The New, Old Business Of Change

Lately, energy and environmental marketing has taken on a familiar form: just business.

I have been travelling a lot these days to conferences and meetings across North America where people like me talk about how to improve the effectiveness of energy conservation and environmental programs. Aside from the ironic environmental effect of all the travel, there is another emerging trend. We seem to have forgotten why we are doing this. The sense of urgency that spurred the work of a gaggle of energy and environmental first-adopters into a global industry of social entrepreneurs might have lost its way.

Don't get me wrong. I am not a negative, anti-corporate crusader. No. I do not disagree with the approach taken by people like Adam Werbach (former executive director, Sierra Club) who dared to declare environmentalism dead.

The fact is, change is unlikely to happen on a global scale unless we operate within a familiar and somewhat systematic framework. People understand advertising. They like plain-language marketing. Gone are the days when someone with a good idea and access to a photocopier can create a global movement. We are running out of time to wait for the impact of only small, incremental micro projects to occur.

At a time when traditional institutions and governments seem reluctant to apply policy tools to bring about change, the future might well rest in the hands of nimble collaborative projects made up of civil society organizations, marketing firms, local governments, corporate partners and others. These collaborative projects have a great potential to be big enough to attract earned media attention, have strong community buy-in and create a sense of public momentum.

This framework provides measurable economic value to a corporate partner -- even if it is driven only by the bottom line. And that's okay, if it moves the environmental engagement needle along. The risk of these collaborations, however, is that, over time, they become just another business model and not focused on action. Fear, greed and competition are always factors that can limit creativity. It seems now that consensus is emerging about the need for new rules in order to limit the inclusion of old habits. Most important of which is that project planning must include a regular, group "reality check" that is built upon a common understanding -- that we are doing something important and new here.

A business approach is key to environmental progress. We need better marketing to build consensus and broaden participation of "non-environmentalists" to provide the foundation for massive scale and measurement.

Environmental organizations that have been either reluctant to embrace basic business tenets, such as strategic plans and budgets, or that refuse to entertain the thought of working with 'corporate America' will continue to only nibble at the margins. Likewise, corporations and marketing firms unable to tolerate the risk of innovative and open partnerships will lose an opportunity to grow.

And unless we get this right, we will fail to save the planet. That is what we're trying to do, right?

1 comment about "The New, Old Business Of Change ".
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  1. Marc Stoiber from Maddock Douglas, March 4, 2011 at 1:13 a.m.


    Nice piece. I'd point you to a couple of companies that seem to be meshing environment (or social causes) with business pretty seamlessly.

    The first is Replenish ( These guys have taken great design, max reuse, and an environmental perspective on every aspect of their budding business, and made it work. They're going gangbusters - and luring consumers to less unsustainable consumption along the way.

    The next is ISIS. ( Audette Exel is a successful banker who hitched brokers to her own ngo - the brokers make money (the thing they're good at) and ngo uses the money to create social good (the thing they're good at). Again, this business is humming.

    The final one is Walk Light Media. ( I like these guys because they've taken a sector that traditionally hasn't been associated with GHG's or smokestacks, and managed to show a better, greener, more innovative way forward.

    Hope this gives a bit of hope to folks. In my experience talking to corps across the US, I find a LOT of companies engaging in sustainability. They aren't talking about it as much as I'd like, but they're starting to smell the money in it and pursue it.


    Marc Stoiber

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