Book Review: Strategy for Sustainability by Adam Werbach – A Primer for Third Wing Environmentalism or a Harbinger of the Black Swan?

stratgy sustainability book cover I find it fitting and perhaps a little ironic that I was asked to write a review about Adam Werbach’s popular book, Strategy for Sustainability, a book addressed to corporations large and small about how they can operate as leaders in sustainability.

Perhaps because  my senior thesis as an undergraduate English  major, was entitled “The Paradox of Corporate Environmentalism.”

I wrote that paper back in 1997 while attending University of California, Santa Barbara. I  had the privilege of interviewing Congressman Henry Waxman (his son and I befriended one another at Tel Aviv University) for my thesis.

Extensive research and this interview with one of the true pioneers of incentive systems for marketable discharge permits, helped shape my view on corporate environmentalism. I learned a lot about various factions within the Green movement, corporate citizenship vs. government regulation, and the central role that economics played in all of these topics. My thesis volunteered that corporate citizenship was incredibly rare and statistically insignificant, like Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swan.

In Strategy for Sustainability, Werbach clearly takes another point of view with regard to corporate citizenship and I must admit it is a bit infectious. Werbach’s book, similar to his own professional career follows the trajectory of sustainability from academia (Werbach double majored at Brown University) to the crunchy granola, wholly organic playground of San Francisco to the boardrooms of some of the most influential and largest market cap companies on the planet – Wal-Mart, Clorox and Proctor & Gamble, to name a few.

What’s that? Surprised? It’s not the now tired list of companies you are used to hearing about like Ben & Jerry’s, the Body Shop, Patagonia, and Stoneyfield Farms? I can still remember Wal-Mart being caught up in that Kathie Lee Gifford sweatshop clothing line scandal in the mid 90’s. Clorox? Isn’t their core product line toxic? It all reminds me too much of a quote I once heard from comedian Chris Rock who said, “You know the world is going crazy when the best rapper is a white guy, the best golfer is a black guy, the tallest guy in the NBA is Chinese, the Swiss hold the America’s Cup, France is accusing the U.S. of arrogance, Germany doesn’t want to go to war…Need I say more.”

But it happens to be true that these three enormous companies are taking significant, paradigm-shifting steps toward sustainability, and perhaps a better and cleaner world.

Werbach sees the forest for the trees

The real focus of Strategy for Sustainability is that today the concept of sustainability is just as much, if not more about economics and culture than about preserving the environment. In today’s increasingly urban world (300 million Chinese are reportedly going to be moving to cities in the next 10 years), the idea of protecting the environment is far too abstract for most people. That isn’t to say Werbach doesn’t value the environment, on the contrary. As the youngest president of the Sierra Club in the organizations history (Werbach inherited the mantle from his mentor, David Brower when he was only 23 years old), he can just now see the forest for the trees.

Yes, things have changed considerably since the mid nineties, in some of the most unexpected of ways, too. For one, it appears that Third-Wave Environmentalists have won the debate over Decentralists. A quick review: throughout the late 1960s through the 1990’s Decentralist ‘greens’ held out the belief that economies of scale were our only salvation. Industry should consist of small niche operations that served local consumers. They had no discernable faith in the benefits of large corporations. E.F. Schumacher, a founder of the Decentralist movement once wrote, “Call a thing immoral or ugly, soul-destroying or a degradation of man, a peril to the peace of the world or to the well-being of future generations; as long as you have not shown it to be uneconomic you have not really questioned its right to exist, grow, and prosper.”

On the other hand, Third Wave Environmentalists are that more conservative group of ‘greens’ who acknowledge the present problems within current corporate treatment of the environment, but firmly believe that a revamping of the corporate philosophy and structure could effectively net both desirable and profitable results. As indicated by his book and his professional trajectory, Adam Werbach now clearly sits with the reigning Third Wave.

Video with Adam Werbach on his book

Werbach opens the book with a personal epiphany after his unsuccessful attempt to protect the wetlands surrounding New Orleans in the years leading up to Hurricane Katrina.

He writes, “…I knew we environmentalists could no longer do what we had been doing. Focusing solely on saving the environment did not suffice – did not save lives, livelihoods, or neighborhoods. We needed to fight for a larger kind of sustainability; one that took into account our social, economic, and cultural sustainability as well as our ecological surroundings. I could not just be an environmentalist. I had to think more comprehensively.”

This epiphany led Werbach to design his “Seven Tenets of a Strategy for Sustainability” including:

1. Natural resources will become increasingly scarce and expensive

2. Massive demographic change is occurring

3. People are the most important renewable resource

4. Cash flow matters more than quarterly earnings

5. Every organization’s operating environment will change as dramatically in the next three to five years as it has in the last five

6. A chaotic external world requires internal cohesion and flexibility

7. Only the truly transparent will survive

In my college thesis I wrote, “The inherent ideology of large corporations consisting of controlling elites dangerously lack in moderation, preservation and gradualism.” In our increasingly global economy, corporations, in fierce competition with one another must produce their goods as economically as possible. Pollution mediating technology thus proves to be “uneconomic” or “unsustainable” to the corporation and to its survival. Corporate philosophy, as dictated by one of its forefathers, John Maynard Keynes, recognizes that sustainability is not necessary to increase production and profits.

On the other hand Werbach writes in Strategy for Sustainability, that, “The corporate sector has the incentives, operational know-how, scalability, and ingenuity to respond to the global challenges we face today, challenges on all four fronts – social, economic, environmental, and cultural.”

Making corporations part of the solution

He’s right. In today’s fragmented world where multinational corporations wield both the money and political clout to make an impact that would embarrass many nation states, large corporations must be part of the solution. Werbach writes, “Over half of the world’s largest economies were corporations. “ Just because a company is big doesn’t mean that it will necessarily focus itself onto sustainable goals, however.

During my interview with Congressman Henry Waxman, the “Young Democrat” took a different stance on the likelihood of corporate citizenship (i.e. that corporations could be counted on to the do the right, if sustainable thing) Waxman said, “Corporations have not demonstrated significant leadership in terms of protecting our environment. They spend exorbitant amounts of money battling regulations in our courtrooms everyday and pit jobs against clean air.”

Werbach continues, “With this power come higher expectations. Society increasingly holds global businesses accountable as the only institutions powerful enough to respond at the scale of the challenges that our planet faces.”

In contrast, Waxman said, “We simply cannot rely on corporations to act environmentally responsible on their own. The history of industry has consistently demonstrated this unfortunate truth.” Waxman views pollution control and regulation as “inconsistent with bottom-line corporate philosophy and interests.”

I’m not sure that Werbach really would take issue with the Congressman from California on this point. Werbach acknowledges, “at least for now, the best strategies for sustainability come about in highly messy, decentralized, bottoms-up ways, where entrepreneurs like Anita Roddick (The Body Shop), Yvon Chouinard (Patagonia), and Gary Erickson (Cliffbar) create a company to complete a ‘get us to the moon’ mission, hire people who care about that mission, and then unleash their talent and passion to figure out how to complete it.”

In other words, the tired list (mentioned above) still represents the black swans in the universe, with larger less likely candidates slowly adapting to various external pressures.

I would argue that giant multinational corporations have joined the sustainable game not only out of a sense of obligation but because organizations like Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and several others have flagged them and galvanized enough consumers to force the corporations into compliance. To Werbach’s point, to ignore this media and consumer advocacy would have been…well, unsustainable.

Greenpeace’s efforts to target Apple is a great example of this approach and its effectiveness. Of course that could just be the Decentralist green in me speaking out.

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