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Starting Over, Sustainably

Or, Rise of the Planet of the Reboot.

America loves reboots. It’s a go-to strategy for Hollywood accountants and humans looking for behavior change. We love the whole hog-body transformation in 90-days-all or nothing approach to change. Incremental change doesn’t seem to satiate the soul any more. And while research shows this is a bad strategy for personal development, maybe it’s not such a bad idea for corporate America.

We see reboots everywhere in culture. Some are marketed as such – like Planet of the Apes or The Amazing Spiderman, or JCPenny or The GAP. Visit any gym on January second and you’ll see what I mean about our love of the reboot. By January 14th, we’re back to normal. Even wedding rituals can be seen as reboots, a literal taking of a vow that creates a moment of transformation – two flames become one.

And when reboots stick, they are indeed glorious.

Historically however, corporate America as confirmed that their reboots are driven more by a desire to be viewed differently rather than any real systemic change. In the environmental sustainability space, the classic example of a “green branding reboot” is British Petroleum’s shift to Beyond Petroleum and then back again for obvious strategic reasons. Arguably, an authentic reboot would have not allowed nor required such a retreat.

For about a decade it was a consumer-approved practice to simply rebrand or literally wash your corporate logo with a green pastiche (remember NBC Universal’s launch of Green Week?). Today, this has proven to be an unreliable if not outwardly risky strategy to gain green traction.

Today, a more interesting strategy is the corporate reboot – an internal strategy – to align newly acquired or once lost corporate values with the modern sustainability imperative. Evidence is emerging that consumers and corporate accountants approve, as reputations grow stronger, operational costs drop and employee engagement numbers rise when authentic approaches to sustainability are embedded rather than bolted on.

Let’s face it; mission-driven sustainability leaders like Interface and Seventh Generation and Stonyfield Farms are in the minority. The impact of the reboot starts to scale very quickly when mainstream corporate America steps up to the plate – they are the heavy hitters.

Here are some examples of corporate reboots when it comes to sustainability.

Waste Reboot: DuPont Building Innovations has become completely landfill-free after three years of focus. The division has reduced its environmental footprint from 81 million pounds of landfill waste annually to zero. The Drive to Zero landfill project included third-party partner sites, where products are often made for other companies. This meant that the project team had to manage the challenge of eliminating all unrelated product manufacturing landfill waste. That is a fundamentally different way for a mainstream company to do business.

Packaging Reboot: Coke and Pepsi are waging a new battle for rule over the high-fructose corn-syrup domain and it’s not just in through acquisition of better-for-you liquid brands. They are racing to the finish line of the most sustainable bottle. And while they are still far away, it is tackling the 1,500-pound bear (polar, of course) – their industry’s giant plastic footprint. And yet even though they publically embrace recycling and privately fight bottle bills, redesigning one of the classic icons of American litter is an admirable reboot.

Commerce Reboot: Look to Patagonia’s partnership with Ebay as they launched Common Threads Initiative, a partnership designed to encourage consumers to buy and sell used Patagonia gear and clothing as opposed to new items. Its part of Patagonia’s “don’t buy our stuff unless you really need it” challenge. Coming from nearly any another other large company, this challenge would seem disingenuous, and yet Patagonia pulls it off. Rebooting commerce is an important cultural step that mainstream consumers are not quite ready to take – perhaps Patagonia’s are.

Accounting Reboot: For 2010 PUMA kept two sets of books. In one they accounted for environmental services that they did not pay for. To many corporations these free services are a bump in profitability that they either feel entitled to or simply ignore. PUMA’s experiment revealed an unaccounted for EUR145 million line item based on their and their supply chain’s environmental impact. Rebooting their accounting, revealed risks and realities of doing business in an emerging system where environmental impact needs to be accounted for. See the full report here: http://about.puma.com/wp-content/themes/aboutPUMA_theme/financial-report/pdf/EPL080212final.pdf

Competition Reboot:

Look to Nike’s GreenXchange a web-based marketplace that Nike claims will allow “companies [to] collaborate and share intellectual property (IP) which can lead to new sustainability business models and innovation.” for a reboot of what competition should mean today. It’s designed as a sort of open sourcing of pre-competition ideas specifically for the footwear industry.

None of these items are necessarily news to most of you reading right now. Individually, they create not much more than interesting case studies in changing corporate behavior worthy of a press release. Collectively, however, they stick a flag in both the immensity of the problem and capacity of the solution as offered by mainstream corporations. And all of this demonstrates a very positive trajectory. We are moving from Net Zero Companies [historically accomplish via off-sets] to True Zero Companies [being approached with humility and employee engagement] to Regenerative Companies [made possible by industry collaborative and business model innovation].

For some companies even the low-hanging reboots seem out of reach. For others, they won’t settle for anything less than being an active participant in the reboot of capitalism itself.

John Rooks
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