Green Scene: Environmental strategist Makower seeks to standardize green

Joel Makower is a writer, speaker and strategist on corporate environmental issues, clean technology and green marketing. He's been a well-respected voice on business, the environment and the bottom line for over two decades. SNEWS® first heard Makower speak at the April 2007 Co-Op America Green Business Conference in Chicago.
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Joel Makower is a writer, speaker and strategist on corporate environmental issues, clean technology and green marketing. He's been a well-respected voice on business, the environment and the bottom line for over two decades (www.makower.com). SNEWS® first heard Makower speak at the April 2007 Co-Op America Green Business Conference in Chicago.

Since then, we've wondered what his answer might be to the million-dollar sustainability question: How good is good enough?

Makower asserts that all industries battle barriers to entry and deal with those passing judgments. Thankfully, no one is asking for perfection.

"If DuPont, Wal-Mart, GE and GM can wave the green flag with credibility -- and they are -- then certainly marketers and manufacturers of outdoor products and services can play," he said.

While it's not a game that demands only the elite play with any proficiency, the rules of the game can be intimidating. What do you have to do to be considered a green business? How good do you have to be to even talk about green steps you might be taking initially?

A major hurdle handicapping businesses trying to make an entry into the green world, in Makower's point of view, is there are no standards for sustainable business.

"We know how to define organic because there is a law for that. We can define green building because there is a standard for that. We can't define green business and that's a problem," he said.

With standards came big growth to organic farming and green construction, he noted. While our industry is working on a green index (Outdoor Industry Association's Eco Working group), we are not close to minting a standard.

Sans standards, being green encompasses many different aspects of business: products, manufacturing methods used, supplier operations, materials sourced and used, basic office operations, and the end use of products by customers, are just the start.

Understanding how to work sustainability into that range can be a Herculean task, Makower said. There are also watchdogs to consider.

"It's not surprising that companies in the outdoor market are reluctant to make green claims because the landscape is littered with companies that got into trouble making claims that were not appropriate," he said.

Still, he pointed out, every company is dealing with some version of these same obstacles and every company can still genuinely become committed to a sustainable business plan.

To help businesses start the commitment in lieu of standards, Makower has three key questions and a series of supplemental questions to ask when considering your company's green business commitment.

1 – Does your company have a full understanding of its impact?
Does your company know what materials, energy and water use go into making, distributing and using your products? What wastes are generated? What role does the consumer play in a product's impact? Have you measured its carbon footprint?

2 – What is your company's plan to reduce and eliminate impact?
Is your company using performance goals and progress reports? Would you consider your company's plan to be bold and audacious -- such as eventually becoming carbon neutral, using all organic material or becoming a zero-waste operation?

3 – Is your company actively acting like a leader?
Does senior management get it? Do they talk about it? Is your company actively engaged with suppliers, employees, competitors, designers, etc., on this issue?

The three high-level questions can be applied to any company in any sector. The points are an excellent place to start and also serve as ongoing pulse points for a company's sustainability plan.

Here's a scenario to consider that should catalyze action. What if your customer was able to access, via text messaging from a retail outlet, a rating or standard on your company's sustainable business commitment? All a customer would need is the ability to text message and a code to dial on your company. A visual rating would appear, depicting one of three ratings: "Striding," "Starting," or "Stuck."

Such a rating would very much impact consumer decision-making and your company's sales. Such a rating system was launched in June 2007 and is called Climatecounts.org.

Makower was an instrumental member of the group that created Climatecounts.org, and he believes that it could be the closest thing to standardization in place at the moment.

"Climatecounts.org answers the question of how good is good enough for a company's climate commitment and performance," Makower said. "Up until now, it's been the Wild West, with anyone able to make whatever claim they wanted."

Climatecounts.org will put companies in the outdoor industry head to head with companies in all other industries, eventually. The initiative was launched with 56 companies last month. SNEWS® searched for several companies in the outdoor space, and did not find reports -- yet.

If you are searching for a template to get your company on the right track toward sustainability, Climatecounts.org offers a downloadable PDF that shows the detailed methodology behind the scoring. Click here to check it out.

This "Scorecard" provides a starting point that's in every business leaders' best interest to integrate into a sustainable business plan. And be prepared for being scored by Climatecounts.org because it is coming.

(Joel Makower will be speaking at the 2008 OIA Rendezvous.)


Kristin Carpenter-Ogden of Verde PR is putting her journalist hat back on with a regular Green Scene column for SNEWS®. After spending nine years as a journalist covering the outdoor industry, she founded Verde PR (formerly KCPR). Verde is a boutique public relations, branding and consulting agency located in Durango, Colo. For more information on Verde PR, email Carpenter-Ogden at kco@verdepr.com, or visit www.verdepr.com.

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