Joel Makower, environmental business expert, answers questions
With what environmental organization are you affiliated?
I’ve got several affiliations, all of my own creation. I’m editor of The Green Business Letter, which I founded in 1991; founder of the nonprofit Green Business Network, which produces GreenBiz.com, ClimateBiz.com, GreenerBuildings.com, and GreenBizLeaders.com; and cofounder of Clean Edge, Inc., a research and consulting firm on clean technology. I also consult directly with companies, nonprofits, and others.
What do your organizations do? What, in a perfect world, would constitute “mission accomplished”?
Much of what I do centers around how to help companies of all sizes and sectors integrate environmental thinking and action into their operations in a way that aligns environmental responsibility with business “success,” however they define it. At Clean Edge, we help companies, investors, government agencies, and others understand and profit from the new wave of environmentally responsible technologies: renewable energy, biobased materials, clean-water technologies, and the like.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
My standard dinner-party answer is: “I write, speak, and consult in the areas of sustainable business, clean technology, and the green marketplace.” What that looks like in real life is a mixed bag that changes daily, which is one of the many things I love about my professional life.
A snapshot of what’s on my plate this week may be instructive. I’m working with my GreenBiz team to launch a new environmental printing service we’re creating in partnership with Tulip Graphics, New Leaf Paper, and the Climate Neutral Network. We think it will be of high interest to the nearly 10,000 daily visitors to GreenBiz.com. We also have a contract with the U.S. EPA’s Energy Star program to educate companies on the shareholder value of energy efficiency and energy management systems. And we’ve just forged a partnership with Net Impact and the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration at the University of Virginia to create a national Sustainability Casewriting Competition (we’re looking for sponsors, by the way).
At ClimateBiz, we’re preparing to roll out the first in a series of sector-specific mini-sites that focus on climate management for targeted industries. My Clean Edge colleagues and I are getting ready to publish a report commissioned by the city of San Francisco on what it needs to do to become a magnet for clean-technology companies, and are working on another commissioned report that envisions a Manhattan Project-like effort to grow the U.S. solar industry.
I’m an adviser to a forthcoming clean-tech venture capital fund that should launch this fall to the tune of around $250 million. I’m developing a paper with Cultural Creatives guru Paul Ray on why green marketing has largely failed, and how to make it work, and finishing a book review on sustainable-consumption titles for the Journal of Industrial Ecology. I try to regularly post some of the more interesting trends and developments I encounter on my personal blog.
There’s more, but you get the idea.
I also spend a fair amount of time fielding queries from reporters, business students, market researchers, entrepreneurs, and others who all seem to want some magic-bullet piece of data that usually doesn’t exist — like, “How many green businesses are there (and can you send me a list)?” If I had a list, I could make a fortune!
But — if I can digress for a moment — the reality is that there’s a reason there’s no such list, and probably shouldn’t be: No one really defines “green business” the same way. I usually ask these callers, Are you talking about a small, Mom-and-Pop shop that’s passionately living its values, or a division of a large multinational that’s learning how to shift its products, processes, or business model in a way that dramatically reduces its environmental footprint?” Usually, they mean the former, though I’d suggest that the latter may be having a more profound positive impact in terms of reducing waste, emissions, and resource consumption, including that of its suppliers and customers. So, who’s “greener”? You make the call.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I’m a journalist by training, though I’ve never worked full-time for a publication; I’ve been self-employed since the mid-1970s. I began writing for magazines soon after graduating from Berkeley journalism school, focusing on consumer issues. I was also keenly interested in the intersection of business, technology, and society. I started writing articles about computers around 1978.
Along the way, one magazine piece I wrote got me interested in writing a book — about the health effects of office environments: the synergistic impacts of putting an office worker in a bad chair in a noisy, stuffy office, and having her do computer tasks on a poorly designed terminal, the screen’s readability obscured by the glare from the fluorescent lights. Then throw in some psychological stressors, like toxic bosses or personal issues, add it all up, and the research was suggesting that this was the stuff from which headaches and heart attacks are made. At the time, this was radical thinking; most people still were thinking in terms of the “cushy office job.” Keep in mind that this was 1980: the open office environment — those big cavernous spaces that did away with walls and doors — had just come into fashion, the energy crisis a few years earlier was leading builders to better insulate buildings and cut down on ventilation to save energy, and computers were just being introduced, revolutionizing work styles. It was a rich topic. Unable to find a publisher, I launched Tilden Press to publish the book, titled Office Hazards: How Your Job Can Make You Sick, in 1981. It got a lot of good press and sold reasonably well.
I spent the 1980s writing and publishing other books, and eventually began “packaging” books for other publishers, a fancy term that involves creating books from idea through writing, editing, typesetting, design, and publication for the likes of Doubleday, Penguin, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Random House, and others. The books ranged widely in topic. Among my favorites was an oral history of the Woodstock music festival of 1969, which I produced in both book (Doubleday) and audio (Bantam Audio) formats for publication in 1989 during Woodstock’s 20th anniversary. There was a whirlwind publicity campaign, during which I found myself appearing on Oprah with Richie Havens and Country Joe McDonald, and the Today show with Arlo Guthrie and Joe Cocker.
About that same time, Penguin Books asked if I would “Americanize” a British book to which they had just acquired the U.S. rights. The book, The Green Consumer Guide, had been a leading bestseller in the U.K. and was largely credited with jump-starting the green consumer movement over there. I agreed to take on the U.S. version. Initially, I wasn’t even going to be listed as an author, but Penguin wanted someone to promote it, so I became a coauthor, along with John Elkington and Julia Hailes, who wrote the original U.K. version.
The Green Consumer was published around the media extravaganza of Earth Day 1990 and hit some bestseller lists. I soon had a weekly syndicated column on green consumer topics in about 100 newspapers and was being asked by companies to speak to top management about the green marketplace.
Along the way, I came to realize that consumers weren’t all that willing to change their buying or living habits, and that many of the so-called environmental products coming into the marketplace weren’t really all that green. The anticipated marketing gold rush of green consumerism wasn’t happening. On the other hand, companies seemed to be more serious about addressing their own environmental challenges, either because they wanted to, or more typically because they were being pressured to — by activists, customers, shareholders, community groups, or sometimes just the CEO’s kids. For whatever reason, I recognized that there was a need for a balanced voice on the topic that understood and could address both the business realities and the environmental challenges.
So I jumped in, and it’s been an exciting ride. I sometimes step back and recall that in 1990, a major multinational could announce that it was starting a modest paper recycling program at headquarters — and make The Wall Street Journal. That was news! Today, the state of the art has grown exponentially, though the pace of implementation inside companies remains painfully slow.
With whom do you interact regularly as part of your job?
I have the great pleasure and privilege of working with an extremely diverse and talented array of people, from corporate executives and entrepreneurs, to politicians and government bureaucrats, to professors and M.B.A. students, NGOs, the media, and others. My professional community encompasses, with only occasional exceptions, a remarkable assemblage of humanity — several of whom have become part of my extended family.
Our organizational partners at GreenBiz include Business for Social Responsibility (with whom we produced ClimateBiz.com), the U.S. Green Building Council (our partners on GreenerBuildings.com), and the U.S. EPA (our partners on GreenBizLeaders.com). I’m in regular contact with a group of allied NGOs, including the Alliance for Environmental Innovation, The Natural Step, Metafore, the Center for a New American Dream, Business Ethics Network, the Center for Environmental Leadership in Business, CERES, and others. And I regularly talk with leadership companies — the folks on the front lines who are doing innovative things.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
The answers are one and the same. My wife and I own and are living in the house I grew up in, in Oakland, Calif. This wasn’t planned; it just sort of fell into place. We bought the house from my mother soon after we moved back to Oakland in 1999, after living for more than 20 years in Washington, D.C.
People regularly ask, “What’s it like living in your old house? Isn’t it weird?” Indeed, it was odd, but only for about five minutes. It’s a wonderful house at the end of a cul-de-sac, with a panoramic view and great neighbors. We’ve transformed the house through two (eco-friendly) renovations, so it no longer feels like my “old” house. And, best of all, in the backyard are three Monterey pine trees — about 30 feet tall, taller than the house — which I planted as saplings when I was a kid! My office view looks out at them and they offer a constant reminder of my roots, as it were.
What do you consider your environmental coming-of-age moment or experience?
There’s no magic moment, and no single individual I can point to, that’s been catalytic. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s hard not to be an environmentalist living amid all this beauty and the ready access to oceans, rivers, mountains, forests, and glorious natural scenery. My parents were Sierra Club members back in the ’50s, and my mother was an anti-war activist after World War II with a group that later became Women for Peace, so there was a consciousness in my home about being environmentally and socially active. I grew up in a family, in a community, and during a time when social action was part of the fabric. For me, it wasn’t something that you did in your spare time — it had to be inextricably linked to my everyday life and work. So, it’s just been a natural progression.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
I can’t think of any single moment that stands out. In general, I rue those few times when I’ve inadvertently misrepresented a company, organization, or person through sloppy research or unclear writing. I consider the opportunity to communicate to my various publics — business people, consumers, thought leaders, and others — to be precious opportunities to motivate, inform, and inspire. When I mess up, I feel that the opportunity was squandered. Some of those moments still haunt me.
What’s been the best?
On several occasions, I’ve had people tell me that they do what they do professionally because of something of mine that they read or heard me say. Those are beautiful moments for me.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
The ignorance and lack of perspective about the environment on the part of most Americans. In general, most people don’t have a clue about the impacts of what they do every day, whether at home, in the marketplace, in their jobs, or in their investments. I personally know left-voting, Berkeley-educated, Sierra Club card-toting individuals who believe that the biggest environmental challenges facing the planet are overflowing landfills. I regularly encounter people who find no irony in getting in their poorly tuned SUVs with a cold engine and underinflated tires and driving a few miles out of their way to buy their favorite brand of recycled toilet paper. They don’t understand that the act of getting to and from the store may have greater environmental impacts than any of the choices they make up and down the aisles. I encounter otherwise intelligent people who truly believe that by putting their cans, bottles, and papers out for recycling each week, they make the world safe for their pesticide-laden lawns and consumption-intensive lifestyles.
My colleague, Kevin Coyle, president of the National Environmental Education & Training Foundation (GreenBiz’s parent organization), has conducted research showing that the average adult American — regardless of age, income, or education level — “mostly fails to grasp essential aspects of environmental science, important cause/effect relationships, or even basic but multistep concepts such as runoff pollution, power generation and fuel use, water flow patterns, or ecosystem dynamics.” Perhaps most distressing, Coyle notes, “There is little difference in knowledge levels between the average American and those who sit on governing bodies, town councils, and in corporate boardrooms.” This is a huge problem — for the environmental movement, for green businesses, and for the planet.
It infuriates me that our educational institutions, our media, and companies’ massive marketing machinery not only have failed to help people understand such basic but critical information about their world, but have instilled destructive myths and misunderstandings about our environmental and social problems.
What’s your environmental vice?
That would be my BMW 325 convertible. I love to drive, though I don’t get to do it much — over the past 30 years, I’ve averaged fewer than 5,000 miles a year on my vehicles — so when I do, I appreciate a safe and superbly designed machine. Plus, it’s hard not to have a ragtop living in a place with such a great climate and stunning views. Whenever possible, I take rapid transit or walk. And as soon as someone makes a safe, responsive hybrid or hydrogen convertible sports car — I’ll be first in line.
What are you reading these days?
I don’t get to read that many books — the last I recall was The Botany of Desire — but I devour magazines, from Wired to Fast Company to The New Yorker. Every morning, I read The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and San Francisco Chronicle. And I spend way too much time online, surfing scores of websites and blogs.
What’s your favorite meal?
Several years ago, I read an article about an American hostage who had just been released by his captors and, safely ensconced at a U.S. military base, had ordered his favorite meal. It led me to ponder, “What would I order?” I decided it would be a piece of grilled (line-caught) salmon, some lightly sautéed veggies, crisp fries, and a dark beer. In reality, as my mom likes to point out, I’m a good eater and love just about everything.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I don’t always live my ideals, as the aforementioned BMW suggests. When I used to speak regularly to audiences about green consumerism, people often asked me if I practiced what I preached. I responded that I “preached” the notion that you can’t possibly do everything right — and that if you try, you’ll make yourself, and everyone around you, nuts. So, I do what I can do, and try to minimize the guilt about the things I don’t.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
I love the California coast — a collision of mountains, ocean, and forests. There’s no better day for me than a long hike in Point Reyes or the Marin Headlands.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
It would be tax-shifting toward a system that honored and rewarded just and sustainable production and consumption, and heavily taxed wasteful and polluting ways. A carbon tax might be one such vehicle, as long as it didn’t regressively penalize those in the lower economic strata, though I believe there are other innovative ideas that also are worthy of consideration.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?
Recognizing the power of markets. In protecting forests, for example, there’s a growing realization that while chaining oneself to an old-growth tree can be effective, boycotting, suing, or filing shareholder resolutions against retailers of lumber, office paper, and other forest products can be far more so, because it effectively forces the retailers to push environmental change upstream to their suppliers. I’m seeing this happen in a growing number of markets and, frankly, it’s getting executives’ attention. It’s become a topic of conversation at business conferences, networking events, and other venues — not how to combat activists’ efforts in this regard, but how to work collaboratively and constructively with them to find win-win solutions. We’ve seen major turnarounds at companies like Home Depot, Citibank, Boise, and Staples as the result of such market-based campaigns. I expect there will be many more to come.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could they do it better?
Giving credit to companies for things they’re doing right, even if they’re imperfect. Change is hard — for individuals and institutions alike — and companies often struggle to make what, for them, are significant changes in their operations, even though those changes may represent only a fraction of their environmental impacts. But activists tend to pooh-pooh such imperfect actions, viewing them as inadequate.
That’s a disservice to these companies, and to the environmental movement. When companies don’t get support for their efforts, they get frustrated — and it becomes increasingly harder for them to take on the next, more-ambitious innovation or change.
I’m not suggesting that activists should be satisfied when companies tinker at the margins, or that they should call off the dogs when a company addresses only one part of their environmental problems. But there needs to be a way for activists to acknowledge when companies are moving in the right direction — giving them support and recognition while letting them know that they’re not yet off the hook.
What important environmental issue is frequently overlooked?
Environmental justice. Those at the bottom of the economic pyramid, whether in the U.S. or the developing world, tend to suffer disproportionate levels of pollution and related health impacts. In the developing world especially, unequal interests and power arrangements have allowed the toxins of the consumer class to pollute those with the least ability to fight back. We see this in China, which has 16 of the world’s 20 most-polluted cities, according to the World Bank, and along the U.S.-Mexican border, where some maquiladora plants are serious polluters, and in Louisiana’s toxic “Cancer Alley,” among many other places.
These issues are not high on environmentalists’ agendas, at least not the national groups. Protecting the poor, it seems, isn’t as sexy as saving endangered species or slaying corporate dragons or thwarting the Bush administration’s latest environmental rollbacks. But the problems of the poor are arguably far more pressing in terms of human impacts, and precious few groups are addressing them in any meaningful way.
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
“Favorite band”? I was just talking about poverty! O.K., let’s change course.
I played both rock ‘n’ roll keyboards and jazz piano in bands during high school and college, so I had, and have, somewhat divergent tastes. Then, it included a lot of the San Francisco scene — the Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish, Janis Joplin, etc. — as well as bebop — Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker. Now, it includes all of those, plus everything from Talking Heads to Diana Krall to Moby.
Mac or PC?
I’ve been a dedicated, evangelistic Mac-head since the mid-1980s. I started doing desktop publishing back then, and there was no other option about which computer to use. About a year ago, tired of synching two computers, I went laptop-only, relying on my trusty PowerBook (and my trusty backup drive).
What are you happy about right now?
My life, mostly. I can’t think of much I’d want to change.