Michael Hopkins of th MIT Sloan Management Review in the OppGreen room
A great way to bum people out is to show them a bunch of pictures of dead animals. Bonus bummer points if you show those pictures to a room full of 500 environmentalists.
"What we need to do as Americans is grieve. Grieve what is being lost before our eyes everyday," said photographer Chris Jordan, whose striking images of albatross killed after ingesting plastic waste from a floating gyre of garbage in the middle of the Pacific ocean. Maybe not the ideal early morning visual, but this presentation set the stage for the green business conference Opportunity Green, held November 7-8 at UCLA. Throughout the two-day event, the mood of presenters and attendees swung back and forth from doomsday depression to utopianistic confidence.
To gauge the situation, a number of presenters asked attendees for a show of hands at various times throughout the conference. How many green business owners are in the crowd? How many of you use Twitter? Do you know what the great Pacific garbage patch is?
The Business Response
Michael Hopkins, editor-in-chief of the MIT Sloan Management Review, asked the room whether they thought businesses had or had not cut down expenditures of sustainability measure due to the economic recession. The audience was just about evenly divided into three groups: those who predicted less spending, those who predicted more, and those who saw no change at all. But when Hopkins asked the same question to companies in a previous survey, fewer than 25% said that they made any reduction in their sustainability measures.
Len Sauers, vice president for global sustainability at Proctor and Gamble, shows a graph of his company's energy footprint, articulating which products take the most energy to produce, distribute and use.
It seems counterintuitive, but now is the time that people are trying even harder to get the message out--whether it's a new product, a green message, or even just a simple idea. A panel on using social media like Twitter and Facebook had a captivated audience, seeking ideas on how to use Twitter to build their audience and promote their brands.
Many of the attendees at Opportunity Green were there representing some sort of business--whether an eco-friendly startup or a major corporation looking to green its operations. And while many of them simply want to harness the marketing power of the sustainability movement, others are trying to revise the image of their companies from being overtly "green" businesses to businesses that are intrinsically green.
For some, the move was based simply on frustration. Adam Lowry, co-founder of the home and personal care product line Method, told the crowd how he had been pulled into the green products market based on his bad experience with environmentally-friendly products that looked ugly, tasted bad, and were generally of a lower quality than traditional products.
"Every brand I had been supporting was based on sacrifice," Lowry said.
Panelists discuss the role of social media tools like Twitter and Facbook, and how green businesses can use these tools to grow their audience and brand.
Finding and Reducing Waste
But increasingly, businesses are making concerted efforts to eliminate that green grime from their eco-conscious products. As Proctor & Gamble expand their laundry detergent selection to include energy-saving products that run on cold water, maintaining performance is key to retaining customers.
"What's important about these products is there are no tradeoffs to the consumer," said Len Sauers, vice president for global sustainability at P&G.
Innovative moves like eliminating the heating energy in the typical laundry load are simply waste-reduction ideas, and these are a major part of the emerging green business movement.
Of all the water used by municipalities, 58% of it goes to outdoor uses like plant watering and landscape maintenance. On a day-to-day basis, anywhere from 30% to 300% of this water is wasted, based on the climate and the needs of the plantlife. Chris Spain, chairman of the board at HydroPoint Data Systems, presented to the crowd his satellite-based water monitoring system that takes cues from the climate and local data to control when irrigation should happen. By shifting from timer-based irrigation to highly monitored and smart solution, Spain's product is saving cities water.
"We take out this dumb controller and put in a smart controller," Spain said.
Sometimes, reducing waste means drastically rethinking the entire field. For Dr. Frances Arnold of the California Institute of Technology is working on a new technology to create petroleum-like liquid fuel from biological systems. It's kind of like ethanol, but easier to make and more efficient.
"Ethanol is a lousy fuel," Arnold said. "So why are we making it? Because we've been making it for 10,000 years and we know how to do it."
Embracing and Updating Old Ideas
Revising these sorts of old technologies can create huge returns. But just because the technology is old doesn't mean it's bad. Alexis Madrigal, a staff writer for Wired Magazine, gave a presentation on turn-of-the-century (19th-20th) technologies that are not too different from what green tech innovators are trying to produce and market today.
"Old and new technologies exist in your life everyday, and you probably don't notice the difference," Madrigal said.
This is often because we forget about the path of development of technologies from absurd ideas to known and loved technologies. The incremental steps between the start of an idea and its full execution tend to get lost.
"Everybody knows that the Wright Brothers did some really innovative stuff, but everybody kind of fast-forwards through history to Jet Blue," Madrigal said.
For business people and those looking to latch onto the sustainability movement, one of the main takeaway lessons from Opportunity Green is the importance of trying to be ahead of the curve. Waiting for the sustainability movement to become even more in the mainstream is only going to make the transition from old business models that much more difficult.
"If you're waiting for the regulations to tell you what to do, you're not going to be around very long," said Jim Davis, executive director of sustainability, energy and climate impact solutions with software maker SAP.
And as the global community prepares to descend on Copehagen in December for the COP15 United Nations climate change conference, there's kind of an acceptance among the environmental crowd that whatever decisions and standards the delegates agree upon, they're not going to be enough. The real progress has to come from lower levels where businesses and innovators are willing to take the risks and the bold steps to reduce the human impact on the environment in a much bigger way.
Exhibitor displays lined three floors in the UCLA conference space.