Mark LeeMark Lee, CEO SustainAbility

The theme of Sustainable Brands 08 was ‘Below the Surface’. Lee takes this to a whole new level, with a look at the macro picture of corporate action and potential in the sustainability journey. He begins by describing the green movement(s) as “Waves of pressure, of interest and regulatory activity.” Waves come in a series, says Lee, and timing is critical. If you move too quickly or slowly, you can miss them completely.

The First Wave was environmental, and began with Rachel Carson’s iconic book, Silent Spring. This movement was a citizens approach, and response to it came from government in the form of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Revised Clean Air Act of 1970. The OPEC crisis and subsequent economic stresses, however, caused it to recede.
The Second Wave began with consumer interest in the late 80’s. ‘Green’ Businesses began to listen, but again, a recession shifted our focus, and the wave drew back.
The Third Wave was one of globalization, which Lee personified with a photo from demonstrations against the 1999 World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle. People began thinking about systems – are they fair? Social issues took centre stage. Soon after, 9-11 and subsequent fallout stalled us once again, but not, Lee notes, retreating to the same level as before. Some progress was retained.
This, The Fourth Wave, has attributes of the first three, but is focused on systems. (Climate, water, and food) This time corporations are playing a much bigger part, with big-business responses like the Toyota Prius, Wal-Mart’s supply chain greening etc.

These waves also generate divides in society. Lee lists the top 10 divides currently being created; Demographic, Financial, Nutritional, Resources, Environmental, Health, Gender, Educational, Digital and Security. These divides also create opportunity. Take the Demographic divide, for instance. The planet has just recently passed the 50+1% point where more people live in cities than in rural areas. Yet the automobile, as we know it, is designed for a much more spacious culture. Ford, in response, is now looking beyond cars, to Sustainable Mobility, imagining mega-cities where bus, trains and cars are all part of the same system, with streamlined payment and ridership options.

One important chartBut for me, Lee’s biggest ‘aha’ moment came when he described the evolution companies must go through to become truly sustainable. In an ingenious hand-drawn Powerpoint chart (itself a thing of reductionist beauty) he showed the progression from incremental steps of efficiency and process, to the redevelopment of products and services to the wholesale re-engineering of entire business models. Only when we get to the third stage, he claims, will we truly be able to solve the big problems. And tthat will take some powerful talent.

The Rise of the Intrapreneur.
In every company that evolves changes, there are usually one or more core people or groups responsible for making it happen. These are the individuals with the vision to see an opportunity, the courage to take risks in an environment that may not reward them, and the sheer indefatigability to resist the energy-sapping inertia of the Big Corporation. These are the Intrapreneurs, and our success may well rest on their shoulders.Because in Lee’s words, “What a wave pushes up against creates the pressure that makes the wave bigger.”

Surf’s up.


One in a series of articles on Lorne’s Sustainable Journey to the Sustainable Brands 08 Conference in Monterey CA. Click here for the full list of sessions, or here for the ‘Fear & Loathing’ road trip journals.


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