Yesterday, I attended the GoGreen 2013 conference here in Portland, Oregon. GoGreen is a business conference for business leaders in the green economy, and each year has drawn increasing interest. Yesterday’s event was packed with attendees, and several dozen exhibitors lined the main hall that doubled as a networking space. With a great lineup of speakers and sessions, and scheduled networking breaks throughout the GoGreen is a powerful place to meet new faces, get the word out about your business, and learn from other companies as they progress down the path of sustainability.
I wanted to share thoughts on the day and some of the points that resonated strongly yesterday.
1. Morning session: “Leverage Your Data: Tools to Build Your Sustainability Strategy”
This session was led by a group of panelists who talked about their companies’ sustainability programs and how they have learned to tell the story to interested audiences. The session lasted for about 90 minutes, with break-out small discussion groups. After their presentations, the room split into three groups that focused on a) identifying sustainability tools to collect and report on data; b) how to talk with an organization’s staff or leadership to help educate them on and gain their acceptance of a sustainability program; and c) how to take the information, make sense of it, and use it to tell the story of the company’s efforts.
I joined the third group. It was a powerful experience to be in the presence of business leaders, sustainability coordinators, and purchasing managers alike who work at non-profit agencies, for-profit businesses, and even city departments, and yet to hear them all express in their own words similar challenges they are facing: How to quantify the data, how to collect and measure it, and then how to summarize it into a story that shows their organization’s sustainability efforts. Collectively, session attendees identified important points, including:
– The term “sustainability” means something different depending on each industry. For example, an IT firm may be concerned more about reducing its electricity use or e-waste generation, whereas a paper mill is more interested in cutting back on wood pulp waste or water consumption. For every industry — and even every company — the precise set of goals for sustainability logically vary. Each company’s KPIs (key performance indicators) are unique. While this opens up the door for every company’s sustainability story to also be unique, it also presents a challenge in that each company needs to decide for itself, what it wishes to improve upon, and in doing so understand that its own goals may not be fully understood or appreciated by other industries, simply due to unfamiliarity.
– Finding and using a tool to collect and report on the KPIs can be a simple exercise, or it can be a very costly, involved process. Many attendees reported using Excel spreadsheets to store and report on data, as they found it simplest to share the files with others in their organization; others used home-grown applications; and yet others used third party software subscriptions like Scope5, which offers integrated, customized reporting based on targeted KPIs. (separately, Scope5 had a booth in the exhibit hall demonstrating their service, and as an example showed an industrial manufacturer’s reporting on waste, greenhouse gas emissions, and electrical usage, among others).
– In the scope of sustainable business, qualitative is just as important as quantitative. While data supports a company’s sustainability claims and is vital for reporting progress and long-term trends, how that data is presented, and to whom it is presented, is just as important. A high-level executive may be more interested in financial information showing corporate savings, compared with a customer who’s more interested in the waste-reduction and environmental values of the company their dollars are supporting. Understanding what information to present, and to whom it will be presented, is crucial for helping a company tell its story.
2. Lunch Keynote by Charlie Hales
At lunchtime, Portland Mayor Charlie Hales gave a presentation on the City of Portland’s sustainability program and ways the city is working with community organizations, schools, and businesses. Charlie also highlighted Portland’s work with Portland General Electric, the local utility, to offer 100% wind energy to customers at $.003/kWh. This represents an huge drop in price and, while it is likely due to the glut in local wind energy mixed with government subsidies, nevertheless means switching to wind power is more affordable than ever. It was nice to hear a city official talk about community experiences in his younger years and how it has shaped his views on helping Portland continue its sustainability efforts.
3. Afternoon session: “Benchmark Your Performance with B-Corp”
For those of you unfamiliar with B Corporations, it is a status earned by a company that has gone through an extensive assessment administered and certified by B Lab, a Pennsylvania non-profit. B Corporations are companies that operate on triple bottom line principles and which have instituted into their articles of incorporation, legal verbiage requiring the administrators and managers of the business to consider the interests of the company’s stakeholders, community, and environment when making decisions, not simply profit. B Corporations can be held accountable for this language, and in some cases may be sued by the stakeholders if found to be in breach. B Corporations uphold sustainable principles as an outward show of their belief in doing business in a better, beneficial way.
The session was led by a group of panelists, all of whom are owners of or who represent certified B Corporations. Two of the panelists, Eric Friedenwald-Fishman of Metropolitan Group, and Nik Blosser, publisher of Portland’s Chinook Book (a coupon book advertising sustainable companies), also served on the team that helped draft Oregon’s Benefit Company legislation, which passed this last summer and goes into effect January 2014. I previously met Eric at the Benefit Company signing that took place in Gov. Kitzhaber’s office, and it was great to hear him speak. While Canvas Dreams is a certified B Corp, there’s a tremendous amount of information that was shared in the session, and I took away a bunch of new ideas on how to further develop the benefit corporation portion of our overall sustainability program.
Attending the session was a good mix of for-profit and not-for-profit companies. About 1/4 of the attendees represented certified B Corps, with the rest showing a lot of interest. Oregon has a strong B Corp following, and with Benefit Company status becoming officially recognized by the state, the timing for this session was crucial. Stephanie Ryan, along with several other representatives from B Lab — the organization that certifies B Corps — helped guide the panel discussion.
Each panelist introduced their business and talked about why they became a B Corp. Eric then detailed out the differences between a Certified B Corp (which any company can attain by completing B Lab’s comprehensive assessment and requirements) and a Benefit Company (a legal business structure that exists only in States recognizing such company types and for which third-party certification, such as through B Lab, is one requirement). In Oregon, Green Business Network members also meets the requirement and can become a Benefit Company. For companies in States not recognizing Benefit Company status, certification through B Lab is an excellent option.
After the discussion, the floor was then opened to audience questions. One member asked if the panelists saw a difference in sales and business, before and after becoming a B Corp. The overwhelming response (and I can vouch for this with our business) is that in the minimum, the return on investment equaled the effort put into it; but in the grand scheme of things, business certainly improved, not to mention the enormous community of almost 900 Certified B’s that are always seeking companies with whom to do business. What you put into it largely determines what you get out of it.
4. Evening Networking at Green Drinks
Following the conference, GoGreen members headed to a nearby space for an evening networking function organized by the VOIS Alliance (Voice for Oregon Innovation and Sustainability) and PDXGreenDrinks (a monthly networking meet-up group in Portland, which VOIS has just taken over managing).
You can think of VOIS as a green chamber of commerce. VOIS actively works to pass legislation at the city and State levels that helps small business, enforces equal pay and benefits to workers (such as paid sick leave for Portland’s hospitality workers), and supports environmental causes (such as opposing a coal export terminal along the Columbia River), to name but a few recent efforts. More importantly, VOIS acts as a focal point for progressive and green businesses of every industry and hosts ongoing events throughout the year. I’m honored to serve on the VOIS board and encourage you to consider joining VOIS (www.voisalliance.org). With VOIS now running Green Drinks, monthly events will continue, and there is an opportunity for greater education and call to action so attendees can get involved.
If you’re not located in Oregon, I would definitely encourage you to participate in a green chamber or organization close to you. Your local participation is needed all the more to effect positive change in your community.
That’s it for now. If you want to learn more about B Corporations, VOIS, GoGreen conferences or anything else, I welcome your thoughts and feedback. Write to us at ideas AT canvasdreams DOT com.
David Anderson, Principal
Canvas Dreams, LLC