Mainstreaming Sustainability at Large Companies with Corporate Eco Forum’s P.J. Simmons

July 24, 2013

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and today we’re so excited to have on the line with us our good friend and back again at Green is Good, P.J. Simmons. Welcome back, P.J. P.J. SIMMONS: Thanks, John. Good to be back. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey. And, today, we’re gonna talk a little bit about things we’ve talked about in the past, your great book, The Green To Go Business Playbook, and of course, the Corporate Eco Forum, where you were so gracious to invite me a couple years ago to come speak, but we’re gonna be talking about something new today, the greening of tennis and the intersection of green and tennis and what’s going on and what you’re doing to lead that whole movement but before we even get to all those great topics, which you’re gonna cover, share a little bit about your journey, P.J. How did you even get to be who you are, to be the guy who runs, the chairman of the Corporate Eco Forum, to be the guy who wrote or co-wrote The Green To Go Business Playbook. Talk about your journey please. P.J. SIMMONS: Sure. Well, hey, thanks for having me on today. It’s just great to be back, John. I guess my journey kind of started back in 1992, when I picked up Earth in the Balance by Al Gore. I was just heading off to graduate school at Johns Hopkins Science over in Bologna, Italy, and literally on the plane reading that book and it just totally was like a two-by-four. I realized that environmental degradation worldwide was really connected to virtually everything that I had studied as an undergraduate around international relations and economics and security and so forth and I guess in retrospect, I kind of really committed a career to kind of pulling environmental issues out of this green box where they had generally been lumped and into the mainstream so people could start making these connections between what they care about on the human agenda and all that’s happening in the natural world and so that led me to integrate environment very much into my graduate studies at Johns Hopkins and so that led me to Washington to work at the White House on global environmental issues for a year while I was finishing up grad school, the first year with the Clinton Administration at the National Security Council, and then from there, ended up creating a project called the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, which still exists, and ran that for a few years to try to connect the dots on environment and security issues and then over the course of many more years, pretty much at the urging of a mentor, Jessica Matthews, who’s the head of the Carnegie Endowment for National Peace. She made the case that I ought to keep staying fairly broad in my work so that I wasn’t known as just a green guy but known for other things too so she pulled me into the Carnegie Endowment where I spent years working on government issues including but not limited to the environment, arms control, health proliferation, and all sorts of other global challenges. Several years in the foundation world at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, a couple years working at the Clinton Global Initiative, and then I met my co-founder of the Corporate Eco Forum about six years ago in San Francisco, and he wanted to do something to connect his business world with his growing interest in clean tech and green tech. I was very much feeling like there was a huge opportunity to tap the power of business to innovate and to do great things to make a contribution on the environment and that’s why we started the Corporate Eco Forum, to try to create a safe space for very senior executives at very large companies to kind of off the record share their own insights, war stories, success stories, and try to make sustainability work for their companies in a way that really did help them be better businesses and it’s been a great journey. I’m still having a great time doing that full time. JOHN SHEGERIAN: What is some of the most exciting developments since we last spoke? Talk a little bit about what has happened at the Corporate Eco Forum and some of the latest developments? P.J. SIMMONS: Well, I think one of the most exciting things we’re seeing is really the mainstreaming of sustainability in large companies. About two-thirds of U.S. companies today have a sustainability program in place or they’re drafting one and that’s up from only 38% in 2011. Over half of S&P 500 companies issued a CSR report, a social responsibility report, in 2012 compared to just 20% in 2011. There’s been, since 2011, there’s been a 30% increase in the number of publicly traded companies that have sustainability officers and about a third of those CSOs report directly to their CEO with all the rest of them only one step away in terms of reporting if they’re not reporting directly and then I think what’s most important is the conversation is changing and a lot of senior executives that really this is about bottom line benefits. It’s about cost reduction, risk reduction, growing revenues in creating, protecting your brand, protecting your supply chain over time, protecting your business model over time and it’s not about philanthropy., which it used to be about and today a recent poll just found that over 80% of executives see sustainability as consistent with their profit mission as compared to only about 58% in 2006, seven years ago, so I think that’s really exciting and a lot of conversation about the opportunity, the upside of all this. You see GE’s Intelligent Machines campaign about machine to machine intelligence to really boost efficiency and productivity and in a lot of ways, that’s essentially a sustainability campaign, but it’s not branded that way and I think that’s smart, very much like IBM’s Smarter Planet, Smarter Cities campaigns, so there’s a lot of work still to be done. the pace and rate of change and innovation is still not keeping pace with the rate and the scale of ecosystem degradation worldwide, of climate change, but I think what’s exciting is that the private sector is still really leading the way and showing the way and when we’re seeing so much partisan gridlock in Washington, it’s great to see all that leadership from business. JOHN SHEGERIAN: We also spoke on the last show about The Green to Gold Business Playbook, which you wrote, which became a green business best seller, which I read and I shared with lots of people and they loved it. Can you remind our listeners? And, for our listeners out there, please go and buy it if you can; Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, great book, The Green to Gold Business Playbook. What were some of the top takeaways when you were writing that book that you put in that book and lessons that were learned? P.J. SIMMONS: I think fundamentally, and The Green to Gold Playbook is the sequel to this great book, Green to Gold, that Andrew Winston and Dan Dempsey wrote, which is really a great strategy book to help make the cause of why companies ought to put sustainability, green lens, apply that to everything that they’re doing and the playbook is something that Dan and I did to kind of go further into the how and in fact, the subtitle of the book is How to Implement Sustainability Practices for Bottom Line Results in Every Single Business Function, so there, we give hundreds of examples of how it’s paying off for companies both large and small in terms of cutting their costs and reducing their risks and in terms of growing their new revenues, finding new customers, innovating, enhancing their customer retention, their customer loyalty, attracting the best and the brightest employees, and so forth and most importantly, we outline hundreds of plays that companies can run from basic to intermediate and advanced that really allow the companies to seize the business benefits of getting greener in terms of their buildings, their office environment, their supply chain and logistics, their IT, and more so we’ve gotten great feedback from practitioners that it’s actually something that sits on a lot of desks and people flip through and use different chapters, don’t read it necessarily cover to cover, but use it quite often as a reference to help them figure out how to go to the next step. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it, and like I tell my listeners again, it’s a wonderful book. Please read it if you have the chance. It’s again called The Green to Gold Business Playbook. You know, like this wasn’t all enough, being an author with a best seller, in the green world, the chairman of the EcoForum, you went out and besides your day job, you went out and you’ve created now, and I’m on the website, The U.S. Tennis Congress, and for our listeners out there who want to follow along, USTennisCongress.com. P.J., please explain what this is. This is fascinating. We’ve never covered this topic ever on the show before. This is sort of a landmark issue and something really new. Is this a form of taking your passion and putting it into practice here? P.J. SIMMONS: It is. It may also be a mid-life crisis or a sign of my masochism, but tennis has become, for me, really important balancing thing in my life. It’s really helped me keep balance in my life and in fact, when I was working on the playbook with the Corporate Eco Forum, which was also, like the Tennis Congress, a lot of long nights and weekends, it really was kind of the saving grace. It was my therapy. I’d get to the court and really all that mattered was the time I was spending with other people there and hitting the ball and every year, as an adult that got into the sport- I’ve loved the sport since I was about 15 years old as a fan, but I didn’t get deep into training until about six years ago and I’ve tried to train with the intensity and the passion of a kid that’s an aspiring pro even though obviously, I have no ambitions of doing that but it’s so rewarding to keep seeing that progress and I’ve found that tennis, the deeper I get into it, has helped me both grow as a person and as a professional because of the kind of lessons that I learn on court so I’ve become sort of a tennis addict and along the way and surely enough, I’ve met a lot of other people in the professional world who share that passion. Mark Turek at the Nature Conservancy, the CEO there, happens to love tennis. Andrew Winston who co-authored Green to Gold, is a big tennis player and so as I’m reflecting on all of this last fall, I kind of woke up one morning and said why is it that more adults don’t have an opportunity to train like juniors and train like pros even though it may just be a side passion but the people that I’ve met along the way have such passion and intensity about the sport so I thought what if we could combine like a TED conference meets tennis camp for people like me, whether they’re serious or all beginners or whether they’re really advanced in the sport? What if we had the opportunity to train with some of the world’s best faculty members and actually combine, not just on court education and hitting a lot of balls, but also off court education where you have classes and seminars that focus on strategy for singles and doubles and focus on off court conditioning and injury prevention and nutrition and fitness and so forth? So, I went to some of the top leaders in the industry, some of the top professional organizations, USTA, U.S. Professional Tennis Association, Professional Tennis Registry, The International Tennis Performance Association, a lot of these top organizations, and basically said what do you think? And thought that either they’d think I was crazy or they might be excited about it and to my great relief, there was tremendous support and enthusiasm for this kind of idea coming from the grassroots of tennis so flash forward to today. We just recently announced in U.S. Hit today the very first U.S. Tennis Congress. It’s gonna be held in Atlanta this October over Columbus Day weekend, the 11th through the 14th of October, and it’s the first event of its kind in history where we’ll have about 200 adult recreational players like me training with a world class faculty of about 40 including a two time Wimbledon champion, an Olympic silver medalist, a bunch of former top 100 players, a guy on Doctor Oz’s list of the top 100 professionals in health and it’ll be the first time that adult players can kind of combine this off and on court education on all aspects of training, not just technique, but all these other things that I’ve mentioned including even the mental game and psychology of the sport so it’s been great. We’ve already sold out about a third of the spots by word of mouth and we’re hoping maybe some of the listeners out there might want to join us in Atlanta. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well, please tell them how they can. P.J. SIMMONS: Well, you mentioned the website, John. It’s USTennisCongress.com and we actually created a discount code for anybody that’s listening called GreenIsGood. Just put in GreenIsGood when you’re registering for $100 off and that’s it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s awesome. Now, all of your fascinating background in green and everything you’ve done in your journey at the Corporate Eco Forum and back at the White House and what you created at the Woodrow Wilson Center. How does all your history- and the book you wrote, of course- How do you interconnect that? You’re an entrepreneur now. You’re a startup. Isn’t this really a startup business? P.J. SIMMONS: Yeah, it sure is and to answer your question, John, I think ultimately it’s about kind of putting sustainability at the core of the mission statement and the mindset of the business. After all of the years I’ve had and all the work I’ve done with companies over the last six years, it’s really forced me to reflect on what my own personal life mission statement is and I think ultimately it’s about two things. It’s about creating opportunities for as many individuals as possible to creating opportunities for them to live happy, fulfilled lives and to sort of touch the lives of individuals but more systemically, it’s about buying society and buying us more time so if I can on my death bed look back and say I bought us a few more months or a few years somehow and solving the climate issue and solving a lot of ecosystem challenges, that would be a fulfilled life and so reflecting on the Tennis Congress, I’ve asked myself how does that all relate? And on the one hand, we’ve got the tennis as a catalyst to help people make their dreams come true and promote happy, healthier lifestyles and we’ve got a scholarship program that we’ve launched to give people access to this kind of training that might not otherwise be able to have access to it but on the systemic side in terms of buying us time and actually reducing our footprint and whether or not we might be able to do something even in a positive way to actually have a positive impact on the global environment. We started by looking at things like where our biggest impacts are and of course, operationally, you look at your day-to-day operations. As a startup, we don’t have a huge footprint and a lot of the way that we’ve operated the Eco Forum, which informed how we operate this. It’s a totally virtual office setup. There’s paperless offices, no transportation, no heavy overhead. What little energy expenses we have in offices we buy through renewable energy through local energy providers and in terms of the website, it gets a lot of traffic. We have a virtual private server to host that, but we’ve chosen a green IT provider that is 300% wind powered. They buy actually three times the amount of offsets in renewable energy than they actually use but the biggest footprint is gonna be around the meeting itself, so we’re looking at ways to find sponsors that might actually be able to help us do carbon offsets for the travel of all the pros and the participants which are coming all the way from 25 different U.S. states so far, all the way from Egypt and Sri Lanka, looking at ways to reduce waste on site and even as always, you see when people apply the sustainability lens, there’s new ideas that come up that are really good for the business and one of them that inspired us, you go to an event and people get gift bags all the time with lots of stuff that just ends up in the garbage can and they don’t really want so we thought about that and came up with the idea of virtual gift bags where basically, participants get a chance to choose what it is that they want. They go online and that way there’s no excess waste but they also create a better value for them and for the sponsors, the fact that they contributed stuff to the gift bags, because they create relationships directly with the consumer so all of this is to say it’s part of the DNA of the organization and it’s, of course, helpful in keeping cost down by just doing common sense things, but it’s about setting an example, too, so we’re applying for B Corp certification and hoping to actually set an example for other businesses that might be wondering why it is that it matters from a business perspective to be green. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I love it. P.J., we’re down to about two minutes and thirty seconds left, and I want to make sure we get in everything we gotta get in here because there’s so much to talk about with this great new organization, U.S. Tennis Congress. For our listeners out there again, USTennisCongress.com. P.J.’s got a big event coming up in Atlanta in October, I think the 11th through the 14th, but talk about also this Tennis Legacy Fund that you’ve created. Give a little background about what that’s about and why you created that. P.J. SIMMONS: Sure. Well you know, as I mentioned, we really want to sort of think about having that positive impact and so on the one hand, organizations like ours will look at reducing our footprint but we’re also looking at ways that we can create a positive handprint on things and so as I reflected on my professional network in the environmental space, I thought man, it would be really powerful if we could connect and leverage that with the kind of network that I’m building in the tennis world and so floated the idea and got a lot of great response for the new philanthropic effort called the Tennis Legacy Fund that’s gonna quietly work behind the scenes to kind of catalyze some really big impact projects that tap the passion and the talent of all the people in the tennis community; players, fans, luminaries, coaches, teachers, pros, facility owners, product manufacturers, and so forth in support of outcomes that are good for people and planet and there’s a lot of great work to be built on. Billie Jean King, one of the icons of tennis and Alana Moss, who is the commissioner of World Team Tennis, they’ve already laid the groundwork for a lot of really great work in this space, they’ve helped to green the U.S. Open. They’ve created an internship program for underprivileged children to have access to green jobs and green job training so it’s a question now of how do you build on all that and amplify the scale and the impact? And we’ve had great initial conversations with lots of potential partners to figure out how you actually do that and we’re really excited about all the potential ahead. JOHN SHEGERIAN: P.J., we gotta go soon, but can you give the code again for our listeners out there that want to come to your great first U.S. Tennis Congress? P.J. SIMMONS: The code is simply GreenIsGood and it’s U.S. Tennis Congress. All the information’s there about the training on October 11th through the 14th in Atlanta and I would love to see not only some diehard tennis players, but also some people that are really interested in community green stuff as well. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well P.J., we’re gonna have you back again to talk about the continued success. P.J. Simmons, you’re a sustainability superstar and truly living proof that green is good. P.J. SIMMONS: Thanks, John.