Sustainability: Corporate and employee activism - Activate World

Sustainability: Corporate and employee activism

Joel Makower, Chairman and Executive Editor, GreenBiz

Joel Makower is chairman and executive editor of GreenBiz Group Inc., producer of, and lead author of the annual State of Green Business report. A veteran journalist with more than 40 years’ experience, he also hosts GreenBiz’s annual GreenBiz Forums, the global event series VERGE, and other events. Joel is author of more than a dozen books, including his latest, The New Grand Strategy: Restoring America’s Prosperity, Security, and Sustainability in the 21st Century (St. Martin’s Press). Joel is an award-winning writer and strategist on corporate sustainability practices and clean technology who, over 25 years, has helped a wide range of companies align sustainability goals with business strategy. 

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Season 1, Episode 3:

Sustainability is the singular initiative that comes to mind when speaking of corporate social responsibility. While sustainability has proven its worth beyond doing good and helping the environment, it also serves as a rallying point for employees to find ways to contribute and advance this initiative. Achieving employee fulfillment is important as well as encouraging productive employee activism.

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Sustainability: Corporate and Employee Activism

Joel Makower, Chairman and Executive Editor, GreenBiz

Season 1, Episode 3 Transcript

Jon Mertz:          00:02          Welcome to the Activate World podcast, a series on how business leaders have more power to solve societal issues than any elected official. We explore business activism with substance and depth of thought.

Jon Mertz:          00:18          We’re very excited to have Joel Makower with us. He is a co-founder, chairman and executive editor of GreenBiz Group. He also is the producer of and has authored several books. His most recent one is entitled The New Grand Strategy: Restoring America’s Prosperity, Security and Sustainability in the 21st Century.

Jon Mertz:          00:37          Welcome to our podcast, Joel.

Joel Makower:       00:39          Thanks so much, Jon. It’s great to be here.

Jon Mertz:          00:40          We’re going to just dive right in and so tell us a little bit about your background.

Joel Makower:       00:45          I’m a journalist by training so I’ve been writing about consumer and business issues for probably 40 years now. In 1991, I launched what we would now call a “dead tree, snail mail newsletter” called The Green Business Letter and writing some books along those lines during the ’90s. And then I’m old enough to say the sentence, “And then the web came along.” So I had this idea to create this resource center which became And since then, GreenBiz has grown into a full-fledged media and events company focusing on sustainable business, clean technology and innovation. We do some big conferences.

Joel Makower:       01:24          We have, obviously, the website and research reports and then we have a membership group of sustainability executives from big companies, over a billion dollars in revenue companies, about 90 companies. We bring them together several times a year face-to-face for what we call, “Peer-to-peer” learning”, what they tend to call, “Group therapy”. So I’ve been watching this space for a long time and watching it evolve into this incredibly dynamic and, I have to say, exciting space. It’s never dull.

Jon Mertz:          01:53          What are some of the key inflection points that built sustainability awareness and involved more companies in it?

Joel Makower:       01:59          There have been a lot, but I think one of the ones that I can point to most directly, is around 2005, 2006, when Walmart jumped into the fray in a big way and made some significant commitments around zero waste, and 100% renewable energy, and creating more sustainable products even though, I don’t think they use that word. At about the same time, GE came out with ecomagination, so on the B to B industrial side started looking at what’s the business opportunity and marry that with what had been the clean tech movement of the early 2000s and that became politicized. So there was a lot of carnage in investments and stuff, but it did not go away any more than the internet went away after the dot-com crash of 2000, 2001.

Joel Makower:       02:50          At that point, I think what happened was that more and more companies realized they needed to be part of a conversation. Some were being forced to by the likes of Walmart because they were big brands or supply chain partners of big brands that needed to step up and do their part to help the companies that send products to Walmart meet the commitments that Walmart had already made and their products needed to match that. Out of that came, I think, this quite robust marketplace and conversation. It’s hard to find a company now that isn’t engaged with this in some significant way, some more significant than others. Some are just kind of talking about it or putting out an annual sustainability report. But more companies than not are doing some significant things, unbeknownst to the public.

Jon Mertz:          03:44          Yeah, it’s interesting because one of the somewhat recent events over the past year or so was when the president announced pulling out of the Paris Accord. A lot of companies jumped into that conversation publicly stating that that wasn’t a good idea and that they were going to abide by some of the guidelines set within the accord regardless of what the government did. It seems like leaders might see a business reason to do it, but also looking at the future and trying to protect our environment as well.

Joel Makower:       04:10          Yeah, as much as I wish President Trump hadn’t done that, it turned out to be something of a boon for the movement, the movement of corporate engagement and action on sustainability. It really did accelerate, I think, a lot of companies, their voice in the marketplace, the commitments that are actually made, they’re being more proactive, but also more vocal. One of the, I think, ironic parts of this is that, despite what most people in the public thinks, sustainability is an area where companies are walking way more than they’re talking. They’re doing a lot more than they’re saying. And there’s reasons for that, which I’m happy to get into.

Joel Makower:       04:52          But companies have been reticent about talking about what they’re doing. I think that we are still in campaign, which is what you’re referring to in part, that came out of the Paris pullout helped catalyze and encourage more companies to be more vocal. And some of them actually may have stepped up their activities as well, but I think others who have been doing things all along started talking about it.

Jon Mertz:          05:20          Starbucks has said that their goal is to stop using plastic straws by 2020. They heard from customers and employees that this would be a good meaningful change to make. So as companies are taking on greater roles in the environment and sustainability issues, do you see more of that coming from employees, customers, or both?

Joel Makower:       05:38          Well, that’s happened all along. Somewhat ironically, and I’m going to make a generalization here which means that it’s not always true, that the things companies talk about most vocally aren’t necessarily the most impactful things they’re doing. And the most impactful things they’re doing are things they often don’t talk about. The plastics issue has really become much more of a serious issue as we look at marine plastics and how much is in the oceans. And now we’ve identified the 10 rivers in the world where most of that originates, eight or nine of them are in Asia, and then starting to really understand the severity of the plastics problem.

Joel Makower:       06:25          Straws aren’t necessarily the biggest problem. On one hand, it’s great that the public steps up and speaks up and the companies listen, but two, there’s this tendency to say, “Okay, I’m not ordering straws in restaurants. I’ve told Starbuck’s that I don’t want straws. Starbuck’s listened. I’m done. The plastics problem is solved.” That’s certainly not even remotely true. In some ways, we’re, that old, “Pay no attention to the hand under the table.” We’re looking at this one thing above the table and missing a lot of what’s below the surface.

Jon Mertz:          07:01          As it relates to sustainability and the environment, what can employees do to take more of an active role in these issues within their company, or should they?

Joel Makower:       07:08          Yeah, it’s interesting. When we convene meetings of the GreenBiz executive networks, they all share a lot similar issues. And one of those is always employee engagement, “How do we engage people in this?” You know, it’s funny, 20, 30 years ago, almost all the tips and advice articles and books about how to make companies more environmentally responsible started with, almost inevitably, number one was, “Get CEO buy-in.” I talk to a lot CEOs and they say, “I’m in. I get this. I get that this is not just a big problem in the world, but a huge opportunity for us as a company to improve our products and services, and cut costs, and engage our employees, and attract and retain talent, and be seen as a preferred supplier,” and all that kind of stuff. But he said, “I have trouble engaging from the bottom up.” In some cases, the bottom up also may be engaged, it’s that big swath of fat in the middle called middle management, that impenetrable wad that often is really adept at thwarting change, that can be the problem.

Joel Makower:       08:21          Where they’re high profile and in the news, it’s easier to get more action, but the everyday kinds of things that companies are engaging in and the way that companies can make a difference in their local communities, in their supply chains, in the four walls of their facilities, change turns out to be a lot harder even when employees are engaged. So it’s really incumbent upon employees to speak up and be persistent, because that’s what makes things happen.

Jon Mertz:          08:54          Around sustainability and the environment, is there a way that CEOs and other business leaders can connect in a more fruitful way?

Joel Makower:       09:01          When it comes to change, we tend to love the noun and hate the verb, we like the idea of change, but actually changing is hard. So this is where the system breaks down a little bit in terms of, “Hey, we want our company to be responsible, we’re unanimous in that, and we’re calling on management to change their ways.” And in some cases, there are policies and things that management can do, sometimes shareholders have a say in this too so it’s not quite so simple, but ultimately, a lot of this boils down to what are employees willing to do. And employees are on the ground level inside a company, nobody knows more where the waste and inefficiency is than employees. So figuring out how to engage them, and there are some companies that have done a really good job of this, Genentech, the biotech company in south San Francisco owned by a Swiss firm, Roche.

Joel Makower:       10:03          They have, they call it, I think, Green Genes team. They’ve got thousands of people who are participating in it. And it’s impressive that they’ve really engaged their employee base. And they do things, and they self-organize, “We want to take on this project. We want to figure out how to make this building better. We want to plant trees,” or whatever it is. And they take it upon themselves to do that. I’m not seeing enough of that. I’m not seeing enough cases where employees saying, other than, “We’ll do a volunteer day and we’ll plant trees,” but actually step up in their daily work and figure out how to take on the real impact, again, back to straws. There’s a lot of symbolic impacts, but the real things like commuting, or some of the biggest parts of environment impact may not be in how things are made or packaged, but in customer use or disposal. And really taking on those parts of the impacts requires everyone to dig in.

Jon Mertz:          11:09          And it sounds like, from the example you gave with Genentech, it goes back to organizational culture.

Joel Makower:       11:15          Sure. Culture has a lot to do with it. Every company has its own culture of how change happens: how much innovation is encouraged, how much risk taking is encouraged, how much they want to be a voice, how much it’s encouraged to speak up and speak out, even if it’s within the company, let alone externally. Every company has … and it has to do with who their customers are, and who their competitors are and where they operate. There’s so many factors that play into this, that it’s not a simple cut and dry formula. But I think, going back to your earlier question of how you move things forward, in two words “quick wins”. But there are a lot of things that companies can do that are either free or inexpensive or that have attractive paybacks, and some of that’s things like lighting and HVAC cleaning and maintenance. And there are some things like that that employees can encourage companies to take a look at. Where are lights left on all night? Getting back to commuting, how can people be incentivized through transit passes or other things to not drive, or particularly not drive in solo in a three or four thousand pound vehicle to work?

Joel Makower:       12:35          A lot of that, it’s kind of common sense, but I think it’s getting employees together, encouraging employees to come together, supporting them at least politically within the organization. I don’t mean democrat, republican political, giving them space and permission to come together and look for solutions. Inevitably, they’ll find some things. They’ll come up with some big ideas that are simply impractical, impossible, or not cost effective, but they’ll also come up with some simple ideas and look at the … they’re often called the low-hanging fruit, and find some solutions. And then the magic happens. It becomes contagious. “This is cool.” And management gets behind it and says, “Wow, this is cool. Employees are saving us money, and they’re more engaged, and they like us more, and we can use this as we go out in the competitive job market, particularly these days in the United States.”

Joel Makower:       13:34          And all of a sudden, it becomes a viral, in a good kind of way, where it just becomes, if not an unstoppable force, at least a force that takes on a life of its own, and starts, after you’ve done the simple, the low hanging fruit, then comes the harder stuff, the higher hanging fruit, that actually takes more resources, time, money, commitment, etc.

Jon Mertz:          13:59          And it also seems, we just need to ditch the term “employee engagement” for a lot of reasons. For one, it’s just not working. There’s talk about the need to shift to employee fulfillment.

Joel Makower:       14:09          Yeah, and it doesn’t happen naturally. It takes care and feeding on the part of a company. So for example, playing successes back to the rest of the company through some regular communications, not just every third week in April around Earth Day, but making it a year round thing and saying, “Hey, look what your colleagues did.” Every company has a different way to incent, reward, recognize employees who do good things, but that it such a critical part of this. And then, at some point, the employees themselves start telling the stories, both to one another, but also in the community, to their families, and their customers or suppliers. And then that’s how bandwagons start.

Jon Mertz:          14:58          Right. Leveraging off of that, I’m curious, how long has the VERGE conference been going on?

Joel Makower:       15:02          We’re in our seventh or eighth year now.

Jon Mertz:          15:05          Have you seen shifts happen when it comes to who shows up and what they’re interested in?

Joel Makower:       15:09          Well, VERGE is sort of a … it’s interesting, because we do two conferences. Version one called GreenBiz and we can talk about the difference between them, but VERGE is about how technology accelerates sustainability solutions in a climate and resource constrained world. All of this stuff is enabling things that we don’t really call clean tech anymore, it’s just tech. I think the other conference, in some ways, is more telling to your question, Jon. It’s just called GreenBiz, it happens every February down in Phoenix, Arizona which is a gathering of the tribe, the tribe being sustainability professionals at mostly large companies and we’ll have probably 1,500 of them next February in Phoenix. That started back in 2009. Back in 2009, first of all, it was a pretty small conference and people were talking about some very simple things, the base kinds of things, the low hanging fruit, sort of things, around employee engagement, and facility management, and recycling, and energy efficiency, and the blocking and tackling of everyday things.

Joel Makower:       16:22          That conversation now has become so much more robust in terms of looking at biodiversity and the role, the business opportunities around the circular economy and supply chain engagement, and looking at the social impacts of environmental issues and not just here in the developed world, but down to the small holder level in developing countries. The roles of big, big food companies who are now talking about regenerative agriculture, was just something that we simply didn’t talk about, even two or three years ago. So those conversations are really exciting just to see every year, year over year, how much further the conversation has grown and how many more companies that, either were on the sidelines or were doing things quietly, are now standing up to be counted and in some cases making very bold and audacious commitments.

Jon Mertz:          17:22          What advice would you give to a 20-something as they are beginning their work career or who has an interest in seeing businesses involved in societal and environmental issues?

Joel Makower:       17:32          Yeah, that’s a question I get a lot. The answer often isn’t the one that they want to hear which is that, “Stay out of the environmental department because they tend to be small even inside of a big company.” It may be an army of two or four, seven people with few resources, low budget and not a lot of authority. It doesn’t mean they’re not effective, they operate out of persuasion, and bridge building, and working with supply chain facilities and operations, and product design and everybody else, but there aren’t too many jobs there. It’s really hard to get. So my advice is learn something about business: learn supply chain; learn facility management; learn finance; learn any number of different aspects of business. Bring your environmental ethic and passions to that and figure out how to deploy that within a company. I think companies want to hire people who know stuff about how business works, but also understand the opportunities to bring sustainability and not just environmental, but also social sustainability issues to the fore and want to take those on. I think that becomes a very attractive aspect in a lot of companies.

Joel Makower:       18:58          It doesn’t always mean that that becomes your job and it may take a couple years within that job to really be able to spread your wings and take on the kinds of challenges. And then outside of business, what’s happening in the nonprofit world is really exciting because it’s not just marching in front of companies and picketing, it’s not just boycotting, it’s not just suing folks. Organizations like environmental Defense Fund and WWF and WRI, World Resources Institute, and so many others are actively engaging companies and, in some cases, are really showing them a way, partnering with … You know, it’s funny, when I talk to companies that are taking on a new initiative, something sometimes really a bold and audacious initiative and I’ll ask them, “What’s driving this?” Often I get one of two answers, Walmart or Greenpeace. Greenpeace, they’re putting out a guide, they’re rating companies on seafood or on e-waste and they’re putting it out there and shining a light on an area that hadn’t been seen. And nobody wants to get that call from upstairs saying, “Why are we at the bottom of the list?”

Joel Makower:       20:21          And people, a lot of sustainability professionals inside big companies privately say, “You know, we really appreciate Greenpeace, they’ve given me reason to exist now. They give me relevance in the company.” So there’s a lot of really, I’m not advocating for Greenpeace per se, but I’m giving that as an example of an advocacy group that’s actually changing things inside companies and not always the way that you would expect.

Jon Mertz:          20:50          So the final question, maybe a little bit out of the box, but I noticed a while back, you wrote a book about Woodstock. I’m just curious, as you look at the activism that happened back then and today, are there lessons learned that can be applied today?

Joel Makower:       21:05          Yeah, it’s interesting. I did an oral history of the Woodstock Music Festival, 1969. The book and all your documentary came out in 1989 for the 20th anniversary, reissued in 2000 for the 40th, and guess what? Next year is the 50th. It was a really interesting thing because the story of Woodstock was not just about a concert, it was about a group of people in their early 20s, 23, 25 years old, who came together to do this concert that turned into this monster event and should have been a disaster for a lot of reasons that have to do with everything from the fact that: they had to move their site five weeks before the event. They got thrown off the land and had to find what turned in to be Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in the town of White Lake, New York, to the weather. And the fact that the radical Yippies from Abbie Hoffman and others wanted it to become a political event and they just said, “No, this is a music concert.”

Joel Makower:       22:06          It’s a fascinating story … and then three, four, five hundred thousand people came, inadequate food, and water, and medicine, and housing, and everything else. It should have been a disaster and the fact that it wasn’t is the miracle and it really points to how, when people come together, even under the most adverse circumstances, they can find a better way of doing things. Woodstock took place about eight or nine months before the first Earth Day, 1970. And you can draw a line from Woodstock to Earth Day, all the way to Patagonia, and Apple, and the clean tech movement, the Whole Earth Catalog, and so many other things. I’m not claiming Woodstock to be anything other than it was and this was a departure for me, but I think it’s a fascinating story and it really does show what happens when we all come together to take on big challenges.

Jon Mertz:          23:00          Well, that’s a great place to end our conversation. I really enjoyed it. Your wealth of experience will help our audience a great deal, as it does help to me too.

Jon Mertz:          23:08          Joel, thank you so much for your time.

Joel Makower:       23:11          It’s my pleasure, Jon. It’s great to talk to you.

Jon Mertz:          23:18          Listeners, we’d love to hear from you. What drives you to engage in political, social or environmental issues at your place? What have you spoken up about? How has it been received? Send your perspective to me at jon @ That’s Jon without an H, J-O-N, at Write it out or record it, send it my way. We want to hear and share your thoughts.

Be sure to tell your friends and colleagues about the Activate World Podcast. Encourage them to subscribe, listen, and share from their favorite podcast platform, AppleGoogleSpotify, and others. Let us know how we’re doing by leaving a review. Your reviews mean a lot to us.

Jon Mertz:          23:58          And join us next time as we speak with Jay Coen Gilbert, co-founder of B Lab and the movement of Certified B Corporations. We’ll be exploring the world by using business as a force for good and using the power of markets to serve the public interest. Activate World is a team endeavor.

Special thanks to Kaela Waldstein and Kent Nutt, music by Jason Goodyear. For Activate World, I’m Jon Mertz.