Wednesday, 18 Jun 2003

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.

During my 30-minute commute to work, I’m made aware of the propagation of multinational companies. On my walk to the 16th Street BART station (BART is San Francisco’s subway), I pass by the neighborhood Bank of America. Today I time myself: It takes 14 seconds to walk the length of the building. That means as I walked by it, 2,100 people used the bank’s global services, based on the company’s average of 150 customer transactions per second.

Across the street from the BART station, I see an advertisement for the “McGriddle” and am reminded that McDonald’s is one of the world’s largest toy distributors. I arrive at Montgomery Street station and walk two more blocks to the office, getting a whiff along the way of one of the 6,294 Starbucks outlets. I get to my desk, flip on the IKEA lamp, and notice the ficus trees from Home Depot aren’t doing well. I consider taking the company up on their full refund policy for plants and wonder if that policy extends to the other 40,000 products they sell.

The reason I know all these corporate facts is because The Natural Step has worked with every company I just mentioned. Part of our theory of change includes partnering with some of the largest resource-users on the planet — multinational companies and governments — in order to shift industry toward sustainable enterprise. We believe that these entities can and must start assessing their true impacts and generating different visions.

A favorite part of my job is telling stories like how the Home Depot’s senior team came up with a vision of “providing sustainable shelter” and being an engine for sustainability — or how McDonald’s global supply chain recently incorporated The Natural Step’s sustainability principles into its vision. We are seeing the seeds of change and it’s my job to communicate this to our audience and stakeholders.

However, talking about this aspect of our work often elicits a mix of enthusiasm and concern. I hear things like, “Wow! Do you think they’ll really do it?” and “Great concept, but what’s in it for them?” The skeptics tend throw out good questions, such as, “In a sustainable world, do we have multinationals?” and “What exactly does it mean to effect change?”

My standard response is always honest, which means: complicated. I offer that this is long-term work requiring education, innovation, patience, and trust. It’s an art and a science to bring best practices in business and sustainability to bear on solving global problems, and the key to our success is working with the sustainability champions and change agents inside these companies. I remind my listeners that there is no one person named Starbucks or IKEA. These are communities of people, hundreds of thousands of people, who work for the same organization and often move on to other organizations, taking what they have learned with them.

However, when we talk about our clients, we call them McDonald’s and Home Depot even if their names are Annette and Bob. This is a crucial aspect of our corporate work and a point that is tricky to make in communications. In fact, I received two emails this morning on this topic from my international colleagues. How do we continue our work with influential business leaders yet avoid endorsing a particular company or brand?

This communication challenge is not unique to The Natural Step. In the U.S. alone, there are literally thousands of groups and individuals working to move our modern industrial system toward greater environmental, social, and economic sustainability. As the movement grows, we are looking for ways to collaborate more and find answers to tough questions like these.

I regularly participate in efforts to create a stronger network of change agents. In fact, this morning I had a conference call with a group of nonprofit leaders working in the sustainable business sector, including Investors’ Circle, CERES, SEA Change, Social Venture Partners International, Responsible Wealth, Social Venture Network, Co-Op America, and Net Impact. The bulk of the call focused on sharing fundraising resources and strategies, and brainstorming ways to best leverage our efforts. From my perspective, our time would be well spent crafting some common messages for the public to help people better understand how their role as consumers can contribute to making this shift happen.