I came away from the Fortune Brainstorm: Green summit in Laguna Niguel, California convinced that collaboration and sustainability are inextricably linked. Collaboration connects us with a broader ecosystem that creates value for our businesses and also—in a broader sense—for the planet.
Fortune Managing Editor Andy Serwer, conference chair Marc Gunther and their colleagues created a thoughtful, compelling forum in which participants not only exchanged ideas but also developed solutions together on the fly. In other words, people were collaborating and creating value.
Informality is key to getting collaborative juices flowing, and the relaxed physical environment helped. The conference room at the Ritz Carlton featured Herman Miller Aeron chairs and coffee tables with small, sleek monitors on which participants could view close-ups of speakers.
Here are some highlights of the conference:
Traceability in the supply chain is good for business. That was the consensus of a break-out session in which Arlin Wasserman, vice president of corporate citizenship of Sodexo, Inc., the food service and facilities management company, noted that we need a “massive reinvention of traceability and transparency” in supply chains. Jill Dumain of Patagonia discussed how her company’s web site reveals both the good and the bad. Check out Patagonia’s Footprint Chronicles here. Now that’s transparency!
Wal-Mart is collaborating with suppliers on a “360 scorecard” detailing social and environmental footprints of products. Leslie Dach, executive vice president of corporate affairs and government relations, insisted that this effort could affect thousands of products. He also indicated that Wal-Mart would build sustainability into every buyer’s job description.
Fear of being accused of “green washing” has prevented Tiffany CEO Michael Kowalski from participating in any environmental conference until now. Kowalski described Tiffany & Co.’s efforts over the last decade to short-circuit the trade in “blood diamonds,” which are often mined by slaves controlled by militias and used to finance wars. Tiffany has reportedly removed blood diamonds from its supply chain by focusing on traceability and transparency. Tiffany can now identify the mined source of fifty percent of its products, according to Kowalski.
Bill Ford, executive chairman of Ford Motor Company, noted that he has focused on protecting research and development dollars, despite the downturn. This is clearly a longer-term view that’s critical to creating value through collaboration. As I explained in my book, The Culture of Collaboration, Ford has highly-collaborative pockets. Its challenge is to leverage those collaborative pockets to adopt an enterprise-wide collaborative culture. When Bill Ford joined the Ford board in 1988, he was told that he needed to stop associating with “known environmentalists.” Guess he’s having the last laugh considering the growing realization that green initiatives create value.
Peter Darbee, President and CEO of Pacific Gas and Electric Company, challenged the state and federal governments to collaborate with utilities in transforming the economy. At the onset of World War Two, the United States migrated from a peace to war-time economy within two years. “We need to do that,” Darbee insisted. “The government needs to get out of the way,” and streamline the permit process so that utilities can build transmission lines in two years instead of eight or ten.
Jeffrey Hollender, president and “chief inspired protagonist” of Seventh Generation, challenged participants to create products and services that “restore the Earth rather than being less bad.” He insisted that manufacturers should consider the entire lifecycle of products.
In an incredible story of collaborative leadership, Kevin Surace, CEO of Serious Materials, described how he reached out to union leaders after learning of a 6-day sit-in by workers at the shuddered Republic Windows and Doors plant in Chicago. Rather than waiting to buy assets through the bankruptcy court, he proactively engaged the people who make windows and listened to their concerns. Serious Materials, which manufactures windows which Surace says are 400 percent more efficient than dual pane windows, ultimately bought the plant for $1.45 million and rehired the 250 laid-off workers.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton delivered the conference’s closing keynote with a call to action that federal and state governments and private industry move beyond policy talks and “operationalize” energy efficiency, carbon reduction and other green initiatives. He mentioned two particularly interesting initiatives that the Clinton Global Initiative is enabling in collaboration with private industry.
Project 2 Degrees developed with Microsoft and others provides online tools that let cities establish a baseline for greenhouse gas emissions, create action plans, track successes for emissions reduction, and share experiences. Cisco is investing $15 million to reduce traffic congestion in cities through its Connected Urban Development Program, which uses information and communications technology to monitor emissions.
“What we don’t have is enough information sharing in real time,” President Clinton insisted. Real-time information sharing is key to collaboration whether we’re reducing emissions or developing products. So the discussion of green initiatives comes full circle to spontaneous, on-the-fly collaboration. I make the case in my book that the quest for value creation has forced the deserialization of work. The need for real-time information sharing is further evidence that sustainability and collaboration are joined at the hip.