Meeting of the Minds by Martha Shaw


Business and environmental leaders brainstorm sustainable solutions to the world’s biggest problems.

by Martha Shaw

(San Diego, CA) – May 15, 2013 – What would happen if you sequestered big business leaders and entrepreneurs with environmental thought leaders and encouraged them all to brainstorm ways to reduce our tread on the planet? With a little luck and a lot of work, you get sustainable solutions to some of the world’s toughest challenges.

Fortune Brainstorm Green
Fortune Brainstorm Green opened on April 29 in Laguna Niguel, California with actor Harrison Ford and Peter Seligmann of Conservation International, and continued for twenty-four hours spread out over three days of panels, breakout sessions, meals and soirees. CEOs and sustainability officers of the largest multinational corporations on Earth shared progressive ideas and presented smart solutions in an atmosphere of friendship and goodwill, not to mention breathtaking ocean views. These executives face the challenge of achieving ever-increasing profits for their public companies, while reducing their impact on the environment.

Social Venture Network’s Courageous Conversations
Some of the attendees had just come from Social Venture Network’s Courageous Conversations (SVN) conference in San Diego, April 25-28. At SVN, social entrepreneurs were looking deep into the supply chain to launch and grow businesses that help solve problems that plague the planet and the poor. These eco-preneurs face the challenge of raising capital and gaining distribution while struggling to keep their companies privately held, thus immune to the destructive effects of rapid growth expressed in the quarterly earnings of public companies. Many, in fact, were on their way to the national gathering of Slow Money held in Boulder. Errol Schweizer of Whole Foods inspired the group with excellent examples of mutually beneficial relationships throughout the supply chain that nourish the planet.

Conservation International – a balancing act
Conservation International (CI), a not for profit organization that helps big companies go green, and encourages green companies to grow big, among many other activities, has a vision for an environmentally healthy world with economic security for all. At Fortune Brainstorm Green, CEO and Co-founder Peter Seligmann shared that vision in which Earth’s natural wealth serves as the cornerstone for vibrant, thriving human societies. He cited the need for a global shift in attitudes and actions. As an example of tools available to gauge progress or lack thereof, Deb Zeyen of CI’s Marine Division, revealed the new Ocean Health Index which calculates an annual global score that assesses the condition of marine ecosystems, an indicator for the health of the planet. From fisheries to farms, natural resources are at the root of the supply chain, and many argue that these resources belong to the commons, not the corporations.

Greening the supply chain
A supply chain is a series of links that begins with natural resources and the people who live in communities among them, and ends up as a product or service on the market. If that product, for instance, is sold by a public company, the stock market is yanking at the chain. The dichotomy is that without the omnipotent reach and infrastructure of big business, the task of smaller businesses getting products to market is daunting, and investors eventually want their investment returned. This often leads to mergers and acquisitions. SVN member Greg Steltenpohl, founder of Odwalla that sold to Coca-Cola, summed up one advantage of getting healthy green products to mass market by saying, “Thank gawd for Odwalla Superfood in airports!”

An ideal green economy is a complex integration of nature and people within an ecosystem. Much of the talk at sustainability conferences is about how to define an ideal modern day ecosystem. Because of the keen level of sophistication and passion in the room, these conversations often lead to the topic of biomimicry. Ethical Biomimicry Finance™, a joint venture between Biomimicry 3.8 and Ethical Markets, brings Nature to Finance. What can we learn from nature about balance? Everybody is talking about a circular economy.

Circular economy – the new buzz words
The concept of a circular economy is a common theme at business conferences which address a forthcoming scarcity of natural resources. Though reusing, recycling and recovering materials can certainly mitigate some of the environmental degradation, the business cases for a circular economy vary as dramatically as the materials themselves. From local vendors like Jade Planet that uses found objects to make footwear and handbags, to Yerdle’s model of sharing, to Alcoa mining trash for aluminum, one can find a wide range of promising examples where businesses are engaging in the complete life cycle of materials. One has only to view the satellite images of the plastic gyre in the Pacific, or the landfills of Brazil, to agree that it’s not a moment too soon.
The rapid expansion of manufacturing and commerce over the past five decades or so has left rubble on our land, toxics in our water, dead zones in our oceans, and poison in our skies. We discovered that man has a ravenous propensity to accumulate, consume and toss natural resources without thinking much about it. As a species, we are taking a look in the mirror and not liking what we see. The mass population of people on the planet has lost the native intelligence to protect our habitats, unlike bees and other species for example. We don’t live conservatively in a circular economy. At the cash register and on e-commerce sites, we invest our money in conveniences often destined for our oceans, and our own living environments in a linear direction.

Communications and Relationship Building
The tactics of environmental advocacy groups often fail by reprimanding man for acting like man. Though well-meaning, these efforts pale in comparison to the opposing well-funded forces convincing us that we’ll be much happier with more everything. This leaves us alarmingly dependent on businesses to do the right thing and help figure out how ten billion people could potentially be sustained on Earth in a socially equitable fashion. That’s why these business conferences are so important. They create opportunities for collective intelligence that we have not demonstrated on our own, and have stopped seeking from our governments.
From sustainable clothing manufacturers that support women below the poverty line, to juice makers striving to grow healthy local economies, to multinational soda and beer bottlers exploring ways to use their omnipotent presence for good, to shipping companies leading the way in green transportation, there is a lot of business going on in the world to feel good about. Regardless of how people feel about the corporate monopoly on resources, it is generally agreed that relationships are a good thing, and businesses are the real pros at building them. Successful enterprises are dependent on successful relationships. Green conferences are a means to that end. Sharing a coffee or a beat on the dance floor can lead to sharing a point of view. When you see an environmental leader dancing with a stockbroker, there’s the opportunity waiting to happen.

What about the United Nations?
While some look to businesses, others turn to the United Nations. This month, countries from around the world convened at the UN on the subject of protecting the ungoverned high seas, also known as Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (ABNJ), from industrial fishing gone haywire, deep sea mining, and other private interests that have a destructive effect on the health of our planet. But the business working group at the UN is more likely to represent the chemical and extraction industry. While area-based management tools, marine reserves, and environmental impact assessments are critical to our oceans’ future, they represent a restriction to multinational business activity, and to countries hoping to reap the rewards of the sea as though gold mining. A good effort but progress is slow.

While the sustainable consumption movement has high hopes for the general public to become advocates for the environment through purchase choices and lifestyle, the level of activism has yet to reach expectations. For instance, we go through 500 million plastic straws per day in the USA alone and 38,000 per person per lifetime, when all one has to say is “No straw, please.” People like straws and don’t want to give them up despite being environmental hazards. Though the general trend may be toward conservation, it isn’t happening fast enough to keep us and our fellow critters from drowning in our own trash.

Business conferences may be the answer
What do sustainable business conferences lead us to? Evidence that our species has all the brain cells we need to solve most problems. We might have what it takes to create harmony with nature if business relationships are built for the good of the planet. When business people come down from the skyscrapers, out of the factories, off the rigs, and up from the tankers to mingle for the sake of their grandchildren’s future, magic can happen. When the great social entrepreneurs of our time gather to share best practices together, our adrenalin kicks in and we get jazzed. Whether it’s Whole Foods or Unilever, retailers at the gateway can’t go it alone and they don’t want to. Environmental and social professionals working at the bottom link of the supply chain are resolving issues with computer manufacturers and apparel designers. Responsible restaurateurs know they can’t choose which fish to serve without consulting experts. Even at Rio+20 Earth Summit, it was the businesses that made the greatest milestones.

Why teleconferencing can’t cut it
Can virtual conferences replace live meetings so that nobody ever has to leave his or her office? Like all species, we thrive, grow and flourish on personal interaction. Despite new technology, we can’t create fully symbiotic relationships of the magnitude needed online, any more than a coral could Skype a fish to form an interdependent, mutually beneficial relationship in balance with the ecosystem. Living happily ever after as a species requires a determined, concentrated effort to cooperate and mingle together. It’s not just networking, it’s friend making and the joy of belonging to an ecosystem.

The hum
If you step back and listen to the distinctive hum of a happy hour at a sustainability conference, it has a buzz unique to the cross-pollination of ideas. That’s the vibe that may save our species yet.