Monday, November 26, 2007

Green washing... the future is later

My mom informed me over the Thanksgiving holiday that she learned a new term on NPR - greenwashing. It was in a piece about Auden Schendler - the sustainability director for Aspen Ski Co, who has been shaking things up saying that going green necessarily costs more - in businessweek: http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/07_44/b4056001.htm?chan=search

(The article isn't really the point of this post, but I'll include some comments I emailed to a friend who asked if it was true or not - is going green really more expensive??)

This post is about this hilarious piece from freeloveforum - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=71kckb8hhOQ - "the future is later..." Clearly people are becoming more aware of the threats of greenwashing, and understanding the complexities of it (and the sometimes obvious, pandering tones that greenwashing ads can use in attempts to connect with you). At the same time, there are a lot of shades of gray in this, and as Hunter Lovins says, often "hypocrisy is the first step to genuine change," so as part of companies' and society's movement towards sustainability, we're going to have some gray areas - the encouraging thing is that it is becoming front and center and we all have the opportunity to wrestle with and move through these gray areas in our own lives, while at the same time demanding that companies and governments do the same and support us in these efforts.

(On a related note, a blog I recently discovered, SenseUp, has a piece on another take on greenwahsing: soap. Clever...)

Response to BizWeek article on Aspen:

"Schendler explains his confessional mood as the result of cumulative frustration: with foot-dragging colleagues, with himself for compromising, and with the entire green movement frothily sweeping through corporations in America and Europe."

I would say that he has just had challenges applying what he learned at the Rocky Mountain Institute. If applied in a conventional way, many green initiatives can represent additional costs. What we (and RMI) stress is the importance of a whole-system approach. The easiest examples are in buildings. If you had an energy efficiency technology, or solar panel, just tacked on to your average building, you can easily calculate the pay-back period, and depending on energy prices, etc, it either will or will not be attractive given the length of the payback time (even if it’s longer than standard pay-backs some companies do it for PR reasons). But if you design a building to be oriented towards the sun in such a way, insulated in such a way, using natural lighting, the most innovative and efficient fixtures, etc all right up front, you can dramatically reduce energy demand, and dramatically increase the payback and effectiveness of something like solar panels, so they do make sense, and aren’t just a sexy, expensive add-on.

There are many examples of this thinking in action, and the place most people point to is RMI’s famous book –Natural Capitalism. But these are also very difficult – they take incredible creativity, and extremely well-functioning teams that get the concept and are committed to it. It requires understanding systems-thinking – ie understanding the entire system you’re operating in, as well as the system(s) it exists within (e.g. a ski company, in the town of aspen, in CO, in the USA, in the biosphere), the various components of that system - internal (world-views, cultures) and external (structures, rules, norms) - and the relationships and interactions between those components. This is very complex stuff and most people, even if they have this understanding (like Schendler) don’t necessarily have the tools and skills to foster that in everyone their working with – and as the quote above indicates, it looks like he hasn’t been able to do that. When this does happen the whole ROI picture changes from kWh saved per dollar invested to a much more interesting equation that can show dramatic increases in productivity, employee morale, and brand goodwill – things that absolutely dwarf energy costs in an ROI calculation.

This is not surprising from a pioneer working in relative isolation like himself. As he indicates, it's easy to start compromising, and being overtaken by the institutional culture they find themselves within, which can be incredibly difficult to change. But at the end of the day, that is what ‘going green’ really requires – and that’s why it’s so hard. It is dramatic, transformational change.

He took an approach of selling and convincing, which clearly hasn’t totally worked. Focusing on the ‘art and practice’ of organizational learning has shown more success (but definitely not 100%) in getting people engaged on these issues, finding meaning in them and then acting accordingly. In the hotel example, of course the guy didn’t want to just slam in CFLs he knew nothing about – and it’s clear Auden didn’t know much about managing 5-star hotels – this is a classic example of needing everyone. If he instead took the time to help the manager and all the staff learn about the importance, and then gave them the tools with which to evaluate their own situation, using their own expertise, and find the appropriate, innovative, creative solutions, they might have had better luck.

I do agree with this: Much corporate environmentalism boils down to misleading statistics and hype.

But that doesn’t mean it all does, or that it necessarily has to be the case.

This last paragraph is the only one that really gets to the heart of the issue: "His former mentor Lovins says Schendler could find further cost-saving energy efficiencies with more support from his superiors. But this mind-set, Schendler warns, could influence companies to pursue exclusively projects with quick payoffs: 'The idea that green is fun, it's easy, and it's profitable is dangerous. This is hard work. It's messy. It's not always profitable. And companies have to get off the mark and start actually doing stuff.'"

Lovins is right – but it’s more than just his superiors (he’s very close to the top already, and they’re obviously supportive of him – they just don’t quite get it – and that’s probably in large part a result of his approach) – it’s also his ‘inferiors’ – EVERYONE in the company down to the lifties and janitors have to be behind this and stoked about it for it to work in a way that truly is profitable and effective.

In addition to having that engagement and creative energy from people throughout the organization, this whole case underscores the need for a long-term, strategic perspective when tackling sustainability from an organizational stand-point, and a common, practical framework to make that context more tangible and useful for all of the people involved with the organization.

This is clearly the best quote from the whole thing: Schendler replied: "Relax, brah. I enormously appreciate all the support.... We're on the edge of this thing, figuring it out. If it were simple and easy, someone would have done it already."

Stay going...