Marketing Sustainability Initiatives Through Companies with Environmental Defense Fund’s Beth Trask

September 12, 2011

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and today we’re so honored to have with us Beth Trask, who’s the Deputy Director of Innovation Exchange for the Environmental Defense Fund, the EDF. Welcome to Green is Good, Beth Trask. BETH TRASK: Thank you so much. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey, Beth, you know, you have an amazing biography of your life and your journey, and instead of me reading it and taking the whole show up, can you just share with our listeners a little bit your wonderful journey and how you became the Deputy Director of the EDF? BETH TRASK: Sure. Well, you know, I guess at the risk of sounding a bit corny, it did start out very young, probably elementary school for me. My parents found me digging through the trash trying to figure out what really could be saved and recycled and so forth, which, to their chagrin, and that continued on through college activities, getting involved in environmental issues, and then, ultimately, sort of weaving my way through my career to find out a place where I think I can make the most impact, and that has been on creating high-impact public-private partnerships for the environment that are good for business and good for the planet and good for everyone. It’s been somewhat of a circuitous journey, but I think I found the place where I can make a difference here at Environmental Defense Fund. JOHN SHEGERIAN: First of all, you’re based out of San Francisco. Did you grow up on the West Coast, or did you grow up somewhere else? BETH TRASK: No, I grew up on the West Coast. I’m a California girl. JOHN SHEGERIAN: OK. Is it right to say it was more of an environmental community, more aware than other parts of the country, where you grew up? BETH TRASK: You know, that’s a great question. I think so, possibly, but, you know, everyone is going through the same day-to-day challenges of just trying to get through life, so I wouldn’t say that everyone here has figured out easy ways to recycle everything and all of that. We’re still dealing with all those challenges right here in California. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, Beth, of course, you’re so darn humble. You talked about your journey a little bit. You actually went to Harvard University. BETH TRASK: I did. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Yeah, well, that’s quite a launchpad for going out and changing the world, and we’re just so glad you’re with us today and that you’re over at the Environmental Defense Fund. Talk a little bit about what is the Environmental Defense Fund? What do you guys do there? What do your colleagues do with you over at the Environmental Defense Fund, and what are your priorities? BETH TRASK: Sure. EDF, as we call ourselves, is a national environmental advocacy organization. We’re a not for profit, non-governmental organization founded back in 1967 by a very small group of scientists and lawyers and economists. Ever since then, we’ve been focused on finding solutions to what we believe are the most critical environmental challenges facing the planet. We have a distinctive way of going about that. We’re committed to linking sound science, sound economics with good policy and innovative partnerships with the private sector. That’s a huge part of what we do is work with the marketplace to solve environmental problems. Essentially, we want to preserve the natural systems on which all life depends for all the humans on the planet, and specifically our priorities are to stabilize the Earth’s climate, to protect human health, to restore natural ecosystems, and to safeguard our oceans and our fisheries. Much of our work is here in the U.S., though increasingly we’re active around the world. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. Mike and I have a lot of times on the show so many of these big brands, wonderful brands, and that people out there before, historically, have thrown rocks at. But what Mike and I have learned along this journey of hosting this show with our listeners is that when a big brand makes a decision, they really move the needle. Is that sort of how you work with them at the EDF? BETH TRASK: Absolutely. You said it excellently. We started out this work with business about 20 years ago, and it’s hard to believe now, but way back in 1990, a non-profit environmental group working with a major corporation was a big deal. It didn’t really happen, and certainly not in a collaborative, positive sort of way. Back in 1990, EDF approached McDonald’s. That was our first partnership ever, and it was controversial then, for EDF to be knocking on McDonald’s door and asking to help McDonald’s solve some of its environmental problems. That began a very productive partnership that led to some big changes in its packaging practices. Many people will recall the old polystyrene clamshell container that Big Macs used to be served in. They haven’t existed for a very long time now, and that’s because of the work that EDF and McDonald’s did together to come up with an entirely new way for McDonald’s to think about the packaging. MIKE BRADY: Well, you know, Beth, in answering John’s question, you really answered a question I was about to ask, but I’ll still ask it anyway. You approached McDonald’s back about 20 years ago. Is that the model, then, that you use? Do you approach business, or does business approach you? Or is it kind of a two-way conversation, depending upon whatever business or industry? BETH TRASK: It’s a bit of both. I mean, things have certainly changed since 1990. I mean, businesses are increasingly seeing huge opportunities around sustainability, and the fact that what’s good for the planet is also good for business. The sustainability initiatives can reduce costs, increase efficiency, create new markets, and so forth and so forth. So, often they come to us. We still knock on a lot of doors, cold calling them, saying, “Hey, do you want to work with us?” So, it’s a little bit of everything. But, fundamentally, we know that if we want to solve the problems that our planet faces at scale, the scale that they need to be solved, we need companies. We need companies as partners and as environmental leaders on the frontlines of finding these solutions. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know, Beth, Mike and I are so honored to have on a regular basis the great folks over at the NRDC on our show. Talk a little bit about the differentiating perspectives and missions that both of your great groups have, and how do you collaborate also, and what are your aligned missions also? BETH TRASK: Yeah. I would say we’re in a lot of ways very similar and have similar objectives. We collaborate on many issues. We’ve worked together very closely here in California, for example, on the landmark climate change solution pact, which is essentially going to tap greenhouse gas emissions in California. That was a tremendous partnership between NRDC and EDF. It’s hard for me to say what is the difference, but a couple things I can note is that they tend to focus a bit more on working through the courts, where we tend to be a little bit more focused on partnerships with companies. We’re a good complement to each other in that way. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, lest I say, the country and our environment is much better because both of you exist. BETH TRASK: I think so, for sure. I really rely heavily on each other’s expertise. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Talk a little bit beyond McDonald’s. Mike and I are on your site. By the way, for our listeners who just tuned in, we’re so honored today to have Beth Trask on from the EDF, the Environmental Defense Fund. For those of you who would like to go to their website, if you have your iPad or laptop open like Mike and I do, you can go to http://business.edf.org. Beth, talk a little bit about the projects and partners beyond McDonald’s, which we’re on your website right now, and it is very compelling, the story you have on here, that you work with, that are really typical of the great work that you do. BETH TRASK: Sure. So, some of our real landmark partnerships include our work with FedEx. We worked closely with FedEx to develop cleaner delivery trucks. Together with some industry partners, we created the first hybrid electric delivery truck that was on the market, and it has spurred a whole new market for such trucks. Many fleets now have a hybrid delivery truck as part of their composition, and it’s a real growing base in the truck industry. We’ve worked with Starbucks to bring post-consumer recycled content to its cups, a first in the food industry. We are currently working on a project that involves the private equity industry. A few years ago, you would not necessarily equate private equity with sustainability or environmental stewardship, but that’s really starting to change. A few years ago, we started a partnership with KKR, one of the largest private equity firms, and we’re now also working with the Carlyle Group. Essentially, we’re systematically improving the environmental performance of their portfolio companies by adding environmental performance management to them. And so that’s been a big innovation in the private equity space. One of our biggest partners right now is the world’s largest retailer, Walmart. We’ve been working with Walmart for about five years now to realize measurable results in terms of its products and its operations. Specifically, we’re focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from its global supply chain, and that involves many, many different projects, as you might imagine. One I’ll mention in particular is we’re working on the ground in China with many of its supplier factories to increase the energy efficiency of those operations. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow. So, I mean, you really do work from McDonald’s to Starbucks to FedEx and Walmart. It’s really your DNA to work with some of the big game changers out there, that when they start making moves to effect sustainability and other environmental issues, the needle really moves, and that’s really the DNA of the EDF. BETH TRASK: I think so. We’re trying really hard. JOHN SHEGERIAN: OK. Beyond the corporate partnership program, like I was saying to our listeners out there, Mike and I are on your site now, and we’re looking at this new eco-challenge series. Can you share a little bit about what this is, and how that works? BETH TRASK: Yeah. I’d love to. Increasingly, we are looking for new ways to work with companies and new ways to accelerate environmental innovation in business. The eco-challenge series is our latest initiative on that front. Essentially, it’s an open innovation competition, sometimes referred to as crowdsourcing. This project came about as we asked ourselves one of the big questions that we’re trying to answer, which is how can we solve environmental problems faster and at a lower cost? How can companies solve environmental problems faster and at a lower cost? In exploring this question, we’ve looked to the world of R & D. If you look across the Fortune 500 companies, R & D departments are increasingly experimenting with open innovation as a strategy. That essentially means that they’re looking beyond their four walls, beyond their in-house teams of scientists and researchers, and bringing in new ideas from the outside, from literally experts around the world. Proctor & Gamble, for example, is a company that has used open innovation to drive its R & D efforts in recent years, and they do it because it works. It reduces the time, reduces R & D cycle time, and reduces the expense of R & D, which can be quite high. So, here at EDF, we asked ourselves, “Why not solve environmental challenges in the same way?” Companies are dealing with very complex sustainability issues, how to reduce water use, energy use, chemical inputs, and other resource inputs while minimizing waste and shrinking our carbon footprint. This is all really tough, complex stuff. So, why not bring in the collective brainpower of scientists and inventors and other experts around the world to try to help companies solve these problems faster? So, we’ve launched the eco-challenge series to do just that. It’s a partnership, again, with an open innovation company, a company called Innocentive, and it’s based in Massachusetts. It prides itself on being a global leader in open innovation and the idea of challenge-drive innovation. And, so we have launched the eco-challenge series, in which we are hosting sustainability challenges that are intended to reach Innocentive’s global network of 250-some-thousand people around the world, researchers at universities around the world, inventors, probably some inventors living in somebody’s grandma’s basement, toiling away on the next big idea. I mean, these are the people who have some really great ideas, and we need to find them and apply them, their thinking and their brainpower, to some of these problems. JOHN SHEGERIAN: We have listeners not only in the United States, Beth, but around the world. Once the show airs on the great Clear Channel network, it also then gets downloaded and uploaded to the Apple iTunes network, and Mike and I get to look at the numbers in wonderment and see all the people around the world from Shanghai to Singapore to Paris and beyond that are downloading our show. For our listeners out there around the world, how do they engage with this new eco-challenge series? How do they sign up for it? Do you have a protocol for that? BETH TRASK: Yes, and we would love for them to engage. We’re looking to bring in, as I said, the global collective brainpower to help us solve these problems. To do that, a very easy first step is to go to our website, the business.edf.org site, and click on the eco-challenge series. You will immediately see our challenge page, our initial challenges that are posted, and links to jump to places where they can sign up to be solvers, to actually view all our challenges and decide if they would like to propose a solution. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is just so great. So, this is more geared for large companies, entrepreneurs in grandma’s basement, folks up in Silicon Valley, or is this a cross-section of everybody? BETH TRASK: I believe it’s a cross-section. Certainly we are out and about talking to dozens of companies right now, many of the major companies that we’ve partnered with over the years, inviting them to join us in this eco-challenge series to develop a challenge and post it through the series. I should note, all these challenges are prize bearing. If someone finds the solution to a particular company’s challenge, there is a prize associated with that, anywhere from $10,000 on up. We’re out there talking with companies, inviting them to join this program, and then we’re also inviting anyone to become a solver, to take a look at our challenges and consider whether they have a solution. So, there’s something here for everyone. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is great. Let’s go back and talk about some of the big brands you work with. They come to you and they pay you a fee to work with you? Or you go to them and you offer to help solve problems that you’ve solved before in different industries but similar problems? How does that discussion really happen? BETH TRASK: Well, that’s something that’s very unique to the model we have here at Environmental Defense Fund for working with companies, in that we actually don’t accept any fees, any payments, from the companies with which we partner. We do that because we want to maintain our credibility as an independent environmental advocacy organization, and we also want to stay very focused on the end goal, which is environmental results. So, we view our relationship with the companies as partnerships, and the client is the planet, so to speak, not us, not them. It’s the planet. So, that means that we need to go out and raise independent funds from foundations, from our membership, so that we have the resources to do the partnership work that we do with companies. What it means is that we have to be a little bit more selective. We can’t work with everyone. We have to go out and always raise the money so that we can, but it also, I think, makes for really impactful projects with really clear objectives and outcomes. MIKE BRADY: Beth, getting back to your site, and again it is business.edf.org, and I’m looking to the challenges that you have, and it really is set up pretty cool, John, because the way it’s set up, it states what the problem is, gives some background and posting dates, and the deadline for the submission, also the reward money, which let me ask you about this now, Beth. Based on your last statement about maintaining total independence and transparency so that you are not beholden to any one individual or company, your client, so well stated, is the planet, where does the funding come from for the prize money for the ultimate solution on your eco-challenge? BETH TRASK: Ultimately, it will come from the company that is sponsoring the challenge. None of that money will come to EDF. It will go directly to the winner, the solver as we call them, that submits the winning solution. We have two challenges that are posted right now, our first two, our trial challenges, and those are both sponsored by EDF. Those funds, those prizes, come from our membership and our supporters. Those two challenges are interesting because they’re trying to tackle a major challenge that’s way down in the agricultural supply chain, which is the problem of nitrogen pollution. The over application of fertilizer in many large-scale farming operations has some pretty harmful effects in the form of nitrogen pollution, so we’re looking for some innovative win-win solutions, good for the planet, good for farmers, that will reduce the amount of nitrogen outflow from farms. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know, Beth, I should have asked this early on. How many offices does EDF have around the world? What year did you guys start, and how many members do you have? BETH TRASK: We started in 1967. We currently have somewhere around 700,000 members around the country. I don’t know exactly how many offices we have. I can’t remember, but we’re headquartered in New York and we have offices around the country — Raleigh, Boulder, Austin, Sacramento. We’re kind of all over the place, including an office in Beijing and a couple other international spots in Mexico and a couple other places. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, 700,000 members. Wow. That’s just amazing. Innovation is what you’re in charge of, right? You’re the Deputy Director of Innovation Exchange. So, talk a little bit about why that. Why did you choose that? Who do you feel that that’s sort of where you can make the most impact? BETH TRASK: Well, I think this is a really, really exciting time. We’re not at a place anymore where we’re convincing companies that sustainability is a good idea. They know it’s a good idea. In fact, many companies, both large and small, are really out there on the cutting edge, and they are innovating to find sustainable solutions that drive their revenue, are good for their business, good for all their stakeholders. So we’re really catching the wave here. I think there is tremendous interest in environmental innovation right now. We see it as a very powerful lever for solving environmental problems, and so we really feel like this is a place where we need to be focusing our efforts. JOHN SHEGERIAN: What does the future hold? We’re down to the last minute-and-a-half. Talk a little bit about what’s next. We always love to hear about what’s next for great organizations like yours, the EDF. Share with our listeners, Beth, what’s to come. BETH TRASK: It’s really about scaling our work. Again, if you look at the Fortune 500, for example, you’re seeing a tremendous amount of activity around the environment. You’re seeing huge sustainability teams with experts working on all sorts of problems, and companies really getting out ahead and being leaders in their industries. But then there’s a lot of companies out there who are just getting started, or maybe don’t even know how to get started, at a really early stage in their efforts, so we see our role is expanding beyond the Fortune 500 and getting to what we like to call the next 5,000, and then ultimately the next 50,000. It’s really about transforming business. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is just so wonderful. Beth, you always have an open door here for you or your colleagues to come back on and continue this wonderful story of what you’re doing at the EDF and give us updates and get more of our listeners engaged with this great organization. For those of you out there that want to support or join the EDF, please go and sign up right now, business.edf.org, or get involved with that great eco-challenge series. Beth Trask, you are an inspirational sustainability innovator, leader, and truly living proof that green is good.