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Report from Fortune Brainstorm Green

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Posted on April 19, 2010

Historically business leaders and environmental activists most often found themselves pointing fingers at one another and rarely meeting except perhaps in a court of law or a contentious Congressional hearing. But the third annual Fortune Brainstorm Green conference had the feel of a high school reunion where the star athletes and cheerleading captains (in this setting, major corporate CEOs and capitalistic entrepreneurs) are now happily walking the halls with the class nerds (the tree huggers and animal lovers.)

“The environmental community has played a constructive role in our company,” Former Wal-Mart CEO Leo Scott stated in an on-stage interview with Time, Inc. Editor-in-Chief John Huey. “We are better off for having invited them to Bentonville.” The unusual alliance that Scott described, and which the many CEOs who followed him on stage embraced, is driven by a shared desire among the historic antagonists: to do more with less.

For business, doing more with less is a smart financial strategy. Waste and inefficiencies in manufacturing, transportation, and distribution cuts directly from bottom line profits. For environmentalists, doing more with less reduces negative environmental impacts and strains on natural resources. Bill McDonough, author of Cradle to Cradle, got one of the warmest responses from the crowd when he suggested a new twist on doing more with less. “We don’t want zero emissions,” McDonough said. “We want positive emissions.”

This theme of what we can do, rather than what we shouldn’t do, was pervasive. Lots of discussion centered on the proper role of government with most in the business community (Lew Hay of FPL group and Curtis Frasier of Shell, for example) suggesting Uncle Sam get on with action, ideally, a national energy policy and some system for monetizing carbon. Unfortunately, there were no policymakers in the audience to engage in the conversation.

Another common theme at the gathering was the environmental community’s failure to put forward compelling messages – a criticism the NGOs made of themselves. Sierra Club Mike Brune admitted the communications break-down with the public. Iconic earth activist and author of the Whole Earth Catalog Stewart Brand pointed out the green movement is not known for caring about money but better find some new talking points.

Similarly, the nuclear industry took a whipping for its poor marketing of self. From venture investment guru (and avid Tweeter) Peter Hebert to the CEO of a small nuclear power manufacturer, Paul Lorenzini, conferees seemed in agreement that nuclear power advocates needed a new marketing plan, though not all agreed (most notably Brune of Sierra Club) that nuclear power had a proper place in our energy mix going forward. Still some work there to forge consensus between business and environmentalists. Hats off to host Marc Gunther and Fortune Magazine for a well-run event attracting high quality speakers. Next year I’ll look for more female and minority participation on the panels and policy-makers in the room.

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