Exploring Eco-Initiatives with Corporate Sustainability Architect Bill Baue

August 21, 2013

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so excited to have on the line with us Bill Baue. He’s the co-founder of the Sustainability Context Group. Welcome to Green is Good. BILL BAUE: It’s great to be here, John. Thank you. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Oh, great to have you, Bill, and before we get into any Q and A about what you’re doing at the Sustainability Context Group, can you share a little bit also about your journey? How did you get here? What was your journey leading up to this? BILL BAUE: Well, I started into this field accidentally by landing a gig writing for socialfund.com, which is a website covering socially responsible investing and after writing about this content for about a half decade, I gained enough knowledge to move from writing about to actually doing so I wrote the first sustainability report for Walmart back in 2007 was my first transition into the doing phase of my career and have written a number of reports for the UN and Harvard and other prominent organizations across the sustainability ecosystem and now I’m primarily a consultant helping organizations to move towards sustainable performance. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Gotcha, so talk a little bit about then how the Sustainability Context Group came together and what are you guys going to be doing there particularly? BILL BAUE: Well, I co-founded the Sustainability Context Group a little over a year ago with my colleague, Mark McElroy who is the Executive Director for the Center for Sustainable Organizations in Vermont and also, he is the conceiver of what’s called context based sustainability, which is an implementation of the general concept of sustainability context. Now a little bit of background on that concept of sustainability context; It was coined in the late ’90s by the Global Reporting Initiative and GRI is the standard setter for sustainability reporting around the world and this concept basically says that in addition to organizations reporting on how they’re being less bad, in other words, how they’re taking incremental steps to do less harm to the environment, etcetera, that they actually have to compare that progress against firm boundaries or thresholds in the real world so for example, not just how they’re using less water but how much water is actually available in an aquifer or a watershed that they’re operating in so in other words, they may be using less and that’s a good thing but if they’re still using more than the region can handle, that’s not a good thing and it’s not sustainable so it’s really defining sustainability in a much more disciplined and real world way. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You’re also known as a corporate sustainability architect. What does that mean? That’s a fascinating title and a fascinating profession. What does that mean exactly? BILL BAUE: It ties in with this. I’m using the term “architect” provocatively as a kind of conscious misnomer in the sense that I’m not designing buildings. What I’m designing is systems change so sustainability context would be one example of a kind of systems change that I’m helping to design and implement moving from the current status where companies are defining sustainability as doing less bad. That’s not going to get us there and so I’m helping to create systems that move us towards actual sustainability. Another example would be I’m co-founder of a online platform for stakeholder engagement and so it’s sort of creating systems for advancing the practice of stakeholder engagement by scaling it up through online mechanisms. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, what is that called? BILL BAUE: That’s called Open Eye World right now but we’re just in the process of relaunching that as Convetit. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. So, a few years back, you were at Harvard Kennedy School and you did a report called The Accountability Web. Talk a little bit about that and where do things stand from when you wrote that report? BILL BAUE: Yeah. That actually ties directly into what I just mentioned. I was a research fellow at Harvard and the accountability web was basically looking at the intersection between corporate accountability and interactive technology and in 2010 social media was really big and so what me and my co-author, Marcy Merney, had found was that there was really a logical intersection here in the sense that accountability is in a sense a two way dialogue. It’s an organization holding itself accountable or being held accountable to its stakeholders. That’s, in a sense, a two way or a multilateral conversation. Interactive technologies enable two way conversations or multilateral conversations and so clearly there was an overlap here. What we predicted was the rise of online platforms for stakeholder engagement to hold companies accountable and a little while after I wrote the report, I was approached by Tom O’Malley, the founder of Open Eye World and so now I’m kind of doing what I predicted might happen in my academic piece. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, you’ve taken it from academia to reality. BILL BAUE: Exactly. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I love that. That’s a great thing. That happens a lot. BILL BAUE: Yeah, and I’m not the only one. There’s certainly a lot of this happening elsewhere in the ecosystem. Two degrees is probably the most prominent other example of this concept. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You’re a teacher also. Besides also being a Harvard research fellow and besides being an entrepreneur now, budding entrepreneur, you’re also a teacher at Marlboro Sustainability and you teach in that M.B.A. program in Vermont. How is the sustainability program and the M.B.A. program there different from traditional M.B.A. programs? BILL BAUE: Well, it’s a sustainability M.B.A., which is kind of a new concept that goes back maybe a half-a-decade or a half-dozen years and essentially, instead of tacking on the notion of sustainability into a traditional M.B.A. program and kind of trying to reverse engineer the problems out of the system, sustainability M.B.A.s, they integrate sustainability considerations into their core DNA so every business issue that we examine academically, we do it through the sustainability lens and so the course that I teach is on communications and negotiation and persuasion and so I specifically look through the lens of stakeholder theory and shift from the notion of shareholder privacy where maximizing profit is the name of the game into stakeholder privacy where stakeholder well-being is really what we’re looking to achieve here. JOHN SHEGERIAN: How well attended is the sustainability M.B.A. program? Is it very successful there? BILL BAUE: It’s still in its growth phase, I would say right now, and so we’re still early. We’ve been at it for about five years and we’re gaining momentum, but still early in the process. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well, you’ve got so many great brands that have sprung out of Vermont and led on the sustainability movement, the great brand Ben & Jerry’s, Stonyfield. Vermont has become sort of like a birthing ground for so much in the sustainability revolution so it would make sense that you guys got a sustainability M.B.A. over there. BILL BAUE: Yeah. We see that being housed in Vermont is one of our distinguishing features and I would agree that Vermont has been a hotbed of entrepreneurialism around sustainable business. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know, Bill, you were truly one of the leaders of what’s going on in sustainability and back in ’07, actually the year that I went back and spoke at Walmart to a group of their vendors and things of that such and also employees, you wrote that first ever sustainability report, which is a heck of an honor and good for you and good for Walmart. Where are they now? Where do you see them? We’ve had the great people of Walmart on this show. We love Walmart. We think they’re doing great things in sustainability. Where do you see them in their journey of sustainability? Because you have a different lens and you have a different perspective because you really got to see all different parts of the company. BILL BAUE: Yeah, it was a fascinating experience and I think the trajectory that Walmart set back then, they have really been delivering on it in big ways and so I think that the primary positive outcome here is that Walmart is using its muscle at the top of its supply chains to shift entire supply chains and even entire value chains towards sustainability so I think that’s a great thing. They’ve essentially flipped from using their distribution muscle in bad ways to using it in more beneficial ways. That said, I think that their core business model, and this is a critique that isn’t original to me but has been around for a while, but their core business model isn’t sustainable and so I think that that’s really where the rub is. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Interesting, and we have about four minutes left and I have so many things I want to go over with you. You’ve sort of coined the term ‘thrivance’. Can you define that for our listeners? I’m fascinated by it and how does it fit into the concept of sustainability? Thrivance. BILL BAUE: Essentially, it says that right now, we define thriving often in order to thrive financially, for example, we end up doing harm on other areas and so the idea of thrivance is really set on a foundation of do no harm. Do not negatively impact financial capital but also social capital, natural capital, etcetera. Once you’ve achieved sustainability, that’s really just the starting ground. I like to say that focusing on sustainability is in some ways a failure of the imagination in the sense that really sustainability is just the starting point. Once we’ve achieved sustainability, then we can go into true thriving, which is thriving without having negative impacts in all of these areas and so I’ve coined a new term called thrivance. There are others out there. Ralph Therm, for example, from Deloitte in the Netherlands, is talking about thrivability and John Aaronfell, the former colleague from the Marlboro sustainability M.B.A. program is talking about flourishing as a definition of sustainability so we’re all kind of in the same realm there. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know, Bill, again, you’ve been doing so much in this sustainability movement and you’re in the middle of it now, both fro academia and also from business, which is a fascinating intersection but listen. We have so many young people that listen to this show and you and I are young enough that with a little luck, we’re gonna see it 20, 30 years from now but give us a little bit of your crystal ball on where we’re going with sustainability 20, 30 years from now. Are you hopeful about where we’re going? BILL BAUE: I retain hope even though most of the indicators are really dire at this point. If we look at the so-called nine planetary boundaries, we’re already past those boundaries on three of them in significant ways; biodiversity, we’re just trashing our ecosystems in that sense so turning the boat is really not looking like it’s in the cards. That said, I think that once systems do shift, there can be feedback loops that really create change quickly, so I think that we’re in a real dire straights here, but knowing that can inspire radical transformation and I think that’s what we really need is radical transformation. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, we’re down to 30 seconds. Radical transformation; if you could change one thing on this trajectory, what would you change to make this all a better place to live? BILL BAUE: Really, to define sustainability more realistically and so that we’re actually shooting for the right targets instead of setting our aim too low, which is what we’re doing right now. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I love it, Bill, and we’re gonna have you back when your new business launches so we can promote your website and all the great things you’re doing as an entrepreneur. Bill Baue, you are a wonderful corporate sustainability architect and truly living proof that green is good.