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04.30.08

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Corporate Commitment

Third annual Sustainable Enterprise Conference underscores good stewardship for good profits

By Gianna De Persiis Vona


The third annual Sustainable Enterprise Conference, slated for May 2, features expert keynote speakers, exhibitors and four tracks of workshops. Organized by the Sustainable Enterprise Coalition—a group of Northern California business leaders, university faculty members, nonprofit leaders and entrepreneurs—the goal of the conference is to promote sustainable business practices and to provide tools and resources that "balance economic viability, environmental responsibility and social equity."

I speak over the phone with one of the keynoters, Pic Walker, of Blu Skye Consulting. Originally of Healdsburg, now located in San Francisco, Blu Skye is known in part for its work on behalf of what many in the environmental movement view as an evil corporate behemoth: Wal-Mart. Walker's presentation for the conference is "Creating Business Value Through Sustainability: The Wal-Mart Journey." Walker says that at Blu Skye, the focus is on practical tools to make businesses more sustainable and to help shift the mindset within a company so that people are thinking through this lens. (I have a vision of the corporate share-holders of Wal-Mart looking through these Coke-bottle-size lenses, trying to visualize sustainability without losing any of their profits.) But the idea, Walker says, is not to eliminate profits; the idea is that a business can save money if it begins to adopt sustainability measures. If saving money also means saving the environment, then perhaps there is nothing here to quibble about. 

Walker says that the three goals for Wal-Mart are to eventually reach a point of zero waste, 100 percent renewable energy use and to have more sustainable products on its shelves. Just by changing light bulbs, the company can save $1 million a year. By reducing packaging, more products can fit on a shelf. By working with the fleet trucks, massive amounts of fuel can be saved. By encouraging employees to adopt a "personal sustainability promise," or PSP, Wal-Mart can reduce healthcare costs and increase employee productivity. (Many of the PSP goals seem to revolve around weight loss, a need possibly fueled by the fact that Wal-Mart provides its employees with only one common food option, a McDonald's inside each store.)

After speaking with Walker, I decide to further investigate the decision of Wal-Mart's CEO Lee Scott to transform Wal-Mart's image from one of the greatest corporate offenders to a model of sustainable business practices, and to find out more about this PSP. The man responsible for this gem is one Adam Werbach, founder of Act Now, an environmental consulting firm that helps companies "capture the emerging green customer base." Werbach was fired from his position as president of the Sierra Club after his decision in 2005 to take on Wal-Mart as a client.

This small bump in his career obviously did nothing to squelch his creative genius, as he and his consulting team soon came up with the PSP, the goal of which is to get all Wal-Mart employees to commit to a behavior change that will benefit their own health and that of the planet. This voluntary plan, while not nearly as good as, say, a pay raise, seems to be helping hundreds of thousands of Wal-Mart employees learn how to make a difference. The plan reeks of condescending rhetoric, but if Werbach is correct and even a small step toward sustainable living is a step in the right direction, then getting underpaid and overworked Wal-Mart employees to use "positive psychology" so that they can be more productive out on the floor is a good thing. I guess.

Wal-Mart aside, the conference promises a host of interesting things to do and hear. Other speakers are John Harrington, president of Harrington Investments, a socially responsible investment-advising firm, and Jared Huffman, the Sixth District assembly member who is a supporter of AB 32, legislation to cut back on California's CO2 emissions. Exhibitors such as Benziger Winery, Summerfield Waldorf School, KRCB television and radio, and the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance will be available to showcase the sustainable aspects of their businesses and organizations.

The event is arranged in "tracks," so that every attendee can find workshops tailored to their needs. Track A is for large and medium enterprises, track B for small enterprise, and entrepreneurs, track C for strategic thinking and visionary leadership and track D for those just getting started on the path to sustainable business practices. For anyone interested in sustainable enterprise, as well as those (such as myself) who love "meals included" happenings, this is an event well worth a Friday.

For more information on the Sustainable Enterprise Conference, go to www.sustainableenterpriseconference.com.


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