a person in a developing country for every one they buy for personal use. According to CNET, “The goal is to reduce the use of kerosene lamps, which are unhealthy and dangerous.”
Technical and social innovations like these from SunNight Solar are what give me hope.