PART II: Interview with Dr. Michael Crooke, on sustainability, business, and the Oregon MBA. Conducted April 13, 2016 by Anna Raithel, Center for Sustainable Business Practices MBA, 2017.
If we know that sustainability is important for companies and that sustainable choices often lead to profits, why do you think more companies aren’t choosing the sustainable approach?
The first thing to say is that there aren’t any sustainable companies. There isn’t one company on the planet that is actually sustainable, that is, net neutral impact on the planet. We overuse that term. I would say, “We are on a path towards sustainability.” Companies that don’t subscribe to this way of thinking are becoming more rare. Many of the world’s largest organizations now subscribe to a GRI (Global Reporting Initiative). The first step is to measure where you are and what you are doing, and then set goals for how you want to improve. You’re not judged on how good or bad you are, you’re judged on if you are improving. Sustainability initiatives managers are smart – they can see that this is coming but they don’t know how to do it. One of my clients simply had to bring millennials into their strategic planning process, and now they have all kinds of new ideas around sustainability. 250 companies hold ¾ of the world’s GDP; the power is with the corporations. That’s where change has to happen.
Is sustainability being driven by corporations’ deeper sense of responsibility? Or are firms responding to consumer demand?
I think it’s both. It’s very difficult to argue that global warming isn’t real. It’s a powerful rising of the tide and it’s happening in real time, so companies know they need to get in front of that. If they’re on the backside of that and their competitors launch a similar product that’s more sustainably made, they’re not only going to have lower costs down the road, but the customers are going to follow those companies. I had the opportunity to speak with Steve Jobs in 2008 and spent about an hour with him in his office. He thought that within 15 years the environmental aspect of his product was going to be as important as the form and function of his product. He was such a visionary, he could see beyond the horizon, and he was already building that into the company.
Consumers are demanding it. They want to see it in everything they do, what they wear, what they eat, the kind of house they live in, etc., just like any trend. When we started using organic cotton at Patagonia our jeans were $85. Now you can basically buy the same pair of organic jeans at Wal-Mart for $13. Whole Foods started supplying organic food to the masses and now Costco is the #1 organic food supplier in the world. It’s happening at different rates in different places, but overall from a regression line point of view I think it’s a rising tide and everyone will be able to benefit.
What is the role of government and policy in driving sustainability?
Think of the greatest environmental presidents of our time. Why is Nixon one of them? That’s when the Clean Water Act was passed, and the Endangered Species Act – all of these major policies happened under Nixon, a Republican. I think the leadership has to come from government. Think about what those laws have done and how the basis for environmentalism was created in the 1970’s. Go back to the beginning and think about the food movement and Rachel Carson and Silent Spring (1962), and the power a book like that can have. I think it’s certainly synergistic, but the bottom line is that you need a progressive government. You need a government that understands and protects the people in our capitalistic society. There are a lot of people that believe in the Adam Smith model that a manager’s duty is to make money for shareholders. [There is] no mention of shared value or of societal value. That’s where you start to see b-corporations and nonprofits. Government is very important and it has to work hand in hand with the pioneers; the Yvon Chouinards, the Rachel Carsons, the Anita Roddicks of the world.
Do you think there could be a point where sustainability will no longer offer a competitive advantage because it’s such common practice?
I don’t see that, certainly not in my lifetime. If you take the absolute ideal of what sustainability could be, Michael Braungart’s Cradle To Cradle (2002), you get done with your shirt, throw it into your garden, it composts, the organic and inorganic compounds go back into the soil, and there was no net loss of nutrients in that product. We’re a long ways off from that. But that’s the brilliance of Cradle To Cradle, to lay that concept out and really look at what that panacea could be. Or like the rocket fuel that was proposed at the New Venture Championships in Portland. The fuel was 50-60% more environmentally friendly, it worked better, and rockets could go farther. Sustainability was at the heart of that whole technology and they won the competition. We might be forced into that sort of thinking. We might not have a choice. Mars might not be ready yet.