Three Thoughts on Apple and Insanely Great Brand Leadership

[This piece originally appeared on Sustainable Brands.]

It’s hard to think about brand leadership without thinking about Apple, now neck-and-neck with ExxonMobil as the world’s biggest company by market cap.

Last week, Apple was top of mind for many of us, with two major pieces of reporting: the UK release of Adam Lashinsky’s book, Inside Apple, which describes in part-admiring, part-unmerciful detail Apple’s tough organizational culture, and the New York Times’s excellent investigation into conditions in Apple’s supplier factories in China.

This last piece spurred CEO Tim Cook

Questioning and evolving the eco-label

[This blog originally appeared on Guardian Sustainable Business.]

In the last fifty years, the value of internationally traded goods has increased from less than a fifth to more than half of world GDP. A couple of years ago, a shipping container followed by the BBC went twice round the world in a year, stopping at Scotland, Shanghai, Brazil and Los Angeles along the way. Whereas a century ago we might have known where, how and who produced the things we eat, wear and use, in so many instances today all we know is what we’re told. And how can we be sure that what we’re told can be trusted?

Cliff Burrows, president of Starbucks, acknowledges that trust is critical as we seek to move to more sustainable business models: “Customers have demonstrated that they are more likely to buy products and services from companies they trust.”

Enter the eco-label: an independently verified, on-pack label that tells the consumer a product was produced (think Fairtrade or organic) or can be consumed (think nutritional labels or Energy Star) in a more sustainable way. It’s a powerful idea that combines sustainability standards-setting and branding, underpinned by the credibility of an independent body.

But 33 years after Germany’s Blue Angel, the world’s first eco-label appeared, the time is ripe for asking: How well has the eco-label lived up to its ambitions? And how does the model need to evolve to accelerate more sustainable modes of consumption as 7 billion of us, and counting, bump up against the limits of the planet’s natural resources?

Certainly, many eco-labels have done a great deal to raise awareness and to create trust, to change what we expect from certain product categories, and to build capacity and create a common framework around sustainability. Consider the success of the Fairtrade movement in the UK, where sales of products topped £1bn in 2010 and the 15th annual Fairtrade Fortnight is now drawing to a close.

But as Burrows notes, the eco-label model may have become too successful: “A wide array of certification programs has been developed, creating confusion among customers and undue burden on farmers. The industry needs to better understand what is meaningful to customers and works best for producers.”

And it’s not just the food and beverage industry that is affected. As of today, the Ecolabel Index lists 377 schemes in 211 countries and 25 industry sectors, from Italy’s 100% Green Electricity to New Zealand’s Zque natural wool label. In January alone, we saw announcements on a new label for wind energy, another front-of-pack nutritional label, and a certification process for conflict minerals.

More worryingly, it’s unclear how much impact eco-labels have really had. WWF’s 2010 review noted “insufficient comparable and meaningful data available” on the impacts of certifications and roundtables. Not only that, impact isn’t always the top priority for businesses: last week’s ISEAL 100 thought leaders survey found that only 56% of those surveyed from the corporate sector saw “improved sustainability performance” as the main benefit of using voluntary standards, while 78% cited “increased operational effectiveness”.

The need to question and to evolve the eco-label model is becoming more acute as global companies begin committing to audacious, long-term sustainability goals and need to find effective ways of delivering, as well as credible ways of communicating what they’ve done. Consider Unilever, which has committed to sourcing 100% of its agricultural raw materials sustainably by 2020. How will the company deliver – and show that they’ve delivered – on this goal when, as of 2009, only 8% of global tea production was certified sustainable according to one of 10 independent standards?

As Jan Kees Vis, Unilever’s global director of sustainable sourcing, says: “Companies and brands are struggling with the question how to mobilise consumers to give preference to products and brands that have the potential to deliver positive social and environmental outcomes. The tools available seem to be labels and brands, and I think there is room in the market for both.”

Eco-labels have started to evolve to meet the challenge: ISEAL and WWF have recently completed major strategic reviews of their voluntary standards and multi-stakeholder initiatives. But we need to step back and consider what eco-labels were designed to achieve in the first place, consider objectively the limitations of the eco-label as a tool, and ask how it can be complemented by other ways of creating trust and influencing behaviour change across global supply chains.

Ultimately, eco-labels strive to accelerate sustainable behaviour. Neither consumers nor producers can be expected to do the right thing unless they know what that is, and eco-labels are to be commended for focusing on this need – as are the global companies who are pushing to make effective use of them.

Patrin Watanatada is leading a project at SustainAbility to explore these issues. Signed, Sealed… Delivered? This can be downloaded here

The Leading Edge of Sustainability – New Spheres, New Mindsets, New Models

[This post originally appeared on the SustainAbility website.]

“Sustainability” has become part of the modern business lexicon. But what does it really mean?

In a 2010 survey of global CEOs by Accenture and the UN Global Compact, 93% of the 766 CEOs surveyed said that sustainability issues were “very important” or “important” to the future success of their businesses. In this same survey, 81% agreed or strongly agreed that “these issues are fully embedded into the strategy and operations of my company” (up from 50% in 2007).

We’re glad to see this evidence of the growing importance of sustainability issues on the global corporate agenda, and we celebrate the ambitious goals and substantial progress of many businesses. But we have to disagree that 80% of companies have fully embedded sustainability into their strategy and operations. The participants at our annual members’ workshop in London seemed to feel the same – in response to our informal pre-workshop survey, most said they “strongly disagreed” or “disagreed”.

Such a disconnect between what the CEOs think and what many others think comes from a disagreement over what sustainability means. Sustainability isn’t just about a few percentage point reductions in carbon emissions, or a selection of sustainably sourced product lines, or a supplier policy – as important as all of those are as starting points. But what is it then?
We kicked off our recent Engaging Stakeholders Program member workshops in London and New York by asking each other: “What is sustainability leadership?” Here are some of the themes we discussed.

New Spheres

Manage outside the walls of the company. Leading businesses are expanding their spheres of interest and influence, seeing both responsibility and opportunity in the value chain as well as in the direct footprint. This is reflected in commitments that expand outwards (for example, in 2005 Walmart committed to sending zero waste to landfill; five years later it has committed to increasing the income of one million small & medium farmer suppliers), but also in a new view of what it means to manage a business. One of our workshop participants said that his company had begun to think of suppliers as part of the organization, and that this approach shaped everything they did on supply chain management.

Set Big Hairy Audacious Goals that go beyond the value chain. Examples we’d put into this category include GlaxoSmithKline’s efforts to increase access to medicines; Nike’s goal to develop a closed-loop business model; Google’s goals to make renewable energy cheaper than coal and (less widely known) to maintain the viability of one of its key input industries, journalism; and most recently Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan, which aims to define a sustainable model for consumer goods value chains.

Look for the best ideas everywhere. The age of “Not Invented Here” is beginning to seem out-dated even in mainstream business. P&G now sources 50% of all new product ideas from outside the company. GSK, Nike and Walmart are all taking open innovation approaches to achieving their sustainability goals through GSK’s Open Lab for R&D into developing country diseases, GreenXchange for patents and Earthster for life-cycle assessment analyses, respectively.

Support individual leadership and innovation – particularly by the young. Many of the examples cited were of leadership from young people or employees, and DSM’s presentation on their young employees’ global bottom-up sustainability network was one of the most popular sessions at the workshop. It is becoming a constant refrain and source of hope that today’s young people are, as a group, much more interested in sustainability than their elders – and are full of ideas and energy.

New Mindsets

Think in terms of economic ecosystems. The least-understood and most overlooked dimension of the triple bottom line, economic impact, is perhaps the most important of all. As SustainAbility chairman Geoff Lye noted in his presentation, we are at a time when the economic power of business today has never been greater. The total annual sales of today’s top 200 corporations is $11 trillion – just under the GDP of the United States, over twice that of China, and five times that of the UK.

Businesses exist to create and distribute value, and the way they do this must be fundamental to any definition of sustainable business. Think of it as corporate economic responsibility, corporate social innovation, business-led economic transformation, or, as one of our members suggested, quite seriously, “Making Business Beautiful!” Whatever you want to call it, sustainable business is a way of doing business that sees each business as part of a larger economic system:

  • Where suppliers and employees are better able to supply and to work if they are treated and paid fairly;
  • Where shared resources and infrastructure are invested in through a good tax base (and businesses pay their fair share of that tax base);
  • Where customers have affordable access to products that will genuinely enrich their lives, including the basics (water, sanitation, nutrition, healthcare, energy, ICT and finance); and,
  • Where competition is healthy and businesses are diverse, making the whole system more resilient.

See values, norms and cultures as crucial enablers. Two participants at our London workshop named the end of the Catholic Church’s absolute ban on condom use and the work of Mechai Viravaidya to popularize the use of condoms in Thailand through humor as favorite examples of sustainability leadership. More generally, almost all agreed that understanding and influencing the expectations and values of everyone from consumers to investors would be crucial to the success of future sustainability initiatives. This is now mainstreaming as a topic of discussion – see, for example, the theme of the upcoming 2011 World Economic Forum, Shared Norms for the New Reality.

New Models

As SustainAbility co-founder John Elkington wrote last year in The Transparent Economy:

Properly understood, sustainability is not the same as corporate social responsibility (CSR)—nor can it be reduced to achieving an acceptable balance across economic, social and environmental bottom lines. Instead, it is about the fundamental, intergenerational task of winding down the dysfunctional economic and business models of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the evolution of new ones fit for a human population headed towards nine billion people, living on a small planet already in ecological overshoot.

Indeed, the search for these new business models is becoming increasingly vocal. At last year’s Clinton Global Initiative meeting, Ceres, Nike, the Skoll Foundation and CalPERS launched a working group on this subject.
Two key goals of these new models:

Collaborate to deliver solutions. Sustainability leadership has moved well beyond compliance (‘because it’s the law’), and even accountability* *(‘because we are pushed, we must’), towards solutions (‘because we can, we will’). Increasingly, leading businesses are looking at their core competencies and asking how these can solve pressing social and environmental challenges, often in collaboration with other industries. As former Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff has written, “For a century… the manager’s job was to oversee and control what was inside ‘my company.’ Everything else was a distraction. [Now] you need to collaborate… you can’t do it alone because the needs of individuals don’t conform to existing organizational and industry boundaries.” At our London workshop, Vodafone’s Sarah Sanders presented on their work to partner with pharmaceutical companies to make healthcare more accessible through Vodafone’s mobile platform.

Influence consumption – and defy waste. Our workshop participants agreed that addressing consumption was crucial, but admitted that this was also one of the greatest challenges for their business models. Product portfolio changes such as PepsiCo UK’s commitment to increase the percentage of whole foods and low-fat dairy in its global portfolio are important steps, but more is needed. One fascinating trend in this direction is collaborative consumption, web-enabled platforms that allow people to share the use of existing assets. One of our workshop participants named Streetbank, which allows neighbors to borrow household items from each other, as her favorite example of sustainability leadership.

What’s Next?

The leading edge is out there. As author William Gibson famously wrote, “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” Here are three leadership themes we’d like to see more of in 2011. We welcome your additions to this list.

  • Sustainability strategy as large-scale collaboration and change management. “Traditional” approaches to sustainability strategy have been heavily focused on the company’s own performance, planning and processes, with partnerships and organizational change as a second step. We now expect to see leaders increasingly placing collaboration and change management at the heart of their strategies. A key part of this will be formal and informal structures to encourage and harness insight and innovation among employees as well as stakeholders. Interestingly, a look at the business section of any bookstore will demonstrate how collaboration and behavior change, once on the sidelines, have now become part of the global business and economic conversation.1
  • Business initiatives to understand and affect values and behaviors. Many businesses have access to deep insight into human behavior through their market research capabilities and relationships with consumers. We want to see more of this directed towards positive change. The power of brands to change our values and aspirations has been a key theme at the Sustainable Brands conferences.
  • Efforts to systematically identify and scale new business models based on creating value from fewer physical resources, such as Daimler’s Car2Go pilot based on the Zipcar car-sharing model.

1 See Macrowikinomics; Collaboration; Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us; Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness; Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard; Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior; etc.

Employee Engagement: Hearts and Minds

Once considered almost as a by-product of a company’s sustainability strategy, employee engagement on sustainability is now a hot topic, recognized as a crucial driving force for delivering on that strategy. And persuading people to change requires engaging both the rational, analytical mind and the emotional heart.

At SustainAbility’s recent Engaging Stakeholders Program members’ workshops in New York City and London, we explored employee engagement by asking:

  • How are leading companies motivating their employees to take action through practical guidance and compelling communications? In New York, Intel’s Suzanne Fallender updated us on Intel’s initiatives to make sustainability relevant to specific business functions and link it to compensation and professional objectives. In London, DSM’s Jacqueline van Zundert discussed the DSM Next initiative, a self-organizing global network of younger employees passionate about sustainability and business.
  • How do we properly harness the power of language? Using language strategically to communicate and to persuade was a major thread of conversation throughout the workshop. For our employee engagement session, guest speaker John Marshall Roberts of Worldview Learning introduced us to a (literally) colorful way of thinking about the different ways people see the world, and designing targeted messages to suit.

John’s talk proved such a hit that we asked him to share his thinking with our broader network. Our illustrated interview features John in conversation with SustainAbility’s Patrin Watanatada on how to engage colleagues and stakeholders more effectively by putting yourself in their shoes – in other words, engagement through empathy.

Here’s the video….

Better Place: The Very Model of a 21st Century Enterprise


Photo: With colleague Jennifer Biringer, test-driving the Th!nk EV at Better Place’s Palo Alto headquarters back in June.

Many of us at SustainAbility have a big sustaina-crush on Better Place, the start-up working to build the infrastructure for electric vehicles—charging stations and battery packs—in cities around the world, and its founder Shai Agassi. (Our biggest Better Place fan, Gary Kendall, has contributed to their blog here and here, and the urgent need to transition our systems away from oil is a recurring theme for our team—see most recently Jeff Erikson’s blog on the BP Deepwater Horizon spill.)

But what’s a crush without a little analysis? Here are seven reasons why we think Better Place is one of the best examples of a 21st century enterprise out there.

1. Better Place started with an urgent social need, is moving rapidly to bring a solution to market, and is doing so by prototyping around the world. First, Agassi started with a Big Hairy Audacious Goal for his country: no less than independence from oil.

Says Better Place Australia CEO Evan Thornley in an interview on CNET’s CarTech blog: “[When Shai Agassi was coming up with his initial white paper] he went through the stages of ‘how can we run a country without being dependent on oil?’… We’re a mission-driven organization; we want to get the world off oil. There’s nothing good about it: fighting over it, paying for it, running out of it, or polluting the atmosphere with it.”

And Better Place is not wasting any time, as Cisco strategy EVP Inder Sidhu writes in a nice excerpt from his strategy book Doing Both, which argues that pursuing two seemingly disparate paths at once is often mutually reinforcing:

Agassi hopes to move quickly—before the next wave of first-time car buyers choose gas- or diesel- powered vehicles… Over the next five years, Chinese and Indian consumers are projected to buy as many as 70 million vehicles—more than all of the cars that exist in the UK and Germany today.

Most technology startups set out to build advanced products for sophisticated customers in established countries… Afterwards, they typically water down their innovations for sale to customers in emerging countries. Agassi has dispensed with this model and is instead focused on building simple solutions that can be deployed anywhere around the world simultaneously.

2. Better Place is thinking service, not product. Why are service-based business models often a better bet from a sustainability perspective?

Service-based models incentivize manufacturers to make assets that last and to take end-of-life responsibility (think Xerox copiers). They allow many more people to get use out of the same amount of physical assets (think laundromats, or car sharing services like Zipcar, and see Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers’s Collaborative Consumption website and book for more examples). And they start with the human need and ask, “How can we best meet this?”

Agassi understands that people fundamentally seek the service of convenient mobility. This insight means that his business model is designed around meeting that need for mobility as effectively as possible, rather than making the current model (liquid-fuelled cars) somewhat better.

For transportation, says Agassi in an interview, what matters is miles:

Oil companies sell miles…at the end of the day [not gasoline]. [Better Place is like] an oil company that has a guaranteed supply of oil at a cost of zero dollars a barrel… I don’t sell the energy—the battery makers do that. I sell the convenience. (Interview by Martin LaMonica, CNET)

And access to a service is often a much better model for the customer than owning the asset itself, say Better Place’s Evan Thornley and Guy Pross in another interview:

Separating the battery from the car is a key to our business. It not only takes that battery [technology] risk from you, but also saves you from purchasing the battery up front, which is a huge part of the cost of hybrid and electric vehicles. (Interview by Derek Fung, CNET)

Continue reading

On meat, the environment, and data

This is huge. In his review of Simon Fairlie’s new book, Meat: A Benign Extravagance, British environmental journalist, climate campaigner and long-time vegan George Monbiot looks at the assumptions underlying the argument that eating meat is bad for the environment, and concludes with the author that many of them are false.

I still believe that the diversion of ever wider tracts of arable land from feeding people to feeding livestock is iniquitous and grotesque. So does the book I’m about to discuss. I no longer believe that the only ethical response is to stop eating meat…

[Current] idiocies [such as feeding grain to livestock], Fairlie shows, are not arguments against all meat eating, but arguments against the current farming model.

Fairlie makes a bunch of points (or, as Monbiot says, “butchers a herd of sacred cows”):

  1. We’re using the wrong comparison to judge the efficiency of meat production. We should be looking not at the conversion rate of feed into meat, but on the amount of land required to grow meat, with the amount of land needed to grow plants of the same nutritional value to humans.
  2. Meat becomes an efficient means of food production if livestock are fed with food for which humans don’t compete – residues and waste for pigs, straw and grass from fallows and rangelands for cows. (Second-generation biofuels, anyone?)
  3. The commonly quoted claim that “it requires 100,000 litres of water to produce every kilogram of beef… is wrong by around three orders of magnitude. It arose from the absurd assumption that every drop of water that falls on a pasture disappears into the animals that graze it, never to re-emerge.”
  4. Farmed animals produce about 10% of the world’s GHG emissions – not 18% or more than transport, as the FAO claimed based on such faulty assumptions as saying that “all deforestation that culminates in cattle ranching in the Amazon to cattle: in reality it is mostly driven by land speculation and logging,” confusing “one-off emissions from deforestation with ongoing pollution” as well as gross and net production of methane and nitrous oxide.
  5. Many vegetable oils have a bigger footprint than animal fats.

Monbiot concludes by saying that those who advocate for veganism for environmental reasons are better off campaigning for meat, milk and egg-producing systems that are “low energy, low waste, just, diverse, small-scale” (and, still, eating much less of it than we do).

Important reading, not just for the arguments (and note, I am not saying anything here about veganism as an animal rights choice, which I respect greatly) but as a larger reminder of the thin ice that many of our assumptions skate on, and the dangers of relying too much on data rather than principles to tell us where to go next in this complex world. It makes me think of Michael Pollan’s response to the endless debates over which nutrients and how much in what proportion from where: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Eat vegan if you believe it’s simply wrong to eat meat, otherwise go “low energy, low waste, just, diverse, small-scale” – which, come to think of it, is a set of principles that makes sense for all forms of production.

Think locally, act globally

“I’m getting bored of global governance,” said my friend Vikrom to me today over late afternoon tea and mangoes.

We were catching up on the last seven years, and he was telling me about his doctoral research on perceptions of climate science and risk at Oxford’s Institute for Science, Innovation and Society (how much do I love their tagline “Wicked problems, clumsy solutions, uncomfortable knowledge”). 

“Global governance is fine for things like security and human rights. But I think meaningful environmental action is increasingly going to be taking place at the local level and not at the transnational level.”

This wasn’t a normative statement. He wasn’t saying that meaningful action on climate change or water or biodiversity shouldn’t be taking place at the transnational level. Only that he didn’t think it was going to happen.

This reminded me of a blog I read last week by Shoko Takemoto, an MIT grad student working on a project to understand how communities perceive climate risk. She writes fascinatingly about her work this summer with Laotian rice farmers (via David Hodgson):

Before coming to Khammouane, I was a little nervous to ask the villagers about climate change. For me, I have understood that climate change adaptation is about estimating the impacts of climate change using the best science, scenarios, and models available… I was worried about how to communicate such complex ideas to farmers and villagers who perhaps had very little knowledge of science or future projections.

However, as soon as I started talking with the farmers and community members, I was stunned by their wealth of knowledge, experience, and insights regarding how seasonal weather patterns, extreme events, and frequency and scale of disasters are changing, how that is impacting their lives, and what needs to be done to solve these issues.

Ninety-five percent of the people in Nonbok are rice farmers… they must survive through damages from flood and drought almost every year. [Adaptation] to climate change and reducing the risk of disaster is not a matter of science or predicting what might happen in the future; instead it is an issue that impacts their well-being and their everyday lives, and needs to be dealt with today.

…I began to understand that at the community level, the terms disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation may be too limited to capture and address the villagers’ concerns.  In vulnerable communities… it is difficult to isolate and identify whether a disaster is due to climate change, [poverty] or natural hazards.  From the perspective of the communities, such differentiation seems irrelevant, if not confusing.

There’s something here fascinating here about language. One of the things that we continually bump up against is making the complex, long-term, global nature of sustainability challenges meaningful to each of us in our daily lives as individual citizens, consumers and professionals. Ironically, the language of sustainability – as increasingly abstract and sanitized as it has become  (think “overnutrition” or “350 ppm” or “stakeholder” or, indeed, “climate change adaptation and mitigation”) – serves to distance us from a gut understanding – and therefore, from acting.

There’s something, too, about an over-reliance on modeling at a global or corporate or non-individual level without attention to what this means on the ground today – whether that’s in a village or a corporate meeting room. Of course, it often seems like there isn’t anything to care about on the ground today (that’s why it’s a sustainability challenge) but I’m increasingly thinking that we have to try harder to find those connections, rather than railing against the cognitive limitations of all of us humans to grasp what’s happening in the long-term or the broader sphere and asking “why they don’t just look at the data.” Perception is not to be dismissed. We need to meet people where they are.

Hence – again – why stories and the one-to-one model (as Tom’s Shoes says) are so important. And just yesterday, my colleague Kyle forwarded me a project he’d come across to tell stories that personalize the Millennium Development Goals.

Need to keep thinking about this a bit more.

Links for 20-22.3.10

  • 100 Best Business Books of All Time: I rather like the chapter headings, themselves instructive.
  • MoMA acquires “@” (their only public domain acquisition ever): and it makes sense! fascinating.
  • Why the Internet should win the Nobel Peace Prize.
  • 20% time not just for Googlers – why and how to make it work for you.
  • “If you stay open to everything, it makes it difficult to do your thing.” – One of my two favorite teachers from school days, on Sunday in Dolores Park. This was in reference to figuring out the use of IT and social media in the classroom, but it certainly applies to everything.
  • Forget Malthus – the real threat is over-consumption, not over-population. “A woman in rural Ethiopia can have ten children and, in the unlikely event that those ten children all live to adulthood and have ten children of their own, the entire clan of more than a hundred rural Ethiopians will still be emitting less carbon dioxide than you or me.”
  • Edgeconomist Umair Haque: “Go great to good. Today’s great challenge isn’t making the same old toxic junk more efficiently — it’s making stuff that’s not toxic junk in the first place.” Why? There are “seven ways going great-to-good is better for your bottom line.” I like his dubbing of transparency and accountability as “ethical accelerators” – a much better way of describing accountability, collaboration, innovation, etc. than I used.
  • Frog Design on the new economies of trust and meaning (vs transactions and materials) – wonderfully pulls together strands from Umair Haque’s, Shoshana Zuboff’s i-space, NESTA on trust, CHris Anderson on the freeconomy and our own Volans. Why does meaning matter? For one, it means creating value from something other than material stuff.

Go west

After John’s visit to San Francisco, Jennifer and I continued the conversation we had started about what is it about San Francisco that makes it so interesting for sustainability. I remember Jennifer saying when she first got here that she felt a real sense of pioneering and possibility, even a few hundred years after the pioneers headed out West. Some thoughts we had:

People want to create. SF has a strikingly high concentration of people wanting to create – if every other person in LA secretly, wants to act (or direct…), here every other person seems to have a start-up dream of some sort. It is very charming somehow. Related to this, people think “design” in the sense of identifying and meeting an untapped need – as opposed to other cities where people might primarily be looking for ways to do things more efficiently and effectively.

People think big. Maybe it’s the potential reach of IT, but ambitions are big. Google’s mission: “To organize the world’s information.” Facebook: “To make the world a more open place.” Not small things. Related to that, VC Paul Graham has a nice essay about the different “ambition” messages cities give out. Cambridge, MA is “you should be smarter,” NYC is “you should be richer,” but the Valley is “you should be more powerful.”

But people also think local. There seems to be a real appreciation for local shops and artisanal products of all sorts – and not just chi-chi ones – and a relative lack of chain stores except in just a couple of concentrated neighborhoods – to a degree I’ve not seen in any other major city I’ve lived in.

… and they feel closer to nature, because they are. It does seem to make sense that seeing water and/or hills from so many places in the city, and very often you are walking up or down noticeable slopes, makes people more aware of the fact that we are on the Earth. Not to mention the omnipresent earthquake danger. Easier to forget that in the concrete valleys of Manhattan.

But not to say that SF has it all over London though… London (and the UK) is, as my friend James’s friend Paul nicely says (as I coincidentally discovered when I Googled “London versus Silicon Valley”), the “beating heart of so many social movements, from anti-slavery to fairtrade, universal suffrage to 3rd world debt cancellation.” It is far more more diverse, both nationalities and professional backgrounds. And let’s not forget that London has its very own Silicon Roundabout.

Which is just to say that SF and London are simply complementary – and this nicely mirrors SustainAbility’s own set-up.

What is it that we sustainability folk do?

I like the notion that “change” and “value” feel most solid in defining what it is that we sustainability folk do.

  • Change is the process (not change for change’s sake, but change because things aren’t right as they are)
  • Long-term, equitably allocated value is the outcome

I believe it’s helpful to be as precise as possible about the difference between:

(a) what (processes or characteristics) we believe will lead to that outcome: e.g. transparency, accountability, inclusivity, interactivity, engagement, collaboration, innovation, scalability…

(b) what that outcome actually is: value that can be created again and again, value that is equitably allocated … to be translated more specifically for each different sector, corresponding to meeting a certain societal need. So for the food sector, “long-term equitable value creation” equals the production of nutritious, safe, affordable, accessible food for all humans in such a way that ensures that producers can keep producing and that the environment can keep sustaining agriculture. For energy, it’s the production of energy accessible to all humans in such a way that the earth (and sun!) can keep providing… etc. (and so 2 degrees / electrification of transport isn’t the endgame itself, but what we need to do to achieve that endgame).

So our job is fundamentally two-fold:

(1) to make the case to businesses, and those who work with them, as to why they should transform so that they will deliver value to all stakeholders both now and for generations to come. To do this we need to be able to persuade companies of the merits of this new, big-picture, society- and environment-encompassing way of defining business value. Some major tasks involved:

  • continually gather the evidence for this new form of value outside of the usual “business case” dimensions
  • generate robust analysis and ideas for solutions
  • communicate all this in a persuasive and high-impact way

(2) to work with businesses, and those who work with them, to help them change how they work and make money so that they will deliver value to all stakeholders both now and for generations to come. For example, we should help companies to:

  • better identify and measure these new forms of business value, and helping intrapreneurs to sell ideas internally, by developing frameworks that can help embed and operationalize
  • be more transparent and accountable by offering sustainability governance and reporting and performance measurement
  • collaborate by facilitating intra-industry, cross-sector and other forms of collaboration and partnership
  • strategize and innovate through executive coaching or CEO engagement
  • implement by developing tools that help managers and ops folks to operationalize this new way of generating business value