Strategies for the Green Economy

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by: Joel Makower

I’m delighted to announce that my new book — my first in 14 years — is just hitting the bookstores. Strategies for the Green Economy is the product of the past few years of speaking, writing, publishing, and working with a handful of both large and small companies.

Though the subject was near and dear, it was by far the hardest book I’ve written.

The reason? The greening of business — more specifically, how companies are integrating environmental thinking into their operations in a way that aligns with core business strategy and bottom-line success — is a moving target, to say the least. The state of the art, such as it is, represents something of a paradox: the greater the amount of activity, the bigger the disparity between the leaders and the laggards, and between those who think that they are leaders, and those that truly are.

This wasn’t the case in the early 1990s, when I published a pair of books — The E-Factor (1992) and Beyond the Bottom Line (1994) — that were both among the early framing statements of the fields of, respectively, corporate environmental responsibility and corporate social responsibility. It was fairly easy then to capture the zeitgeist in eight pages a month, as I attempted to do in The Green Business Letter, the monthly newsletter I wrote from 1991 until 2005. In those early days, readers were nearly all newbies to the field, hungry for whatever they could get.

No longer. The most we can hope for at and its suite of sister sites is to provide a daily sampling of the frenzy of green business activity that seems to be taking place out there. And while there continues to be a steady string of newbies, much of the audience has gotten more sophisticated, many having toiled these fields for years, with the blisters and scars to prove it.

This state of affairs circumscribes my challenge: How to shape a book that provided the fundamental lessons learned over the years for those who weren’t involved (or who have conveniently forgotten) as well as opportunities and challenges companies face moving forward.

There are plenty of both. On the one hand, the business opportunities are growing and becoming increasingly attractive, having moved beyond "doing the right thing" and "doing well by doing good" to leveraging environmental strategies using green thinking as a platform for innovation. It’s no longer simply a matter of "greening up" one’s products and processes, as it was back then (though most companies still seem to hew to that tactic). Today, it’s about harnessing the growing toolkit of technologies, materials, business models, and other innovations to create new products, new markets, even entire new systems of commerce.

But, as any reader of my blog knows well, this is hardly easy stuff, and a great deal of Strategies for the Green Economy focuses on the challenges of the green marketplace, especially the dysfunctional conversation taking place between companies and their employees, suppliers, customers, and regulators, as well with the media and Wall Street, or what’s left of it. There are no widely accepted definitions of "green business," so no standard means of answering the fundamental question, "How good is good enough?" We know what "good enough" is for green buildings — there’s a standard for that — but not for green businesses. Lacking definitions, many, if not most, companies are struggling to understand where they are and where they need to go, not to mention how to get there.

Of course, it’s not simply a matter of setting standards. Most companies are blissfully unaware of the full scope of impacts of what they do, and few have set ambitious or comprehensive goals to achieve environmental excellence, let alone the broader notion of sustainability. Most firms still practice what I’ve dubbed "random acts of greenness" — a variety of disconnected product, facility, employee, and community initiatives, sometimes collectively impressive but usually insufficient to prod the company much beyond its comfort zone. Such approaches are often aided and abetted by consultancies, regulators, voluntary programs, and other well-intended initiatives that focus on a single activity — waste reduction, for example, or carbon emissions — to the exclusion of other company impacts.

And relatively few companies seem comfortable talking about all this, preferring to lay low, adopting a strategy of "Let them catch us being good." Those with robust PR machines — and there are many — tend to oversimplify ("It isn’t easy being green!") or geek out on a lot of enviro-speak that may have little resonance with the typical buyer of, say, laundry detergent.

In my book, I’ve attempted to sort through these issues and proffer some paths forward, telling stories of companies that have tried, with varying degrees of success, to traverse these paths. (Faithful readers of this blog will find several familiar tales.) There are nearly 40 short chapters, ideal of those of us with increasingly short attention spans.

The book also benefits from the research and analysis of my colleague Cara Pike, one of world’s top social change marketers. At the end of the book is an appendix with insights from the landmark Ecological Roadmap, a research project she directed based on the American Values Survey in 2005 and 2007. It provides insight into the consumer mindset that can be helpful in crafting and executing a green economy strategy.

Pike found that when it comes to the environment, the buying public can be divided into 10 distinct groups reflecting a wide range of values, opinions, and behaviors. The good news is that more than 93 million Americans have strong concerns about the environment. The challenge is that what green means to one segment of the public and how ecological concerns are put into practice are often in sharp contrast to those of other segments. This has significant implications for companies — as well as for activist groups, government agencies, and others — seeking to motivate the public to respond to environmental messages and marketing.

I’m pleased how it all turned out and hope you are, too. I’ll look forward to your feedback.

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