The Annual State of the Green Business 2011 Forum was held at Mission Bay on the UCSF campus last week. After attending many green business conferences over the past two years, I have been feeling some conference fatigue. But knowing Joel Makower and his great team, I knew that the Forum would deliver. And I was not disappointed.

As usual, the State of Green Business 2011 Report, GreenBiz.com’s annual effort to take the pulse on key sustainable business trends, was unveiled and summarized (see Joel Makower’s post summarizing the key points here).

“Companies are thinking bigger and longer term about sustainability — a sea change from their otherwise notoriously incremental, short-term mindset. And even during these challenging economic times, many have doubled down on their sustainability activities and commitments,” summarized Makower.

GreenBiz.com has done a great job of covering the key speakers on the day I attended (Feb. 3).  My thoughts below focus on an evaluation of the new event format and a summary of the key trends and tips highlighted by three of my favorite speakers.

A More Interactive Conference Experience

The event has matured from a one-day event in a big auditorium,  where the information flow was mainly one way, to a new two-day format that provided ample time for smaller workshops and group discussion.  The new format, and perhaps the steeper price, attracted a smaller, yet high-level set of attendees. At many conferences, I find the most valuable conversations happen during the breaks and I end up feeling disappointed by the sessions, where information flow is mostly one-way.

The new format offered many opportunities for dialogue. The breaks, workshops, lunch, guru sessions (where we had the opportunity to meet in a small group with a thought leader of our choice) and the evening reception were full of lively sustainability conversations.  It was a pleasure to have the opportunity to hear directly from company sustainability directors and consultants working in the trenches at sessions and have the small group guru sessions where we could dive in deep into a specific issue.

Kudos to the organizers for offering a zero-waste lunch!  No piles of garbage after lunch at this event.

Since UCSF is a client, I was disappointed that its sustainability accomplishments were not highlighted as part of the program.  Maybe next year?

Young Alexis Ringwald Makes a Big Splash

I arrived late to the morning plenary to a delightful presentation from Alexis Ringwald, director of business development for Serious Materials.  At 25, she is confident, articulate, engaging and funny!  I loved the creative, down-to-earth message she delivered during her presentation.

Part of her comments focused on the story of how she helped to develop an energy efficiency platform that provides real-time energy use data and empowers people to make changes.

She also offered a three lessons learned that I think are worth repeating:

1.  Be unconventional: She pulled together a climate solutions road tour in India, a five-week road trip in solar plug-in vehicles, accompanied by a solar-powered band, to raise awareness and identify climate change solutions.

2.  Be creative: Alexis highlighted SmartPowerEd and the creativity of two young women who reduced energy use by 18 percent at their school using smart meters, empowering kids to share data and make a difference.

3.  Think big.  Think different: “We need crazy, unconventional ideas,” encouraged Alexis.  And she encouraged everyone, “All of us can alter the course of history.”

Sustainability Reporting:  Key Trends Identified by Scott Bolick, SAP’s Vice President of Sustainability

Matthew Wheeland did a great job summarizing the session focused on sustainability reporting.  I highlight below in more detail the three trends Scott Bolick, SAP’s vice president of sustainability, identified  for sustainability reporting in the coming years:

1.  Moving from transparency to accountability:  Bolick stressed the importance of pro-actively engaging stakeholders.  “Be part of the conversation, or it will occur with out you,” he warned.

2.  Moving to more frequent reports, especially quarterly reporting:  Bolick encouraged participants to think of sustainability reporting as a journey and to get a first report out.  SAP got its first report out in 2 months.  Then the conversation began as feedback rolled in.

3.  Move from publishing to dialogue at the CEO level: Bolick reported that at SAP’s recent quarterly all hands meeting, the CEO opened his comments by focusing on SAP’s reduction in green house gas emissions, depsite double-digit revenue growth.  He encouraged attendees to look for opportunities to align financial performance and sustainability and to tie sustainability into existing conversations.

But he also warned that simply publishing a report once a year is a one-way, static conversation and suggested that a quarterly reporting mindset aligns reporting with enterprise performance. SAP is now reporting GHG emission on a quarterly basis.  Late January, in conjunction with its earnings, SAP reported its worldwide carbon emissions for 2010 were 430 kilotons, a four percent decrease from the 450 kiloton level of 2009.

Tips for Starting a Sustainability Program

I had the opportunity to sit in a small “guru” session with Rupesh Shah, director of corporate sustainability at Intuit.

He shared some of the first steps he took in building Intuit’s sustainability program back in 2007:

1. Build a cross-functional group: One of Shah’s first steps was to create a Green Executive Committee, a cross-functional advisory group made up of key business and function leaders, including IT, supply chain, small business and tax.  The committee set Intuit’s strategy and goals, which were ultimately approved by the CEO.  It is still the governing body of Intuit’s sustainability efforts and meets about once a month.

2. Benchmark: To ground the Green Executive Committee in the latest trends in sustainability, the group collected ideas, feedback and best practices from employees, leading and peer companies and industry experts.

3. Create a strategy:  Shah then focused his time on developing a strategy to build sustainability into Intuit’s core and identifying potential tools that could help its 40 million small businesses, with a focus on GHG and waste reduction. For FY10 the company has an absolute 4% reduction in GHG emissions since its baseline year of FY07. To reach its goal of a 15% GHG reduction by the end of FY12, Intuit has identified numerous reduction initiatives, including on-site renewable energy, data center consolidation and renewable energy credits (RECs).

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