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The Best Still Isn't Good Enough
Gil Friend, 28 Dec 05

What a year it's been! Tsunamis and hurricanes and earthquakes, met with both the best of human response -- outpourings of compassion and generosity -- and the worst -- cascading system failure, compassion fatigue and neglect. War and terror and the rise of the "global guerilla." Continued "linguistic detoxification" (Barry Commoner's delicious phrase for "let's call it OK instead of make it OK" environmental policies) from the current US government. Major commitments to ecologically sound development in China. The shift of US environmental policy leadership from Washington to cities [and states] across the country.

Worldchanging, of course, is all about sharing solutions for these times. That's also what we do at my company, Natural Logic, and I thought it might be interesting to readers to know what we've been up to this year.

Corporate environmental leadership "in play"

And JPMorganChase, General Electric, Sun Microsystems, and even WalMart have joined the ranks of BP and others seeking to claim corporate eco-leadership. Does it go beyond lip service? That remains to be seen, of course, but it's a telling sign that WalMart CEO Lee Scott isn't just talking about "greening" his stores. Here's what he said in Forbes: "There will be a day of reckoning for retailers. If somebody wakes up and finds out that children that are down the river from that factory where you save three cents a foot in the cost of garden hose are developing cancers at a significant rates -- so that the American public can save three cents a foot -- those things won't be tolerated, and they shouldn't be tolerated." Whatever you think about WalMart's social footprint, that's one thoughtful CEO.

It tells us that the work we've been pioneering -- for six years here at Natural Logic, for 30+ years for me, since my days at Bucky Fuller's World Game and co-founding Institute for Local Self-Reliance -- is taking root and bearing fruit. Yes, there's still a long way to go, but let's acknowledge that we've made significant progress. Renewable energy, carbon trading, organic food, cultural creatives, all on the rise. The demand for sustainability services is up, client expectations are more demanding and far more sophisticated than ever.

And yet...

The best still isn't good enough

Even the very best companies, with the most inspired sustainability initiatives, aren't rising to the planetary challenge and the business opportunity it contains.

When I addressed San Francisco's Commonwealth Club (the nation's largest public affairs society) this spring, speaking about "Risk, Fiduciary Responsibility, and the Laws of Nature," I offered that assessment and challenge, and suggested that Boards of Directors, CEOs, and CFOs -- not environmentalists -- should be leading the sustainability revolution.

Not that environmentalists aren't important -- they provide critical market drivers as well as political pressure that impact corporate behavior. But the leverage, the capital spending commitments, the infrastructure investments -- and the consolidated support or opposition for political initiatives -- live in the boardroom and the executive suite. And the view from on high is changing, as a new understanding of risk and reward takes root.

This is an issue we're increasingly engaging with our clients -- how the risk and opportunity landscape for business is changing -- at the intersection of business strategy and rapidly shifting global environmental and market expectations.

We addressed this issue in a Wall Street Journal (Europe) OdEd this summer, focusing on the readiness -- or lack thereof -- of the global electronics industry to respond to, and capitalize on, the European Union's increasingly stringent product regulations; but the risks and opportunities it the article assessed apply to many other industries as well. (You'll find an expanded version here.)

Working with clients who are ready to lead

Which is why we've taken to asking our more sophisticated clients: "What are you really here to do?" "As a company?" they'll ask. "As a manager? A parent? A voter?" "Yes," we'll respond. And it then gets very interesting -- and very powerful -- as the truth-telling begins.... and a powerful design conversation takes root.


That's where the real work of sustainability takes place. Not in the technology -- that's the easy part -- but in the conversations between people about their aspirations, their commitments and their promise to turn those into effective actions and consistent results that design their future worlds.
The specifics of that deep client work are not, as you'd imagine, something we can discuss in detail in a public forum. But we can share some of our other recent engagements -- focused on putting that sort of clarity into practice:

Rating Sustainable Business. (How good is yours?) We (StopWaste.Org, GreenBiz.com, Natural Logic, What's Working and SeaChange) have completed the initial 18 month design and development cycle for the Sustainable Business Rating System (discussed in our last newsletter). We're adding a national non-profit partner to complement our local government incubator, and we're raising funds to further develop and pilot the system -- including an extensive stakeholder feedback process -- over the coming year. Watch for news about how you can participate in the stakeholder process; and please contact us (at "rating at natlogic dot com") if you'd like to help fund the system's development.

Benchmarking Industry Performance The Washington State Department of Ecology has engaged Natural Logic to benchmark the performance of pulp and paper mills. With the power of Business Metabolics, our web-based key performance indicator (KPI) system, and the collaboration of the Ceres Facility Reporting Project, we'll provide a graphic comparison of resource productivity at different mills, and explore potential approaches to more streamlined, performance-based regulatory regimes. (See also our recent article on Real-Time Regulation.)

Streamlining "Environmental Management Information Systems" Natural Logic is advising a large pharmaceutical company on the development of its next generation environmental management information system (EMIS) -- evolving from largely manually managed, spreadsheet based systems to live dashboards, tailored to management needs as well as regulatory requirements. We anticipate that labor savings will more than pay for the cost of new systems; performance gains will be gravy.

Taking Sustainable Cities to the Top Our long standing work with the City of Berkeley continues to raise the bar on effective civic action. Backed by a 9-0 City Council endorsement of the city's draft "sustainable business action plan," we've teamed with David Johnston of Boulder's What's Working -- progenitors of the noted green building programs in Boulder, Austin and Alameda County CA -- to help this passionate and innovative city and university improve traction through effective collaboration (not just endless dialog). It's exciting to see Berkeley begin to fulfill the potential we envisioned 30 years ago at ILSR. (Not content with Berkeley's current rating, Mayor Tom Bates is aiming the city at the number one slot. The challenge: at least six other cities -- that we know of -- are aimed there as well! "Gentlemen, start your engines.")

Phase Two of our Albuquerque project -- based on the findings of the Regional Metabolism / Sustainable Resource Analysis we completed earlier this year with our partner EECOM, Inc. -- is about to begin, with the determined backing of recently re-elected Mayor Martin Chavez. The scope is broad and sweeping. We're also helping the city of Tempe, Arizona, design and build a LEED™ "Silver" Transit Center, working with our friends at Otak; our role: LEED coordination, project integration, and raising that bar. And we're helping the City of Palo Alto develop its Zero Waste strategy (this work in collaboration with Gary Liss and Associates.)

Greening Big Government Teaming with LMI, Sustainability Associates and Sylvatica Institute, we're helping the U.S. government's General Services Administration (GSA) -- probably the largest purchaser in the world -- develop its "sustainable enterprise" strategy and develop a robust, transparent and useful reporting system -- both for its mandated external reports to Congress and their equally important internal management systems.

Bringing Innovation to the Production Line Natural Logic, jointly with Beyond Compliance LLC and the EnviroSystems Group, developed the first sustainability training for managers at Toyota/General Motors joint venture NUMMI. Several dozen managers put their legendary problem solving skills to work in a new context, to identify and plan tens of thousands of dollars of savings in the first session alone. Next steps: broader training at NUMMI, and working with the local community college to bring these training to other regional manufacturers.

Finding "Fish You Can Trust" Natural Logic advises sustainable seafood broker CleanFish Inc on its increasingly robust sustainable seafood standards -- standards that have enabled CleanFish to find what may be the world's only sustainably farmed salmon, and bring it to market in the US. Tasty!

Also food related: we're working with Sustainable Ventures to produce Our Daily Bread: What Does it Really Cost, a design competition to get at the whole systems cost of -- a loaf of bread! The goal: to incentivize the next generation of economists -- with a $10,000 prize -- to think more comprehensively, and more realistically, about the real costs and benefits of what we value.

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Comments

I have to comment on this; it's one of the more balanced *and* positive things I've read in a while.

The truth, as you say, is that the best still isn't good enough. It resonates.

I've spent the last 4.5 years dealing with issues that are related to sustainable development within the Caribbean - started off mainly to help *me* move forward, but with the understanding that for *me* to move forward, the rest of the region has to move forward. While African nations and Indian nations get the limelight so often because they are often where the most funding goes, most of the Caribbean falls into an obscure grey area that just isn't interesting enough from the outside, as well as a large ability to assist themselves... if they would only get out of their own way.

I've spent much of this year travelling throughout the Caribbean and Latin American regions, and where I did see multinational corporations I did not see a form of 'local awareness' that is healthy.

The world is a beautiful place, filled with interesting things that make up something which makes Douglas Adams' analog (Earth as a computer designed to solve the Great Question) not too far of a stretch.

One of the things that I hope people take to heart in the next year is that change is necessary. And part of that change is also the very process of change; bringing forward antiquated methods of change has demonstrated this year that it is not sufficient, that people as groups and individuals need to be more adaptive. And another part of making a change, or affecting people in what we believe to be a positive manner, revolves around these questions:

Do we know *really know* who we are trying to help?
Do they *know* we exist, and what we are doing?

These two questions are largely answered by businesses, but at least in this part of the world, governments and NGOs haven't clued into the fact that the populations of the countries are outpacing them. Change is coming, with or without them. And a large part of that is economics... and 'Our Daily Bread' sounds like something that could work in the region, if people from the region got involved.

Maybe I'll be here. Maybe I won't. Atlas has a tendency to shrug now and then.


Posted by: Taran on 29 Dec 05

Gil --

Fascinating projects.

One question: how does CleanFish's "sustainably farmed salmon" account for the ratio between edible fish consumed in the manufacture of salmon feed, and the amount of edible protein that emerges as a finished product? Also, how do they deal with the issues of fish excreta?


Posted by: Seth Zuckerman on 3 Jan 06



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