Lessons from the GreenBiz Forum 2015

Stacey Foreman, Sustainable Procurement Coordinator for the City of Portland Procurement Services, member of the SPLC’s Strategic Advisory Committee and Chair of the SPLC’s Transportation and Fuels Technical Advisory Group, represented the Council at the GreenBiz Forum 2015. Her thoughts and takeaways from the conference follow.

What will take sustainability to the next level? How can we foster the next big leap? These are some of the questions posed at the opening of the GreenBiz Forum 2015, last month in Phoenix, AZ. While achievements are piling up – from innovations in renewable energy to harnessing the power of social media to foster behavior change – the rate of change is still fairly slow (see the State of Green Business 2015 for more on actual company performance). So what will it take? Here are a few common themes I observed during the GreenBiz Forum:

Collaboration

From the work WWF is doing with companies to source palm oil from certified sustainable sources to the Automotive Industry Action Group’s work on conflict minerals, GreenBiz was full of collaboration success stories. To me, what inspired the most hope were those examples where companies worked with their competitors to solve a common sustainability related problem. Sometimes it took a non-profit organization to bring them all together, other times one company decided to take the lead. But they still worked with their competitors – not only (perhaps) to level the playing field, but also because collaboration was the only effective solution.

Consistent Standards

The notion that companies spend a lot of time trying to navigate different local, state and federal product requirements, as well as third-party product standards, was mentioned more than once during the forum. And while this may pose as a great opportunity for compliance software companies, I think the lack of consistency does waste a lot of energy. However, I also recognize the value of leadership regulations at the local and state level in pushing issues forward when nothing is happening at the federal level (as one example). So the food for thought is: how can we build consistent standards that continually take us to the next level rather than settling for the lowest common denominator?

Speak their Language

I have heard many times that sustainability initiatives are more successful if you can communicate in the value language of your audience. Case in point, I was intrigued by the consistent reference during GreenBiz to the power of talking about sustainability initiatives through the lens of risk management when engaging CFOs and CEOs. For example, it is quite powerful to say “20-30% of your profits are at risk because of water shortages” versus encouraging water use reduction just because it is the right thing to do. I highlight this because it ties into another presentation I attended from WeSpire, where they demonstrated the power of engaging the “social butterfly” in changing behavior towards sustainability related actions (e.g. using a reusable mug for all to-go drinks) versus preaching to the choir. Although the die-hard “green” employee may take more sustainability actions, because the social butterfly casts a wider net, their smaller actions among their networks add up to more change. But you have to know how to engage the social butterfly using their value language – when you figure that out, change blossoms.

The Missing Piece

While GreenBiz was full of inspiring work happening across sectors, I still felt a lack of boldness. The one exception was some of the projects presented by young students (middle/high school) during an evening event in conjunction with the 2015 Sustainability Solutions Festival – where the winners of the 2015 Future City Competition and 2014 Intel ISEF shared their research and projects. I loved the uninhibited (yet scientifically sound) ideas they presented. While all the GreenBiz themes I have mentioned play a role in moving sustainability forward, I think the key is to ensure they are infused with boldness. We need the big audacious goals not just for inspiration, but to truly take us to the next level.

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