[This is the fourth post in a series by Maria Surma Manka who is in New York City for the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative. See her previous posts from this week about climate change and waste, opportunities in market-based solutions and the big CGI commitment to cookstoves. -Ed.]
Who would've thought that a convening of so many policy wonks, business suits, and serious-minded NGOs at the Clinton Global Initiative would result in some of the best entertainment I've seen in a while? Laughter! Tears! Rants!
Continuing the day's theme of market-based solutions, a discussion of this strategy to address environmental issues was held with Wal-Mart senior VP of sustainability Matt Kistler, Timberland CEO Jeff Swartz and The Nature Conservancy's lead scientist, M. Sanjayan.
Kistler and Swartz both discussed how flexing their corporate muscle can (or cannot) move business partners to green the supply chain. Most of us know the Wal-Mart story: The company set aggressive environmental goals and worked with suppliers to make those goals happen. Here's a great example from Kistler:
"We were looking at all of our products to figure out how to reduce packaging and fit more products into a trailer to make our transportation fleets more efficient. As one example, we worked with General Mills on strategies to reduce packaging on their Hamburger Helper products, which we sell a lot of. And we realized that if the noodles were made flat instead of curly, it would reduce the size of the box. And that's exactly what happened: With General Mills' flat Hamburger Helper noodles, we've cut that packaging by 1/3 . With all of the supply chain changes that we've made, our fleet efficiency is 60% better than it was in 2005."
Swartz of Timberland was blown away by the Hamburger Helper story ("Straighten the noodle and the world gets better?! That's the coolest story I've ever heard!"). But on the contrary, his experience trying to flex Timberland's corporate muscle was not so sexy of a picture. When Timberland approached their leather tanners, for example, with the request that they use more sustainable business practices, nothing happened. It boiled down to the fact that Timberland was just one (small) buyer of many, and the tanners had no real economic incentive to change. So, Timberland gathered together their "arch-competitors" to hammer our sustainability requirements from their common product sources, and then re-approached the tanners as one voice demanding more sustainable products. And, what do you know: it worked.
Sanjayan of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) agreed that using economics as a driver is the future of the environmental movement: TNC has not moved the needle much with their traditional approach of conserving land, he noted, and so they are looking at more innovative, market-based practices to get people's buy-in and protection of land and water sources. For instance, creating "water funds" in developing areas where those who need and use the water pay for the protection of the water supply. Saving land for land's sake doesn't necessarily move people, but saving it because their livelihood depends on it does move people.
But this is hard work noted Swartz. It took Timberland five years of grunt work to get their supply chain to think about the footprint of the materials the company purchased. "It's really frustrating and darn-near impossible to get these big systems to change. But we're still trying, because the consumer needs a product that they can feel good about and that performs."
"The private sector is not the answer, because there is no answer. The absence of leadership is the crisis – the government needs to do their job and set regulations. And NGOs think perfect is the enemy of good – if we [Timberland] stick our necks out, they [NGOs] chop it off. We can only have a conversation about solutions if government can unpuff its chest, if business can uncross its arms, and if activists can stop spitting on us all! I was at Copenhagen...it was all rhetoric. I'm afraid we're losing the war."
As Swartz took a breather from this (really insightful) run, Sanjayan jumped in to agree: "What moves players to get involved in partnership? Self interest...I don't think people really care about their grandkids, actually. We're too self-centered for that. I think maybe people care about their kids, but that’s about as far as they go."
As the session came to a close and the mood spiraled downward, Kistler of Wal-Mart had one of the last words about working together for sustainability and change. I couldn't catch all that he was saying, as he got very emotional and choked up at this point. But what was clear from this discussion - from the rants, jokes and tears - was that this sustainability work is damn difficult. Companies, NGOs and governments are working on it, but results can come painfully slowly in some cases, not at all in others, and in the end you question the overall impact of your years of sweat anyway. I'm not saying we should go easy on the big guys, but let's just take a breath and acknowledge that this work is rough. In the end, we all hope to make a difference...grandkids or not.
Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images via PicAPP