Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Connected in Vermont

Over the weekend I was reading and working up at our Vermont house. One of my tasks was to finish up some additional research on a sustainability/CR blog for posting on Monday. But when the weather cleared off at the end of the day, I decided to get out of the house and take a drive into Waitsfield for a walk around the village. Judy and I walked all the way up Main Street to the Old School House, then back up to Bridge Street and through the “tunnel” bridge, as Ollie calls it. The sweet, end of the day light inspired us to walk and photograph for a couple of hours.

On Monday, in the midst of all the Apollo 11 events, I got a Twitter message about a new follower, Jake Whitcomb. It turns out he works in Middlebury, Vermont as environmental program designer and co-founder of the non-profit Brighter Planet, whose focus is fighting global warming. Their advisory board is an environmental who’s who, including Terry Kellogg, Executive Director of One Percent for the Planet, and Mindy Lubber, President of Ceres, among other notable people.

It was a wow moment for many reasons.

One of my first blog posts about CSR was based in part on the Ceres principles. My weekend's work posted on Monday started off talking about Yvon Chouinard and One Percent for the Planet. But there were still more Vermont connections. The blog on the One Percent for the Planet website showed a picture of three young people standing in front of what looked like the Waitsfield "tunnel" bridge. They were summer interns who indeed had been photographed in front of the Waitsfield covered bridge, perhaps because their office is located just down the street in the Old School House we had walked by on Saturday.

I’m not surprised that leading experts and advocates for a sustainable planet live or are based in Vermont. That makes real sense to me. What is surprising are the tight connections between place - Mad River Valley, topic - corporate responsibility /sustainability, time - all in two days. A small world indeed.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Good for the Planet, Good for Business

In the current Fast Company, there is an interesting interview with Patagonia founder, Yvon Chouinard, regarding the general topic of corporate social responsibility. The paradoxical title, "No Such Thing as Sustainability", focuses on his long-term commitment to environmental issues. As Chouinard states, Patagonia's mission is "to use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis" based on three key points: learn the environmental impact of your business; take full responsibility for your product from birth to rebirth; and implement a self-taxing approach for your business-related pollution, similar to One Percent for the Planet, which was co-founded by Patagonia. As to the success of "self-taxing", over 1000 businesses have joined One Percent for the Planet since its inception in 2001, and six of the largest firms to join are having their best year ever. The concept is good for the planet and good for business.

Related to the Chouinard interview is a recent article in Environmental Leader by Kathee Rebernak called "Where Sustainability Lives: A Path to Integration and Innovation". In the article she cites a research study of Fortune 500 companies that looked at the function of sustainability within a firm, how the position is titled and what channels are set up for reporting to the CEO and board. They found a high correlation between well defined firm positions and board reporting structures, and awards or recognition for sustainability performance. Recent research published in the Harvard Business Review also correlates a sustainability structure which is integrated across the firm with the innovation it fosters and the resultant sustainability success. The Director of Sustainability at Symantec observed that, when the CEO drives the sustainability/corporate responsibility agenda, the process is accelerated. Kathee's summary quote caps the discussion well. "For the sustainability effort to drive business value, the CEO must be in the driver's seat".

This corporate sustainability research aligns and reinforces the examples of charismatic sustainability leaders like Patagonia's Yvon Chouinard and Interface Carpet's Ray Anderson. They have proven that personal commitment at the highest corporate levels will lead to more responsible and economically successful business practices.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Time for Climate Change Insurance

Two recent articles/blogs by Oberlin College environmentalist David Orr and technologist Tim O'Reilly take on the debate of choices and chance in dealing with the issues of climate change. Both agree there is great risk, which becomes even greater with inaction, and that we don't need more evidence to act now.

David Orr frames the discussion around two choices - "adapting to a warmer world or mitigating the severity of climate change by sharply reducing greenhouse gas emissions". He bases his argument on five points:

  • climate change is occurring faster than expected and results are worse than predicted
  • adaptation most impacts those in society who are least able to adapt
  • mitigation now is easier and less costly than later
  • adaptation is ineffective due to the human behaviors of denial and procrastination
  • political programs and proposals about adaptation offer false hope

Orr's conclusion is echoed in ecologist George Woodwell's words, "The only adaptation is mitigation".

In response to David Orr's article, Bob Doppelt, the Director of Climate Change Initiative at the University of Oregon, offers a twist on the argument. He shifts the words and perspective from adaptation to preparation, because "our experience is that focusing on preparation builds support for mitigation while the focus on adaptation reduces support". To me, the conclusion is not either/or but both preparation and mitigation.

Tim O'Reilly sees the debate as a modern day version of Pascal's wager.

If catastrophic global warming turns out not to happen, the steps we'd take to address it are still worthwhile. Given that there's even a reasonable risk of disruptive climate change, any sensible person should decide to act. It's insurance. The risk of your house burning down is small, yet you carry homeowner's insurance; you don't expect to total your car, but you know that the risk is there, and again, most people carry insurance; you don't expect catastrophic illness to strike you down, but again, you invest in insurance.

We don't need to be 100% sure that the worst fears of climate scientists are correct in order to act. All we need to think about are the consequences of being wrong.

So where are the sensible world citizens who can carry forward these perspectives, and ultimately the behaviors that will alter climate change? As in all things important, it comes down to us, you and me. The time is now for all of us to reconsider our behaviors and to purchase our own climate change insurance.