Archive for September, 2009

How to emerge green and ahead after recession

Making the business argument for going green can be tough even in the best of times. Trying to make it during the Great Recession? Forget about it.

Or so goes the conventional line of thinking.

Consultant Andrew Winston, author of the popular book “Green to Gold,” wants you to believe otherwise. He makes his case in his new book, “Green Recovery: Get Lean, Get Smart, and Emerge from the Downturn on Top.”g_recovery_lg Winston writes:

This book presents an optimistic view of what green can do for your company in hard times.

Optimistic, yes. And realistic. Winston knows the recession has knocked businesses and their customers back on their heels. There are few companies today with the financial wherewithal or stomach for large-scale sustainability initiatives.

So what’s a company to do? Winston has plenty of suggestions. His small book reads like a how-to guide for businesses, with easy-to-digest lists of pragmatic reasons and low-cost methods for becoming more sustainable.

Focusing scarce resources

He offers four broad recommendations and organizes his book around them:

  1. Get lean: You can generate savings fast by reducing energy costs and consumption in your buildings and facilities, data centers, distribution operations, employee travel and by reducing and recycling waste.
  2. Get smart: Collect data on your environmental footprint, internally and across your value chain, and make it available to the people who can best use it to create change.
  3. Get creative: Creativity is free. And green innovation is what will set you apart as your competitors stand still. Ask “big, heretical questions.”
  4. Get (your people) engaged: Winston says, “In these times of low morale, and perhaps because of the stress of harder economic conditions, many people want more meaning at work. A green focus will both engage and inspire your people to keep going through tough times.”

Reducing your environmental footprint now can create advantage over your lesser-prepared competitors. Before long, however, you and your competitors will have no choice. Powerful forces remain at work even as the current Winstoneconomy struggles and squeezes profits. Chief among them are climate change and constraints on natural resources and nonrenewable energy.

In his conclusion, Winston writes:

As hard as it may be to imagine, green pressures will force even larger, more sustained changes in business than current economic pressures. We’re talking about a fundamental shift in how the world works.

Application to smaller businesses

Most of Winston’s examples are from larger companies. I asked Winston in an email whether his recommendations work equally well for smaller businesses.

In short, yes, all of these strategies and tactics apply very well for smaller companies. In fact, smaller enterprises may feel more strain on cash flows and need to get lean even faster. The one caveat is whether any capital is available for investment in environmental improvements.

Winston recommends setting aside a portion of planned capital expenditures for environmental priorities, such as energy reduction. He also says smaller businesses may have the advantage when asking the heretical question. “Arguably smaller companies will be less tied to the status quo and more able to foment disruptive change,” he told me.

And what about Social Recovery?

I also asked Winston why he only briefly mentions the social dimension of sustainability.

Part of the answer is based in my expertise and focus. Another is that the ideas for getting lean as a way to fund a Green Recovery need to be focused on quick paybacks, and those types of initiatives tend to be more environmental: saving money on facilities, on IT, etc. It’s harder to pursue the social agenda as a cost-saving path…That said, many companies are building strong brands by hitting themes of transparency, responsibility and corporate citizenship.

Winston comes off as a pragmatist with deep concerns about the environment and the readiness of business to deal with what’s ahead. And for good reason. A new study of 1,500 corporate executives finds only 30 percent of companies have developed a clear business case for sustainability. Another recent study of major U.S. businesses concludes:

The current state of corporate environmental policy and management is surprising, perhaps even shocking.

Seizing the opportunity

Looking past the woeful business response to our environmental challenges lies a classic business opportunity. Iconic environmental businessman Paul Hawken, speaking in Portland, Ore. this month, asserted: “There’s no such thing as bad news about the environment, only information.” And in that information lies the makings of commercial success for those paying attention.

Winston sounds a similar theme.

Some companies that had a weak commitment to sustainability may be pulling back now. What a great opportunity to lead.


Who knew you couldn’t push a tequila around?

Brands are symbols or images of products, companies and people. But people they’re not.

You wouldn’t know it by listening to most consumer marketing types. Here’s a PR executive explaining in PRWeek this month how “brands” can have a “legitimate place” on social networking sites: “Offer things people want or need…Be transparent and reassuring…Listen.”

Hmm, I thought that’s what people were for.

Or how about this marketing executive for a beverage brand whose company just hired an ex-Sopranos star as a commercial spokesman:

“Michael Imperioli represents the 1800 Tequila brand perfectly…Just like 1800 Tequila, he’s not going to be pushed around. He tells it like it is.”

Say what? Your tequila is not going to be pushed around? Sorry to break this to you, but if it tastes good, it will be pushed from one end of the bar to the other.

Still, I get her point. Her tequila symbolizes something: toughness, straight talk. At least that’s the idea. It’s not the tequila that doesn’t get pushed around. It’s you, the drinker. You drink it because you’re a Wise Guy, or so you want others to believe.

The exec should have said something like, “Michael is like my customer; he’s not going to be pushed around.” People who make, represent and consume her product may stand their ground. But her product is alcohol. Its toughness is gauged by its alcohol content or by how hard it is to swallow. Not its ability to stare down a rival.

Brands are images or associations that float about in our brains. The association with a beverage could be “don’t mess with me” or it could be “man, that tastes like @&#!” A brand can apply to a person (e.g., Michael Jordan), but, please, a brand is not a human being. No tequila is going to “tell it like is” — although a person might, after a shot or two.

What does any of this have to do with sustainability? The practice of sustainability asks us (not our brands) to be transparent, authentic, genuine in how we do business. No more hiding behind a carefully cultivated brand image or letting our brands do the talking for us (as if they could).

Branding a sustainable business is about real people and their real stories in making, selling, buying and using products or services. Brand image isn’t manufactured through celebrity cool. It’s earned through real businesspeople taking a stand for a more sustainable world — and then delivering. You want tough? That’s tough.

Thursday, September 17th, 2009
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