Event Review: Green Business Conference

By Heather Berg

Co-op America Business Network Green Business Conference: “Growing the Green Business Movement.” November 4-7, 2003.

“The next stage of economic development will be driven by networks of companies such as yours - those that blend social responsibility, environmental sustainability and profitability in a way that reinforces each and benefits everyone.” (Co-Op America website).

Co-op America held a Green Business Conference last month: “Growing the Green Business Movement.”Hundreds of business pioneers, committed to moving their organizations towards ever greater sustainability, gathered in an intimate setting of crystal and marble meeting rooms at the Ramada Plaza Hotel International on Market Street in San Francisco. The location was chosen partly for the hotel’s willingness to allow organizers Alisa Gravitz and Chris O’Brien to bring in caterers specializing in organic, vegan and vegetarian food. It was great to see Co-Op America ‘walk its talk’ by providing delicious, high fiber meals and recycling and composting everything possible, instead of offering “foodservice grade,” catered fare with deep-fried foods, cheese cubes and tortilla chips.Generous snacks and drinks were also provided by Dr. Bronner’s with their new food bar, ALPSNACK and the following companies: Roiboos Tea, Honest Tea, Organic Valley Family of Farms and Stonyfield Farm Organic.

Green business topics were addressed in forums appealing to a wide range of participants. Formats included prominent speakers addressing the whole audience, smaller roundtable discussions and peer panel feedback reviewing individual business cases. Keynote presentations were provided by Dame Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop and Jim Hightower, radio talk show host of Hightower Radio and author of Thieves in High Places: How to Take the Country Back.

Bena Burda’s presentation, “Partnering for Justice: Success Stories from the Field was especially inspiring. Bena (pron. Benay), founded Maggie’s Organics.While running an organic cotton apparel business using US manufacturing facilities, she discovered that sweatshop conditions really existed, and soon realized that she could get better quality, on time, and experience a higher level of integrity, if she collaborated in building a sewing plant in Nicaragua with 12 Nicaraguan mothers who were intent on supporting their families in the wake of Hurricane Mitch.

These industrious women built the factory with their own hands.Rosa Isabel Davila Alonso, whonow handles import/export operations for the cooperative, shared her story of building their dream and how it has created a steady source of income and a future for her children. (Rosa is working to earn an accounting degree while she finishes her high school degree.) An excellent documentary video, “Ants that Moved Mountains,” detailed the entire process.

Lifestyles Of Health and Sustainability (LOHAS), the child of Paul Ray’s “Cultural Creatives” movement, has taken more than 20% of North America by storm.Furthering education about this quiet giant movement, Harvey Hartman of the Hartman Group and Paul Ray himself presented data showing how a broad cross-section of North America is interested in organic foods, sustainability, fair trade, socially responsible investing and general well-being; It was surprising to learn that economic status IS NOT driving these consumers’shopping decisions – a finding already realized by companies such as Whole Foods and Wild Oats.

Frank Lampe, whose research and vision led him to co-found Natural Business Communications and the LOHAS Journal, moderated Web Strategies for Green & Fair Business. (The LOHAS Journal was recently acquired by Conscious Media, a division of GAIAM.)

Ray Anderson of Interface, Inc, founded this blue chip company in 1973, and turned it into a major multinational corporation. When he learned of the tons of toxic waste his company produced, he decided to find a better way so that his grandchildren’s grandchildren could hope for a healthy environment - the Native American Seventh Generation rule of thumb.

Wearing a dark business suit, he didn’t look like he would be keynoting a Green Conference, but his demeanor told another story. He described how he found "a better way to bigger profit by climbing Mt. Sustainability."

From an early pioneer in petroleum and carbon-based manufacturing of modular carpet tiles for corporate offices, he shifted gears to more sustainable alternatives manufactured from recycled plastics and renewable plant materials. The company became “energy neutral” when it started substituting methane gas from a capped European landfill for natural gas, and this kind of business logic has decreased production costs by one third in the last 8 years, saving the company $222 million - “just from eliminating waste.”

Anderson quotes famous author and environmentalist, Paul Hawken, who made the observation that many westerners recognize up to 1000 brand names,but can name only 10 plants. (No wonder our rainforests are in danger). He’s convinced that using the business case for sustainability gives him a better chance of predicting at least some of the outcome; he doesn’t underestimate the complexity of nature anymore and has become somewhat of an expert on bio-mimicry. It inspired him to ask “How would nature design a carpet tile?”

Happily, Mr. Anderson is witnessing growing demand in the corporate world for products that may help the environment instead of hurting it. For more information on Interface and subsidiary Interface Flor, go to www.interfaceFLOR.com .

Change the Climate, Change your Business, Change the World” summarizes the message from Tom Stoddardof Native Energy and Bob Gough of the Rosebud Nation. They demonstrated how those concerned about global warming can participate in the WindBuilders Program, a Native American wind farm expected to reduce 50,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the environment in the near future. Each person’s involvement can have the same impact on global warming as powering an average U.S. home with wind energy for one year.To learn more about exciting energy offset programs and alternatives visit nativeenergy.com

Jeffrey Hollander, Founder of Seventh Generation, gave a heart felt presentation entitled, “The Biggest Mistake I’ve Ever Made: Lessons Learned the Hard Way.” After his keynote about what it really costs to run a sustainable business, (emotionally and economically), the audience broke into roundtable discussions to share their biggest business mistakes. This process was refreshing because it reminded participants that some of our biggest lessons can come from our biggest mistakes and that we can move forward, not in spite of them, but because of them. By being real, we acknowledge that human beings with real families, struggles and stories are what make companies strong. Our employees are assets, not liabilities, as Chief Financial Officers of less sustainable organizations have often suggested.Supporting employees through rough times instead of “trimming the bottom line” is a sustainable approach to keeping a happy and motivated workforce.

Other sponsors of note included Utne Reader, Mother Jones, green MBA, Working Assets, PAX WORLD, Trinity Water, Equal Exchange, Clean Ride (cool motor powered bicycles) and The Nation.

The Green Business Conference has to be called a success. In the middle of the Conference,the participants decided to make it an Annual event and the sold-out post-conference activity was extremely popular too: Attendees toured Clif Bar’s corporate offices and state-of-the-art employee facilities. (Clif Bar was named the “Healthiest Company for Women to Work for in the US” by Health Magazine, and won the Socially Responsible Business Award in 2002.)

For more information on Co-Op America visit coopamerica.org.You can view a complete list of the Conference sponsors and learn about Co-op America Business Network Membership and the Green Pages, a directory ofresponsible businesses. Also, next May 12-14, 2004, co-sponsor Conscious Media is presenting “LOHAS Comes of Age” in a new location at the Ritz Carlton in Marina del Rey, California; see LOHAS8.com.

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