Lyle Morton [00:00:57] Welcome to the next episode of Energy Impact Podcast. I'm really thrilled to be joined here today by Joel Makower. Joel, it's a real pleasure to talk to you. You don't know this, but I've followed your career sort of directly and indirectly in a whole bunch of different ways. More recently, I had the opportunity... I was actually watching one of your videos at the GreenBiz Summit in 2022. You had a really wonderful opening speech where you talked about how we choose to spend, I think, what you called our "wild and precious life," which was for me, a pretty profound and sobering provocation about my own choices and professional choices in my life.
Lyle Morton [00:01:31] You asked the audience to think about their highest and best purpose. So, I'm wondering, just sort of turning the tables back to you and asking you to look back, how did you come to understand writing and research and advisory work as your highest and best purpose?
Joel Makower [00:01:45] Yeah, well, thanks. First of all, it's great to be here. Thank you so much for inviting me. Yeah, that "one wild and precious life" is not my construct. That's from a poem by Mary Oliver called "The Summer Day." And she ends it by saying, "Tell me, what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" And yeah, that's a great provocation for us all. So, what's my plan on my one wild and precious life? Is that what you're asking?
Lyle Morton [00:02:13] Yeah, and how did you come to... I mean, I think this is an invitation for you to tell us a little bit about how you got into the work that you did. You've done just a tremendous amount in research and writing and advisory work. I'm curious, how do you find that particular sort of vocation and what brought you to that style of work and helping you understand that was your best purpose?
Joel Makower [00:02:34] Yeah, interesting. Thank you for that. I studied journalism in school not because I wanted to be a journalist, necessarily, but because I really didn't have a clue what I wanted to be if I grew up. And my hypothesis at the time was that under the guise of journalism, sticking my nose in other people's business and writing about it, I'd find something that I was good at and interested in and synced with my interest and values and lifestyle and everything else. And probably for the first 15 years of that, what I found I was good at and interested in and synced with all of that stuff was just simply sticking my nose into other people's business and writing about it.
Joel Makower [00:03:12] But there were two things going on when I was in journalism school, and I'm going to betray my age here. Well, I'll just say it; I'm 71. So, this was back in the early '70s that I was in J-school. One was Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate, Ralph Nader, not the politician who later disrupted the 2000 presidential election. And that was sort of "everyman as dragonslayer." And the other was Watergate, which was "journalist as as truth teller." And those both interested me, and I was interested in consumer issues. So, I started off on the consumer journalism side and very quickly realized that to understand the consumer piece, you really needed to understand business.
Joel Makower [00:03:55] So, if you look back retrospectively, the thread that sort of cuts across everything is sort of the intersection of business, technology, and society. So, plugging along as a journalist, I got into the book business. I wrote a book on the health effects of office environments. This was in the early '80s when they were sealing up buildings and bringing in all these synthetics and then, oh yeah, introducing computers. And then along the way, I got approached to create the US edition of a British bestselling paperback book in 1989 called The Green Consumer Guide. And that was published...
Lyle Morton [00:04:34] What was your background to be asked to do that at that point? It was your background as a journalist that gave you that opportunity?
Joel Makower [00:04:40] No, so I skipped a little part. When I wrote this book on the health effects of office environments, I couldn't find a publisher, so I self-published it and then created a book publishing company. Then, I pivoted to being what's known as a book packager, which was working with big New York publishers where I would bring them an idea and ultimately get it completely written and designed and ready for the printing press, basically.
Lyle Morton [00:05:02] And was that effectively your first entrepreneurial sort of venture?
Joel Makower [00:05:06] Yeah, it was. I like to say I'm either a journalist cursed with an entrepreneurial streak or an entrepreneur cursed with a journalistic streak. But somehow or other, I merged the two. And so, I had this nice little business and was responsible for bringing, maybe, 15 books into life during the 1980s, for better or for worse. And then, when Penguin Books said, "We bought the rights to this British bestselling paperback and we'd love you to Americanize it..." I had been working with Penguin Books at that point. And I looked at the book and said, "This really isn't applicable to US audiences. You'd almost have to write a whole new book." And they said, "Great, write a whole new book.".
Joel Makower [00:05:44] So, I kind of did, leaning heavily on the original by a guy you may know called John Elkington and Julia Halies. And that was published in the run up to Earth Day 1990, which was a huge media event, and I was instantly anointed as an expert on green consumer issues and very quickly had a nationally-syndicated newspaper column in about 90 US papers on green consumer issues. And then, I realized two things. One, there was no green consumer movement in the US. I looked over my shoulder and realized I was kind of standing there by myself. I later joked that there may have been a reason that my book was called The Green Consumer, and it wasn't necessarily me. So, maybe it was you, Lyle, I don't know.
Lyle Morton [00:06:31] Yeah, sure.
Joel Makower [00:06:32] And then, number two was that the companies I was being asked to come in and talk to about the so-called green consumer were themselves grappling with a whole bunch of issues around energy, water, waste, toxics and things like that. A little bit with climate at that point. That was really interesting to me. And so, in 1991, I launched what we would now call a dead tree, snail mail monthly newsletter called The Green Business Letter. You know, folded in an envelope and outlinked it in a mailbox. And then, I started writing some books and giving speeches on that topic. And then... I'm old enough to say this sentence... And then the web came along. And I realized that while I had always been sort of an information pack rat with all my file folders and clips and all that sort of stuff, in the digital world, I was now a content aggregator.
Joel Makower [00:07:18] And so, I decided to create this website to aggregate all this content on business and the environment called greenbiz.com. And that morphed into a company that's now about 70 or 75 people strong, none of whom report to me. I don't have an operational role, but I'm very involved with the company itself. This is the GreenBiz Group, based here in Oakland, California. And so, yeah, I'm happy to talk more about what GreenBiz Group does, but that's kind of how I got here.
Joel Makower [00:07:52] I guess the punchline, really, for me... One more thing, Lyle... And this was in the early '90s. I remember sitting at my desk one day... This is when I was living in DC, not too far from where you live right now. Thinking about my original hypothesis of why I went to journalism school, I realized, "Holy crap. I found it. I'm home." Or, "It found me," I don't know. But this is what I was was looking for and this is where I belong. And it did sync with my values and my interests and my politics and my general interest in, as I said, business, technology, and society. So, that was sort of the happy story of how I accidentally found my way to where I actually needed to be.
Lyle Morton [00:08:36] Now, you just obviously answered that in a very long form way. In a short form way, in that eureka moment, that "Holy crap," succinctly as you can, what was that thing that coalesced for you where you thought, "I've found it." What were those discreet elements?
Joel Makower [00:08:52] Yeah, great question. It's a topic that interested me, that seemed a bottomless pit of of topics. It has to do with every kind of business, every size, sector, and geography, every aspect of business, and continues to morph year over year. And I'm now 30 years into this, 30-plus, almost 35 years into this journey, and it continues to evolve. And so, I have a relatively short attention span. What were we just talking about? No, and so it really plays to that part of me. But it also plays to the part... I mean, I grew up in the Bay Area in the '60s and '70s and I was part of the antiwar movement. I was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam draft and have what we would now call progressive values. I think moderated by some grounded thinking that I'm not sure that the progressive movement always has. And it just felt like the place I wanted to be. Sorry if that wasn't succinct enough, but...
Lyle Morton [00:10:03] No, no, that's great. And like any good answer, you've already begun to preview some of the questions that I have coming up, including, frankly... Spoiler alert, sort of where I would love to end on, which is talking to you a little bit about sort of advice for people, especially young people, and we'll come back to that. But I think your answer a moment ago previewed that, perhaps, a little bit.
Lyle Morton [00:10:22] Tell me a little bit about those early days of launching GreenBiz and the sort of entrepreneurial struggle. And maybe in particular, as it relates to what it sounds like was a very nascent form, not only in its form factor, with the Internet sort of nascent at that time, but also a coalescing sort of sense of what this green-focused media story and communications could look like.
Joel Makower [00:10:53] So, in the early days... I mean, first of all, the website that I created back and launched in 1990, June 1990, greenbiz.com was really, as I said, a resource center. In fact, the tagline was "The Resource Center on Business, the Environment, and the Bottom Line." So, it was really looking at how does what needs to happen in the environmental world sync with what needs to happen in the business world, namely profits and productivity. And it was really a collection of things. We didn't really do news; that was a bolt on later on. Not much later on, but we started doing daily news and eventually launched a newsletter and such.
Lyle Morton [00:11:31] What was the business model behind that original platform?
Joel Makower [00:11:35] Well, there was none, originally. In 1998, '99, when I was coming up with this idea during what would later be called the dot-com boom, and later the dot-com bust, there was no business model for giving away information on the Internet. And that didn't stop a lot of people, and a lot of those stories have been well-told. But it stopped me cold. So, I actually launched this as a nonprofit, as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization to produce this website. It got a little bit of funding and chugged along, and I later merged it with another a larger nonprofit based in DC, to give a little bit more stability and gravitas, actually.
Joel Makower [00:12:19] And then in 2005, I was at an event out here in Silicon Valley and a guy called Pete May walked up to me and said, "I'm a B2B media sales guy and I'm interested in being in the environmental world somehow. I love what I do; I love selling, but I hate what I'm selling." He was part of a big consortium of B2B magazines and websites and some events. And he said, "We should commercialize your Web site." And I said, "Well, I don't own it. It's owned by this nonprofit organization." So, I ended up buying the IP from the nonprofit. So I told Pete, "Well, there is no business model on this." He said, "Well, there is a business model now. It's called advertising."
Joel Makower [00:13:08] So, I bought the website and all the IP with real money, six figures, from the nonprofit to commercialize the website, and that was the business model, initially. So, that was 2007, really, that Pete jumped ship and came over and we launched this company. We did our first event in 2009, and now that event... We just had the 15th Annual GreenBiz Forum in Scottsdale, Arizona, just in February. And so, we created a business model and then it's morphed and now it's mostly events, events and peer networks. And the media piece is still there. It's not how we make our money, mostly, because media is usually, like you know, a tough business these days.
Lyle Morton [00:13:59] I'm sure most of the audience is probably pretty familiar with many of the properties, but it may be a good opportunity for you to just run us through some of the principal sort of events or media channels or even specific campaigns within those.
Joel Makower [00:14:11] Sure. Well, we describe it as four by three. So, we have four... Actually, it's becoming five, but we've had four main event brands. GreenBiz, which is about the sustainability profession, which is our big event in Arizona every February. Circularity, it's coming up in early June in Seattle this year. It travels around, which is obviously circular economy. GreenFin, which is sustainable finance and investing, which will be at the end of June in Boston this year. That one also moves around. And then, VERGE, which is our largest event, which is about climate tech and takes place in Silicon Valley at the San Jose Convention Center every year at the end of October. We'll have 5,000 or 6,000 or 7,000 people there this year. So, those are the four.
Joel Makower [00:14:58] And then, the three is digital media events and peer networks. So, peer networks, we've had one for close to 15 years called the GreenBiz Executive Network, which is a membership group of sustainability professionals from large companies that we bring together face-to-face and online multiple times a year for what we call peer learning and what they often call group therapy. And it's been very successful. We've got about 110 companies, all billion dollar revenue-plus companies, such as airlines, banks, railroads, tech companies, fast food companies, you name it. We're now replicating that across circular economy, fleet owners and managers, and a number of other talks. We also just launched that similar kind of network in Europe last fall.
Lyle Morton [00:15:52] Risking asking you to give away your special sauce, I'm curious because it sounds like that's been very successful. You've obviously done so much with events over your career, as you think about what makes, especially in the environment that you were just describing of bringing executives together in this more of a learning environment, although you called it therapy, and that resonates with me... Tell me a little bit about how you think about making that particularly effective. Because, I think, we all have the experience of going to events and some of them hit and some of them miss. And some of them struggle mightily to add value or be unique and maybe don't hit the mark. So, I'm curious, maybe especially for that sort of learning environment with senior execs, how you think about that and where you find you have been able to return real value for folks?
Joel Makower [00:16:38] Well, there are two different things there that I want to talk about, one is the events and then the other is the peer network. So, let me stick with the events first then we'll come to the peer network piece. So, our CEO, Eric Faurot, who joined us in about 2011, I think, and came from the big tech events world, really taught us one really important thing, which is that the success of an event is, obviously, partly related to content and it's partly related to the ambiance, the venue and the food and the experiences there, but it's mostly around creating community. And if you can create a community that wants to come back in large part to see one another, as well as whatever content and other things you have for them, that's key.
Joel Makower [00:17:25] And I'll just give you an example. When we launched Circularity, I want to say in 2018... I've lost track of time with all that's gone on. We had the first event in Minneapolis, downtown Minneapolis, at a big hotel ballroom. We planned for 500 or 600 people. That was our, "Okay, that's what we should probably get." And that's what we budgeted for. We had to cut off registration at about 850 people, just because the fire marshal said, "That's all you get." And in that packed ballroom on that opening day, it was palpable. And people were saying, "Wow, look at us. I had no idea. This is incredible." People were in the middle of a revolution that none of them could see. And so, we've really leaned into that. How do you create community at an event? And there's lots of ways you can do that. And I think people keep coming back and they keep growing. So, I think we're doing something right there.
Joel Makower [00:18:31] On the peer network side, I mean, first of all, it's building trust and giving professionals a safe place to have challenging conversations. And also being in sustainability... This is becoming a little bit less so, but still pretty much the case. It's a pretty lonely profession. You're kind of inventing your own wheel. You may be an army of one or five or maybe 15 people inside a global multibillion dollar company with huge mandates and very few resources, so you're struggling. You've got to do this through bridge building and communications and persuasion and whatever else it takes. And there really hasn't been much of a roadmap or a playbook to do this inside companies.
Joel Makower [00:19:21] I mean, yes. Here's how you do energy efficiency. Here's how you do water efficiency. Here's how you reduce waste. But in terms of how you actually interact internally with your C-suite and with rank and file and, particularly, with that big thick impenetrable wad called middle management, there's not a lot... They're are all dealing the same, whether you're talking about Google or McDonald's or BNSF Railroad or BASF Chemical Company, they're all dealing with a lot of the same kinds of issues. And so, they come together to learn from one another.
Joel Makower [00:19:58] You know, it's all Chatham House Rules, so that means we can't repeat anything that anybody said, but the culture of that is just to really be honest. People lean in; there's sometimes tears, people pouring their hearts out. My favorite moments are when someone says, "My CEO would kill me if she knew I was showing you this slide, but..." And we're all leaning in, "Yes?"
Lyle Morton [00:20:24] Everybody pays attention, right?
Joel Makower [00:20:27] Again, it's around building community, at obviously, a much smaller scale. And in that community, there's a lot of trust and goodwill. And so, people really want to share even stuff that in other sectors may have seemed competitive, but in this space, there's just a high capacity to to not worry about the competitive stuff, saying, "Come on over. Here's the contract language we used for this kind of thing. Come on over, I'll show you how we did what we did." It's really quite wonderful.
Lyle Morton [00:20:55] Well, like any good communicator, you've inspired me already. So, "impenetrable wad of middle management," that's my new Substack blog or something. I've got to work that into something. You mentioned trust, and I think it's interesting. That word inspires me to ask you a little bit about sort of trust and sustainability. Because we've both worked in the sustainability communication space, we've worked around climate and climate communications, and obviously it's an issue that's been divisive. It's an issue where companies have been accused of sort of greenwashing, which at its heart is sort of a trust issue. I guess, I use this as an opportunity, sort of the lens of trust, maybe, to have you talk a little bit about how you've seen the evolution of corporate sustainability initiatives and maybe their authenticity as a theme underneath them.
Lyle Morton [00:21:47] You've been at this for a while. You've worked deeply across major corporates. You've seen these things go from probably not on the radar at all to perhaps more PR initiatives to things that are deeply affecting the bottom line, and then whatever comes after that. But walk me through a little bit of that and where you see things... In particular, where you see things standing today.
Joel Makower [00:22:10] Yeah, as someone once said, "Authenticity in business is everything, and if you can fake that, you've got it made." But yeah, I mean, it's a really interesting circumstance or dynamic, Lyle, because people want companies to do the right thing, and people don't trust companies to do the right thing. And they assume... And this is one of the things that I've really grappled with and tried to write a lot about is that almost anything that any company says, unless it's Patagonia or Seventh Generation or maybe Ben & Jerry's or a few others... Almost anything that any company says is, ipso facto, it's just patent greenwash, just because, "There must be something they're hiding. How can they possibly be doing good? This can't possibly be the case, even though I really, really want those companies to be stepping up and doing what needs to be done."
Joel Makower [00:23:03] So, consumers talk out of both sides... The public talks out of both sides of their mouth. And so, it's a really challenging dynamic. The word greenwash, which used to really refer to specific things that were just lying, like a company would say that this container is recyclable and in fact, it is technically recyclable, but only in one pilot project in the Seattle area. I mean, this was actually a true case. I think, Procter & Gamble and a compostable diaper. And of course, it was technically compostable, but the average person could not compost that and often couldn't recycle it. So, those were what was called greenwashed. Now, it's just a word that is just like... You know, I just wrote a piece about "woke." It's just a lazy term that anyone levies on anything that doesn't feel right or they may not agree with or they just don't feel like should be true. And so, if everything is called greenwash now, then what is greenwash?
Joel Makower [00:24:11] And the reality is that... And this also goes true with sort of the marketing piece of sustainability. Marketing is about absolutes. "We're the best, the biggest, the brightest, the first, the largest," whatever it is. Sustainability is incremental over long periods of time. And how do you square those two things? And companies have not yet figured that out. I mean, a few have gotten some of it right, but most companies really don't know how to talk about it. That's just one problem.
Joel Makower [00:24:43] The other problem is that the three main parties inside companies that are responsible for communications are Sustainability, Communications, and Legal. And I've dubbed that the "Bermuda Triangle of Sustainability Comms," because what goes in there often is never to be seen again, or certainly doesn't come out the same way, because each one is doing their job. Sustainability is giving the "here's what's going on and here's how it fits into the bigger plan. And it's 10% better than it was last year. We've achieved this goal that is on our way to our 2030 goal," and whatever it is, Comms wants to turn that into the biggest, best and most amazing thing ever. And Legal says, "You can't say that. Yeah, hold off." And so, what comes out is often pretty bland and technical because it's got way too much information because everyone's hedging their bets. And so, the public doesn't get much out of that.
Joel Makower [00:25:43] And so, there hasn't been a really very effective model of communications between business and society. You throw in the political piece, which we're seeing in spades now, where ESG is woke and other things are just too... They become cudgels of the conservative right in saying, "Anything that basically upsets the apple cart of the fossil fuel industry is bad, regardless of its long-term impact on us and our communities and our kids and grandkids and all of that." It's a real challenge for companies to try and be thoughtful and open about this stuff.
Joel Makower [00:26:29] I wrote a piece just in March called "The First Rule of ESG: Don't Talk about ESG." That's, for you young'uns, a play on something called Fight Club, it was a great movie.
Lyle Morton [00:26:40] Fight Club reference.
Joel Makower [00:26:40] Sean Penn and others... "The first rule of Fight Club is you don't talk about Fight Club." And we're seeing that now. We're seeing that companies are just really... We're not stopping what we're doing. We're continuing or maybe even ramping up our efforts around carbon and water and waste and toxics and everything else, but we're just not talking about it as ESG. We're just talking about it as efficiency or as profitable or something. And so, it's the whole communication thing, and therefore the whole trust issue has been pretty dysfunctional.
Lyle Morton [00:27:14] I want to pull at that trust thing again, because it is interesting. What you said struck me as true, even very personally, in the sense of the sort of duality of what I expect from a corporation versus my trust from them. And at the same time, it's interesting... And I don't have the conclusive research sitting in front of me, but I know that I've seen reporting and research around trust in America. And obviously, like in many of our institutions, it's fallen to record lows, whether it's across government or even the judiciary and things like that.
Lyle Morton [00:27:43] And one of the things that struck me, and it probably strikes many people, is that, actually, in many cases, business leaders retain some of the highest degrees of trust in certain regards. I wonder, to the extent that you agree with that, and we end up in this place where people sort of want to trust, but maybe inherently don't trust corporations, but maybe increasingly trust these leaders that we put on these pedestals, is there a way to connect that back to the sustainability narrative? Like, what does that mean from an environmental, energy, sustainability point of view?
Joel Makower [00:28:14] Yeah, well, in the 2023 Edelman, I think it's called the Edelman Trust Barometer, which they've been doing for decades, I think, they look at all the major institutions. And business was the only institution that was seen as competent and ethical, which maybe, paradoxical to what I was just saying, where people just assume that you can't trust companies when they talk about sustainability. And so, that's an opportunity for companies, I think. And I think it's an opportunity there that companies have not really seized on because, again, they're really struggling with that.
Joel Makower [00:28:54] But in an era when we're not trusting government, we're not trusting the media, we're not trusting... Even religious institutions are declining, I think, in some of these polls. Academia, all those are less than business. Business really needs to step into this moment. As much as companies are doing, and there's a lot that's really behind the scene that companies are doing and they're just not talking about it...
Lyle Morton [00:29:24] Well, maybe you can talk for them. You've done some naming here of some corporations that we've all heard of, and maybe we can get into that a little bit more. I don't want to put you in a position of having to sort of name favorites, but I think it would be interesting to hear about the things, the bright lights that you see.
Lyle Morton [00:29:39] Pardon the pun, you recently circled back with Interface, and a lot of us came to know Interface from the book Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough. And that was an introduction to the sort of concept of circular economy, which you've obviously taken quite a bit further now with your events, as well. I'm curious, maybe if it's particular to Interface or just from companies like them, what do you see the leaders really leading on? Do you see those lessons being really mainstreamed across more of the middle section or the laggards of the pack?
Joel Makower [00:30:13] Yeah, well, the Interface story is one where this... It was really led by this, at the time, Southern industrialist, 60-years-old, named Ray Anderson, who had a carpet company who had this experience back in 1994 around that his company was, as he called it, "a thief and a plunderer of the earth." And he wanted to turn it into the most sustainable company out there and went ahead and did that, creating the Interface carpet where he was talking about turning carpet back into carpet in the '90s. And he didn't do it until later; Ray unfortunately passed, I think, in 2011.
Joel Makower [00:30:55] And so, a year after Ray passed in, I guess it was in 2012, I wrote a piece called "Why Aren't There More Ray Andersons?" Because what happened, the back story is that when I'd speak in business schools back when Ray was around, I'd say, "Can anybody name the CEO of a large industrial company that really gets sustainability and has built it into its operation at its core and has really impressive ambitions and whose CEO is out there talking about this and not just at sustainability conferences?" And a bunch of hands would go up and four or five people would shout out, "Ray Anderson." And I'd say, "Great, name another." Crickets.
Lyle Morton [00:31:43] Right.
Joel Makower [00:31:46] And so, I wrote this piece called "Why Aren't There More Ray Andersons?" And I talked to, probably a dozen people who worked... And I knew Ray as well, spent a fair amount of time with him. And I came up with, I think it was six attributes... I'm looking at the piece here now. But that was just what made Ray, Ray. But I do think it was around a passion for learning and really understanding what was going on and a missionary zeal. He had both conviction and control, where he was sticking to his guns even when the market wasn't even necessarily egging him on. And then, relentless storytelling.
Joel Makower [00:32:27] Oh, first of all, the willingness to rethink everything, to really rethink how the business runs and what the business model is. And then, relentless storytelling. And Ray was out there telling a couple hundred times a year or a hundred times a year, easily, giving speeches about this, including to conservative business groups. So, that was Ray, and I think that's a good model for any CEO. So for part of this, the answer is just leadership. We don't see many leaders. And again, unfortunately, after Ray, people would talk about... I don't know, they'd talk about Yvon Chouinard, they'd talk about Paul Polman at Unilever, who's no longer at Unilever. And Yvon Chouinard has really stepped down from... He's still the owner, but as is well told, he's basically given his company to a nonprofit. Who is out there? I don't know if I can name a CEO who I would really hold up as an icon of what needs to happen.
Lyle Morton [00:33:41] Well, maybe because you don't have... I mean, I was going to ask you that question. So you again, you got ahead of my next line of questioning, but if you don't have a name for that, do you think... And I love the framework that you gave to it. I haven't read that particular piece, but I look forward to going back and reading it. And you've given a bit of a framework for understanding it, but as such, understanding we've got the Elon Musks of the world, we've had the Steve Jobs, we've got these enigmatic, big, larger-than-life business personalities which really consume an outsized percentage of sort of the American imagination. There certainly seems to me like there is space for someone to occupy that space. What is the sector or the set of circumstances that you think is most likely to give birth to sort of that type of a preeminent spokesperson?
Joel Makower [00:34:26] Yeah, that's a really good question, to which I'm not sure I have a really good answer. I mean, it could come from trial by fire. I think we saw that in the past with other companies where their actual existence... There was an existential moment for the company related to their product, the sustainability of their product, a number of other things, and the CEO just gets it and gets out there, gets ahead of the story, or at least catches up to the story, and maybe gets ahead of it and realizes that this is a catalytic moment and a pivotal moment for them as a company. And that was kind of Ray Anderson's story. There's that.
Joel Makower [00:35:12] Different CEOs come to this from different lenses. I interviewed, years ago, in the '90s, Bob Fisher, who is the the son of Don and Doris Fisher who started The Gap. Don was later to be the CEO, but at the time, he was a EVP, I think, and oversaw sustainability. And I interviewed him for a book. And he's about my age; he grew up in San Francisco area, like me. And I asked him, how did you get into this? And he said, "It's really interesting." And I think this is an interesting story about what catalyzes this. He said, "I grew up in San Francisco, like you. Didn't really have any environmental interest. I went off to school, boarding school in the east. Played tennis on clay courts. I just didn't have any real outdoor thing." Then he got married, then he had kids, and then his wife gave him a fly fishing pole. And they had, I guess, a place up in Idaho, and he was standing in the river fly flying and thinking about his kids. And he kind of got it. And he realized...
Joel Makower [00:36:17] And that catalyzed the whole thing. Where Gap, at the time, was really moving ahead of Levi's and some of its competitors and was being seen as a leader. And it's typical where we see companies seesawing all the time, where they're all trying to outdo each other and then someone else comes along and blows them both out of the water. At the time, Gap was was sort of towards the front of the room on this. And so, you never know what's going to lead a CEO to to this world.
Joel Makower [00:36:42] And whether it's their legacy, whether it's the competitors, whether it's employee pressure, whether it's, as Ray called it, "a spear in the chest moment," where he just had this epiphany, or whether it's a fly fishing pole. It's kind of random and really interesting to learn how companies get there, and then, how that permeates the company. And that's where, again, going back to Ray Anderson, his story of how his relentlessness and his outspokenness and his drive for control and perfection about this goal that he didn't even know how to reach but knew he wanted to, you don't see that often enough.
Lyle Morton [00:37:28] Yeah. I want to jump off something you just said and switch gears a little bit. You talked about how we get there, so I want to use that as an opportunity to talk about sort of how we get there. You wrote a recent piece that I really like the framing of, and you talked about sort of this concept of positive tipping points for climate change. And I really like it because, of course, day in and day out, anybody who pays attention to climate and environmental news, more broadly, is inundated by a lot of messages that would suggest that the tipping points are going, obviously, all in the wrong direction. You were flipping that on its head a bit.
Lyle Morton [00:37:59] I'd love to hear a little bit more... You sort of explain that concept. And maybe more particularly, the types of technologies and solutions that you see as particularly promising. And maybe as you do that, what are the tipping points that you feel are the closest and the ones that are coming right around the bend, or perhaps we've already gone over the edge, and those that you think are maybe the most critical but in need of the biggest nudge.
Joel Makower [00:38:29] So, the piece you're talking about was a report that came out from the Bezos Earth Fund, a company called SYSTEMIQ, and the University of Exeter about what's called The Breakthrough Effect. And when we talk about tipping points, we often think about the negative tipping points, which is where the increased heat melts the glaciers, which exposes more earth, which makes them absorb more heat, which then melts more glaciers, and it becomes a cycle, a vicious cycle that potentially could lead to catastrophic results. But there are also positive tipping points where things become... Solutions really pick up, get traction and become the mainstream. And we're seeing that now, obviously, with solar and wind, and we're getting really close to that with electric vehicles. And this report names a bunch of them.
Joel Makower [00:39:33] And some of them are sort of obvious kinds of things like solar, wind, and electric vehicles. But nitrogen fertilizer... Agriculture is the second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. And most synthetic fertilizers are made from petrochemicals. And the fertilizers themselves are responsible for carbon emissions, and they lead to runoff into rivers and lakes and streams and ultimately, oceans. And they cause eutrophication, algae blooms, and they release methane and lead to fish kills. And so, how do you change that and how do you improve crop yields and make this available to have food accessible and affordable to people who may not have access to that? So, those are the really interesting opportunities. Ammonia is the ingredient in synthetic fertilizers that causes most of the damage, so there's now green ammonia, which is produced in wind-powered factories, chemical plants, and blue ammonia, where the carbon emissions captured during the manufacturing process are sequestered. And that was just one example of something pretty geeky, although maybe not to the audience of this podcast, but it's certainly not going to be part of marketing campaigns that this corn was grown using green ammonia fertilizer. No one's going to want to do that.
Lyle Morton [00:41:07] Perhaps the green ammonia CEO will not be the business that we're all looking for.
Joel Makower [00:41:11] Yeah. But these are hugely important and these things really start to add up. And we are drowning in these kinds of solutions. Perhaps poorly put, ironically, but we have so many of these kinds of solutions around how we source things, how we manufacture things, how we design things, how we get them back and turn them back into nutrients for the planet or new products for production purposes. There are so many amazing technologies, business models, shifts, and so on that are there for the picking. Not easy to do; they're not just plug-and-play, they take a lot of work and investment and so on. But that's the exciting part, is that we have the solutions that we need. And they're getting better all the time, but we have them right now. And so, those are the kinds of positive tipping points that this report was talking about.
Lyle Morton [00:42:14] That's great. That's awesome. I love the report. I love your reporting on it. It was great as a bit of a frame shift and it certainly resonates with me. You talked about things that require a lot of work. We have just a couple of minutes left. I wanted to talk a little bit about your "lots of work," and what initiatives or projects you have underway now. Where is your head at? Are there new directions, new projects? Is it continuing to build the ones you have? What are you working on now?
Joel Makower [00:42:42] Well, it's always changing and it's never dull. I mean, right now, what's going on? There's just some really geeky topics like Scope 3 emissions, and people are like, "How do we do that? What does that even mean? Is it really going to make a difference?" Digging into some of those issues and not just assuming that you have to do this, Scope 3, the supply chain and the use of a product. It's incredibly complex, just as ESG is incredibly complex and the ratings of companies. So, I like finding those topics and really digging into them and getting beyond the traditional talking points. That's me as a journalist.
Joel Makower [00:43:20] As a company, we're just growing in a lot of different directions. We're launching a conference called Bloom, which is around business and biodiversity. It'll be alongside our VERGE conference in October this year in San Jose. And we have a whole pipeline of other topics that we're going to be addressing and a whole digital media piece that we're going to be launching in the next year that I think is really exciting in terms of really helping people learn from one another. Again, sort of taking this peer network model that we've had and putting it on steroids and enabling professionals around the world to really share in a way that they haven't been able to before.
Joel Makower [00:44:08] I love working with some emerging companies. I've been working with a company that's emerged based down in San Diego called Geno, or genomatica.com. They're a synthetic biology company that's using plants, basically, to replace petrochemicals for things like nylon. They make a bio-nylon that companies like Lululemon are integrating into their products. They've got a partnership with Unilever and a number of other companies to make palm oil alternative, molecularly identical to what they chop down rainforests to grow palm plantations to create palm oil, but grown in tanks and factories. And it's a potential breakthrough. So, there are a number of those kinds of companies that I just find really interesting, and I've had the great good fortune to work with a number of them.
Joel Makower [00:45:01] You know, I just love learning. Going back to my original hypothesis, I never really liked school, but I'm a lifelong learner and this is just an opportunity for me to really dig into learning and sharing what I'm learning with an audience, whether it's a reader like you or 5,000 people in a conference center ballroom. And that's just really exciting for me.
Lyle Morton [00:45:27] Well, I think we're all better off for it. And I promised at the beginning, I said that you had sort of previewed my final question. I did want to talk about a little bit about how you've had a tremendous career and you've had a lot of insight in that time. I wanted to ask you what advice you'd give to individuals who are trying to get into this space? That's a pretty common question. But I'm also curious, as you answer that question, how, perhaps, your answer to that question has evolved over, let's say, a 20 or 30 year period? Are you pointing people in a different direction now or giving them different advice than maybe you did 20 or 30 years ago as it relates to folks who are trying to make a difference in this particular arena that we're talking about?
Joel Makower [00:46:09] Yeah, it's a great question, Lyle, and it hasn't changed all that much. I'm going to start with a little bit of an analogy here. When I was in journalism school, I was the last year at UC Berkeley that you could get an undergraduate degree in journalism. They abolished the program. Not because of me.
Lyle Morton [00:46:29] You were that good.
Joel Makower [00:46:30] Yeah, right. No more calls; we have a winner here. And the idea was, they said, "If you want to be a journalist, sure, you can take writing courses, but go learn something. Study geology or French or history or sports or whatever it is, and then apply your journalistic skills to that topic." And in a similar vein, you don't necessarily need to study sustainability or at least become a sustainability major. Go learn something, learn marketing, learn supply chain, learn finance, learn communications, learn pretty much anything. Business strategy, international relations, and apply your green gene to that and bring that into the fold.
Joel Makower [00:47:11] In some ways, I've said that sustainability is too important to be left to sustainability departments, that it really needs to be the domain of everybody in the company, not just sitting at your desk, but what are you doing in procurement? What are you doing in supply chain? What are you doing in the design? What are you doing in marketing? And that's where I think the opportunities are. Sustainability departments inside companies are really small and there are not that many jobs, but in the rest of the company, it's vast. And as more and more companies see both the threats and the opportunities that sustainability is bringing to them, they're going to want to find people who understand that and can integrate that throughout the company.
Lyle Morton [00:47:58] Well, that's an awesome answer, and it's a great note to end on. Joel Makower, thank you so much for joining us today on this episode of Energy Impact Podcast. I know that most of our listeners probably already know about you and your work, but I'm sure they'll also be excited to see about the many things that you all have coming up, including the Bloom event. So, keep an eye on all of that. Thank you again for joining us. This has been terrific.
Joel Makower [00:48:18] It's a great pleasure, Lyle. One quick plug, just go to greenbiz.com. We've got seven or eight weekly newsletters. They're free; you can learn about a lot of this stuff and just keep up on the news. It's a great way to understand what we've got going on. But thanks so much for your time, Lyle. I really appreciate it.
Lyle Morton [00:48:35] Thanks again, Joel.