Globe 2012 – a world of opportunity (March 14-16 2012)

With over 10,000 participants from all over the world, the Globe 2012 conference truly brings the sustainability and environmental industry to our own doorstep here in Vancouver. With only one day available out of my busy schedule, I set out to make some new connections and learn about some new technologies at Globe’s trade fair.

What is great about Globe is the eclectic and diverse mix of attendees. Companies range from the SME selling a green cleaner that replaces harsh solvents, to the oil sands giants reporting on their environmental progress. Small grassroots organizations share space with huge country delegations from China, UK, Germany, etc. There truly is something for everyone interested in sustainability.

Having been peripherally involved in the industry prior to coming to UBC, Globe was a great chance to meet up with friends and colleagues from across Canada. It seems that there has been a great migration from the biotech industry to the cleantech industry, from researchers to policy makers to venture capitalists. Is the cleantech bubble still growing or has it peaked?

On the technology front, Globe was an opportunity to talk in more depth to companies that I had heard of before, from energy management solutions to reclamation to waste-to-energy. And of course, Globe would not be entertaining if I didn’t get a chance to learn something new (this time about desalination, new directions for the forestry industry, and energy efficient buildings). I must say that exhibitors need to get more innovative with their free giveaways though – I have enough pens and USB sticks and cloth bags to last me a few years.  Government of BC wins this year with their maple leaf lollipops!

I came away impressed and exhausted after several hours on the trade show floor. There seems to be ongoing growth and interest in the sustainability industry, with many impactful technologies potentially reaching the broader marketplace in the near future. Vancouver should continue to be one of the central hubs of action, and I look forward to being part of it.

Sustainability Beyond Rhetoric

Having grown up in a city with a reputation for being less than sustainable I was interested in learning what all the hype was about. My education at UBC has afforded me the opportunity to take a number of courses focused on sustainability in business practices and since taking these courses my idea of why these practices made sense was broadened considerably.

 Part of the reason I chose UBC was their reputation for integrating ideas of social and environmental responsibility into their MBA program. When my thirst wasn’t quenched by what I learned in my first semester I decided to baulk up my knowledge with more courses on the topic. Prior to this I appreciated the role of sustainable and responsible practices in business because they often resulted in innovation, in beautiful things and unique creations from materials seldom used elsewhere. I will admit I was somewhat enticed by the rhetoric. I saw words like organic and fair trade and was drawn to an ideal I didn’t fully understand. Going through my class work, discussions, and listening to my professors I was able to see that sustainability is truly a much more complex creature than I had imagined. The concepts of green washing, of CSR, of broad social and environmental boundaries were all relatively new to me and have shone a light on how I view their relationship with businesses. It has become clear that there is an expectation for businesses to be in touch with sustainability, to what extent is a grey area and much seems to be based in the rhetoric that is emerging. Going forward this isn’t going to be enough. While currently it may be enough to claim CSR practices, in the future customers will demand those practices to be more than just words and be put into action across the board in a meaningful way.

My journey hasn’t ended there, being part of Net Impact has afforded me the chance to be part of stimulating discussions and to grow my understanding of what sustainability means and how it is being applied to businesses now and how it will be going forward. I am excited for this to continue and for the upcoming conference! Check it out at

Corporate Change

Sustainability is all around us in many forms. We have bus passes (used or not), the SUB burger joint uses recycled paper products to serve up their fried goodness, and of course we all like to see what the water bottle count is up to on the water filling stations (did you know Sauder has one on the second floor?).

UBC prides itself on being a catalyst and driver of sustainable change. Yet the core business modules never mentioned monetizing the ecosystem. I don’t remember any mention of carbon taxes or offsets even. The former is up and coming, a possible new driver in the triple bottom line equation. The later has been around for some time, yet was not mentioned in any form. Should a country make carbon offsets mandatory, or drop out of their Kyoto obligations (something Canada just did; what are the repercussions?), the companies that do business in that country, with that country or near that country will be affected. One thing that the Net Impact Conference did was raise my awareness of how much and how soon the triple bottom line will hit us. When I say us, I mean everybody. Whether you believe in global warming, Freeman, corporate social responsibility or not, the economic pressures in the capitalist structure will force every business to accommodate the ecosystem in their future decisions. California instituted a green house gas (GHG) cap-and-trade law that will allow individuals and businesses in Washington State, for instance, to trade GHG emissions with California based businesses. If you think it is isolated to those “California hippies,” think again. Quebec just passed a law and British Columbia and Manitoba are both in talks with California to initiate similar systems. These issues are here to stay.

Carbon and GHG are common topics, so it’s not much surprise that business is having to deal with new restrictions. Hazardous waste in general has been monitored and regulated for years in one form or another, but the more we understand the effects humans have on the environment the more refined our laws become. Water has had some standards on it for decades. Now, however, we are understanding (and measuring) how delicately balanced the ocean is, and how the entire planet relies on a healthy ocean. We understand now that we cannot simply continue to dump our waste in what, at one point, seemed to be an endless sea. This thread of thought continues into developing a better understanding of what pollution actually is. We have noise pollution, light pollution, and, something that I learned in conversation with a Net Impact attendee is gaining more and more attention in water management, temperature pollution. But there are creative ways to go about mitigating our impact on the environment. Instead of spending millions to cool the waste water from a factory another few degrees, the factory can plant trees to shade the water downstream, which has the same effect and costs dramatically less. These are the solutions regulators, business people, socially conscientious people, grandparents, new generations and environmentalists must tackle together.

These are the issues we will face as we enter the workforce, and we need to have pondered, discussed and prepared ourselves for them.

Portland Net Impact

(posted on behalf of Asha John)

What can I say about the Net Impact conference…It was everything I imagined and more. I knew before I even went to Net Impact that I would be extremely intrigued by the subject matter because I spent lots of time looking at the schedule of events. The topics included Microfinance, Fair Trade, Green Investing, Ending Poverty in Africa, volunteering abroad, the future of Wind Power and many more. The most challenging time of the conference was deciding which session to attend.

There were two speakers that truly inspired me – Darell Hammond and Vail Horton. Darell is the Founder and CEO of KaBoom! From the age of 4, he was raised in a group home. His positive experiences playing at the playground pushed him to devote his life to building playgrounds all around the U.S. Vail Horton is the CEO of Keen Mobility, a company that is devoted to various products made for elderly, injured or disabled individuals. His story brought tears to my eyes. He was born without legs and his parents gave him up because they could not handle the responsibilities that came with raising a boy with no legs. His adopted mother encouraged him to look beyond his disability. Instead of feeling
sorry for himself, he pushed himself to excel in life. He is now happily married with beautiful kids and a very successful business that he started. For someone who was born without legs, he has accomplished more than most people I have encountered. It was quite inspirational!

If you want to hear them, go to this site and start at 23:00

If you want to hear any of the other conference main speakers, here is the link:

One misconception of Net Impact is that it is only geared for people interested in Sustainability. This is definitely not true! The range of topics is quite broad, so most people could find at least one or two topic sessions that they would find of interest. I personally think that everyone should attend at least one Net Impact conference because the future of the people and the planet require efforts of everyone.


MBA Oath

Just recently, I was blessed to have attended my first Net Impact conference in Portland…WOW!  The sessions, the people, the memories are far to exhausting to record in this blog.  One thing I can confidently say is that Net Impact gave me a new hope for business and a new passion to pursue during my MBA career.  I was treated to a short session on the value of an MBA by Max Anderson, the co-author of “The MBA Oath”.  The book and the session starts with an inspiring message.  “As a manager, my purpose is to serve the greater good by bringing people and resources together to create value that no single individual can create alone”.  (Anderson, 2010)  I was, and still am, completely captivated by this message.  In light of how I now view sustainability (see blog above) this message inspired a new way of understanding sustainability.  It brings a message of hope, of meaning, of value to a lost leadership profession.  The actual oath itself encompasses words like integrity, society, faith, spirit, humility, honesty and transparency.  These are all intangible characteristics that do not hold a monetary value, yet hold so much value in the qualities of a good leader.  This oath is something that I will hang proudly bedside my MBA degree.  I know that taking this oath, freely and upon my honor, brings a sense of pride to my education because I know in the long run the sustainable business enterprise will rely on these values.

I truly believe that we are in a time of need, a time of need where leaders are once again idolized for their courage to do good, and to set the right path for others.  With the recent financial crisis, the confidence in our MBA students in general has been severely damaged.  We have lost the connection with society in doing what’s best for all by greedily consuming for one.  It is important that we propel from our educational experience as professionals once again, having a sense of pride and honor for our innate ability to lead.

After hearing a soulful performance from Max, he asked us to participate in what they called “silent communication”.  So often we communicate with sound, but this activity enforced a “no talking” rule where each individual in the room was invited to answer a question on the wall with a marker.  Here are some examples:

It was unbelievable to see how much thought and genuine interest people took in this activity.  Everyone was collaborating to build on each other’s ideas, always embracing one another while adding their own personal flavor to the mix.


Margin & Mission

As an outspoken proponent of most things “green” and “sustainable” and an eager participant in friendly debate, I have too often come across the “sustainability is an added expense” argument. I believe this contention lies in the belief that sustainability is a cost to a firm – one which detracts from its primary purpose (presumably to maximize profits). While I can rationalize the origin of this argument, its laurels rest on the presumption that a firm neither (i) has an inherent obligation to incorporate these (or any other) values into its operation and (ii) that investments that do not have obvious or direct financial benefits at their outset do not have any promise of financial benefit.

In her keynote address at the 2011 Net Impact Conference, Sally Jewell, CEO of REI, eloquently reconciled the supposed gap between corporate expenditure on value-based investments and corporate financial performance with a simple phrase: “There is no mission without margin and no margin without mission”.

This simple phrase single-handedly articulates a cornerstone of my belief about the relationship between business and “sustainable” initiatives. Simply put, if a firm is irresponsibly generous with its investments in social and environmental initiatives, it may not be able to sustain such giving let alone its own survival. The demise of an overly generous firm hurts not only the immediate well-being of the cause it was supporting, but also sets a negative precedent for future corporate support of such initiatives. This leads to a conclusion that in order for a firm to sustain its support of socially and environmentally beneficial initiatives (its mission), it must also serve the financial needs of itself and its shareholders (its margins).

The values instilled in a firm can be a critical factor in determining its success. In the case of REI (or its Canadian equivalent, MEC), the corporate culture echoes that of its dominant client base – exaggeratedly generalized as left-wing, granola-munching, outdoor enthusiasts. Their mission, although centred around the provision of a certain set of products/services, is intrinsically linked to the values embedded in their corporate culture. This mission drives REI to include consideration of the impacts each of its activities has on society and the environment. With a client base driven by similar values, there is unquestionably a direct link between financial success and REI’s ongoing commitment to their mission.

A firm that adopts the belief that margins are driven by a mission which are in turn driven by strong margins will, if nothing else, draw a greater connection between its values and its financial success. In the presence of transparency, this pursuit of mission-driven margins will ensure that firms with values that align with those of its customers have greater success (by whichever metric you chose to measure it) than competitors who veer from its core mission in pursuit of short term economic gain.

Thoughts from the Finance & Investing stream

Sam Goldman, co-founder of Honest Tea, a social enterprise that produces natural fruit and tea beverages says, “We sold to Coca Cola last year.

A collective gasp escapes from the audience. Thoughts of Ben and Jerry’s selling to Unilever creep in and the nearly instantaneous conclusion that this must be a “sell-out” ripples through the socially minded business audience of 150.

Seth smiles knowingly at the response and goes on to explain that, in fact, Coke’s purchase of Honest Tea was not only the best thing that could have happened to him and his co-founder, but also the exit they had planned for, right from the start. Honest Tea quite simply wanted to reach as many people as possible with its message: “Nature got it right. We put it in a bottle.” And who has the largest beverages distribution system in the world? Why, Coca Cola of course. Since the acquisition, the number of accounts under Honest Tea has increased from 15,000 to 75,000.

But how quick we were, myself included, to jump to negative conclusions about a social enterprise’s choice of scale…

Welcome to the Net Impact Conference 2011 in Portland, Oregon; two and a half days of absolutely exhilarating conversation about business and the progress of the world.

The Net Impact conference engages over 2,500 individuals in listening and challenging all kinds of ideas at the cross-section of business and sustainability. There are over 380 speakers, ranging from enormous multinational corporations (e.g. Nike, Starbucks, DuPont) to the big consultancies (e.g. Accenture, Deloitte) to renowned publications (e.g. Stanford Social Innovation Review, GOOD, Fortune) to renewable energy innovators (e.g. SolarWorld, d.light design), to impact investment intermediaries (e.g. Agora Partnerships, Village Capital). The conference featured over 120 sessions, which were organized into seven themes: career and professional development, corporate impact, energy and clean tech, environment and natural resources, finance and investing, international development, and social innovation.

After an incredible summer working for the Acumen Fund in New York City, I was eager to hear from the brightest and most visionary thinkers in the impact investing space. Here are some of the highlights from the sessions I attended in the finance and investing track.

Where Venture Meets Values: Venture Capital for Social Impact

Nancy Kamei is the Senior Director of one of the world’s largest venture capital funds, Intel Capital. Since 1991, Intel Capital has invested more than USD 10 billion in over 1,100 companies in 51 countries. She was joined by Ross Baird, the Executive Director of the peer-based, early-stage entrepreneur incubation firm, Village Capital, in a conversation that ranged from the values-based investment thesis to the relative importance of metrics to the importance of motivation and passion.

Question: What would investing look like if it were less reactive and more proactive? What if there was less waiting for entrepreneurs to pitch the next big idea and more active cultivation and capacity building of potentially game-changing enterprises?

From Activist Investor to Mainstream Markets: Impact Investing Today

David Chen (CEO of Equilibrium Capital Group) moderated a spirited dialogue between Tony Arnerich (CEO, Arnerich Massena, Inc.), Gloria Nelund (Chairman and CEO, TriLinc Global), and Jill Sherman (VP of Development, Gerding Edlen Development) on the past, present, and future of impact investing. Though the conversation made it quite clear that all participants believe that future macroeconomic trends will continue to lend favourably to impact investing, they were also all quite aware of the lack of availability of retail and institutional impact investing products.

Question: Will there be enough innovation and progress in the availability and distribution of impact investing products to meet the increasing mainstream demand?

Investing to Build Social Enterprises in Emerging Markets

Wouldn’t it be great to have a session that represented the different players in the current global impact investing field? Welcome to room E-146 on Saturday afternoon. Bavidra Mohan, d.light design’s Brand Development Consultant, talked earnestly about the on-the-ground realities of a social enterprise in a developing country. Acumen Fund’s Director of Communications, Yasmina Zaidman, clearly expressed the need for the synthesis and spread of lessons learned from the impact investing space. Daniela Hammeken, the Director of Strategic Partnerships at Agora Partnerships, stressed the importance of the capacity building of impact entrepreneurs. Flory Wilson, the Director of Emerging Market Standards at GIIRS, spoke to the incredible traction of social impact metrics infrastructure.

Question: Impact investing is moving extremely fast in a multitude of directions; how can the field ensure that it is learning and reflecting on those lessons while continuing to grow?

This was my second Net Impact conference. Though I was asking different questions and thinking about different conversations, I left with the same overall feeling of subtle empowerment stemming from the knowledge that, no matter who you are (large company, small nonprofit, entrepreneur, academic, government official), you can choose to commit to tackling the world’s toughest problems.

(This post appeared at through this link.)

Did PepsiCo really just argue for humility above all else?

I actually wore my Birkenstocks to Net Impact – but only in the car.  Business school is a huge change of culture for me, so the weekend in Portland – like all of Core – was about learning to speak a new business language.

Like Garth and Matt, and arguably everyone at the conference, I chose sessions I hoped would teach me to communicate with impact.  One such session that really surprised me was on Friday afternoon called “Cross-Sector Partnerships: Community Impact Case Studies.”  I was excited by the title but somewhat skeptical of the panelists: PepsiCo and Timberland??  I am definitely not enthusiastic about a career in the corporate world.

At least, I wasn’t.  Amy Chen from PepsiCo was my highlight panelist of the weekend.  I care a lot about sustainable food and community development, so it was easy for her to excite me by introducing her initiative at PepsiCo: the Global Nutrition Group and a social enterprise called Food For Good.  Although I never would have said it four months ago, there is undeniable value in housing a social enterprise with business profits as a secondary goal within a money machine the size of Pepsi.

At a weekend I dedicated to learning to communicate with impact, Amy stood out as a powerfully skilled communicator.  She, and her co-panelist from Timberland, who was also great, spent the panel reminding us that effective, sustainable partnerships were rooted in open communication and respect for partners large and small.

It can be easy to fall into vocabularies of intangible benefits and generalizations when making a case for sustainability, but she (and oh so many others at the conference) brought an enviable fluency to her arguments, making the business case for environmental and social sustainability.

And it didn’t take metrics or technical vocabulary to convince me of the value of partnerships and social enterprise.  The big lesson here was the power of thoughtful, passionate, educated experience as a driver for successful change; familiarity with the languages of financial accounting or corporate strategy was evident, but they obvious key to their success lied elsewhere.  These women were speaking an accessible language, and that is what made them successful as corporate partners to individuals and grassroots community organizations.  “Setting transparent expectations” is valuable for a corporation entering a risky agreement with a potentially unstable community group, but it is just as valuable for the neighbors who may fear a corporate invasion of their local resources and goals.  Design thinking came up as an effective tool to bring corporate resources to effectively implement relevant solutions to local problems, bridging gaps in perceived needs and values of the different partners.

These claims are easy to accept at a human level, but they are just as effective to make a business case for partnerships in communities.  I took away equally important lessons in communication as I did in methods for establishing successful business relationships, but I’ll end here with a few of the latter:

  • Set transparent expectations appropriate to the project’s and partners’ scope with self-sustaining goals for longevity beyond the partnership, with benefits and metrics to track the project’s impact
  • Remember that humility is key; respect the realities of your potential partner’s abilities, as well as valuable knowledge and power in the community.
  • Plan for sustainability beyond your project’s timeframe; you might leave the community as a partner, but the community will stay there and you can’t leave it hanging, as will the memories of your company’s involvement.



Feeding the world through forced debt and destructive monoculture?

I am especially interested in food sustainability because of its integration of all “branches” of sustainability.  Sustainable agriculture is a hotbed of innovative, ecologically sustainable practices.  Many of the most sustainable agricultural practices are embedded generations deep in indigenous cultural practices, valued by those cultures for their sustainable, integrated benefits to environment and community.  And as food fulfills the most essential need for sustenance, enacting political and economic policies that ensure production and equal access to it is essential to sustaining peace and justice worldwide.

Unfortunately, even many of those in the industry of sustainable food evidently fail to recognize the importance of that social sustainability and its integration into any solutions for our global food crises, if the panel that brought me to tears is any evidence.  It was called “Feeding the World by 2050 through Sustainable Intensification.”

Perhaps I should have expected the worst from a panel that included representatives from DuPont, a fertilizer company, and Smithfield Foods.  However, the description promised a look at food security through an innovative method called “intensification,” and the rest of the conference had proven I should listen to many representatives from these big corporations an open mind.

The panelists spent 75 minutes arguing the way to feed the world was through monocultures, which have demonstrated tendencies to destroy soil health and are inherently less resilient to natural disasters; genetically-modified crops and fertilizers bought on credit that increase worldwide dependencies on American economic systems; and a rejection of many cultural practices that have fed indigenous populations – and their ecological homes – for centuries.

Near the top of my notes for this session I scrawled the words “greenwashing” over a few lines about Mosaic Company’s mission.  Then when Dennis Treacy from Smithfield asserted that people around the world just want American food and more of it, I became even more suspicious of the “sustainability” being proposed by the men at the front of the room.  When Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund claimed “You tend to make better decisions when you have fewer dollars to spend,” I couldn’t help but think of the decades of social and political upheaval around the world with roots in malnutrition and famine being a pretty convincing rebuttal to that claim.

Chris Lambe from Mosaic Company was probably the most insulting, however, when he argued that establishing a credit system for Mayan farmers to buy American fertilizers would get them out of debt.  He ignored the fact that before many Mayans were bribed with short-term dollars and cents to switch diversified crop production to fields of single strains of corn, they had fed entire communities by planting crops in rotation and in strategic combinations that ensured sustainable soil richness, resilience to disease and damaging weather conditions, and culturally embedded practices that ensured the entire community was engaged and fed by the fruits of their labor.

It is certainly true there is no easy solution to the growing food crisis.  And the panelists did claim that collaboration and infrastructure were keys to success.  (Food distribution is an area of particular personal concern, domestic just as critically as international.)

However, I was and remain shocked that there was no effort by the moderator or conference organizers to balance the scientifically innovative approaches proposed by DuPont, Smithfield, and Mosaic with anything resembling true, global ecological, social, or economic sustainability.

Sustainable Supply Chain Management: Making Blue Jeans Green

The first session that I attended at the 2011 Net Impact conference was entitled the Past and Future of Sustainable Supply Chain Management: A Critical Reflection. The panel featured three representatives from different organizations in the garment industry.

Sustainable supply chains is one the topics that I find most interesting and most important. Making the business case for sustainability is critical to convince businesses to mitigate their impact on the Earth. Since most consumers are not willing to pay more for an item because it is marketed as being “green,” the best place to make the business case for sustainability is to find savings and opportunities within the supply chain.

One of the takeaways from the session was that when it comes to greening supply chains it comes down to what I would call the 3Ms: measure, mitigate, and motivate. Measure the impact of the product or service on the environment through a life-cycle assessment. With this information mitigate the environmental impact by changing the activities in the process that have the largest eco-impacts. Finally, look at the organization’s strongest spheres of influence within the supply chain and motivate those outside of the organization to also mitigate their impacts.

The most pertinent example from the session was Levi’s Water<Less jeans. Levi Strauss Co. conducted a life-cycle assessment on its jeans and determined that overall the largest impact its jeans have on the planet occurs post-purchase though the washing and drying of the jeans. Pre-purchase the largest impact is from the production of cotton. Levi’s therefore developed an initiative to reduce the water and pesticide use in cotton production and made changes to its production process to use less water. Finally, to address the post-purchase impact, Levi’s developed a campaign called “Dirty is the New Clean” advocating that consumers wash their jeans less. Levi’s is successfully greening its supply chain through using each of the 3Ms.

Another key takeaway from the session was that there is a limit to the savings you can get out of a supply chain. While improved processes reduce can reduce waste, inputs or logistical costs, there is only so much an organization can do before its “greening” starts costing money.

So where is the business case for sustainability in all of this? Over the next 10 years water is seen as one of the biggest risks to the garment industry. The industry is reliant on an increasingly scarce resource. In the short-run industry companies need to reduce their water footprint throughout the supply chain. However, this only achieves going in the wrong direction slower. Therefore, in the long-run, companies need to develop new business models. One possible model is to develop closed-loop systems so that used garments are used as inputs for new ones. Another is to reimagine the business such as Patagonia has done this in its partnership with eBay in developing the second hand market for its clothes.

Supply chains will remain the focus when incorporating the tenants of sustainability into business. However, in the long-run, tweaks to cut costs will need to give way more innovative strategies.