Harnessing Business to Solve the World’s Problems with Business for a Better World’s Shel Horowitz

November 3, 2014

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to another edition of Green is Good. We’re so excited to have with us today Shel Horowitz. He’s the founder of Business for a Better World. Welcome to Green is Good, Shel. SHEL HOROWITZ: Thanks, John. Good to be here. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Before we get talking about Business for a Better World and your great website, business-for-a-better-world.com, can you talk a little bit about yourself and what even got you to this point? What was your journey leading up to Business for a Better World? SHEL HOROWITZ: It was a long journey. It really started back in the seventies when I was a kid, and I got interested in the environmental world and the peace movement, and then realized fairly early on that journalism and marketing skills were going to the way that I was going to express this. So, for more than 40 years, I’ve been both in the environmental world, activism, and in the business and marketing world, because some of the earliest stuff I did was promoting some of the groups that I was involved with that were working for a better world. So, this goes way, way back. Now, making a career out of it, that obviously didn’t happen when I was 15, but I was trained as a journalist in college, and over the years, more and more the groups I was working with in the community, because I had that journalism training, they would throw to me the job of writing the press releases and then dealing with the reporters who would call after the press releases went out. So, from that, I expanded into lots and lots of other kinds of marketing, copywriting in particular, and overall strategic consulting. What happened back around 2001-2002, when the business pages were exploding with all of this stuff about Enron and Worldcom and Martha Stewart and one scandal after another, I had the first of several epiphanies. This one was that I have something to say about the idea that business assets, and green principles as well, is an asset to business. It’s actually easier to make a profit doing business the right way than being a crook. So, that led to my sixth book, Principle Profit Marketing that Puts People First, and I really began to speak and write much more about this idea that it’s not enough just to be a good person; you also have to run a good business. Interestingly enough, John, the funny thing is when I started doing this work, my business took a stratospheric jump. All of a sudden I was attracting people who were willing to spend large amounts of money with me. In the past, typically I would write somebody a press release or write them a website, and then I’d have to go on and get the next client and the next and the next. And all of a sudden, I was bringing people who’d say, “Yeah, do us the press release and then do us the website, and then do us strategic marketing consulting, and then, by the way, help me produce my book.” They would drop five figures with me over the next year or so. So, that was a really wonderful side effect, and I do believe it was a side effect in making public my demand to the business world that they do things right, and my proof to them that they can profit from it, I started profiting much more. So, then the story continues, as I got more into this work and I realized that resource use was very key to all of this. In particular, energy and water, and so I started shifting more in the direction of showing businesses how it’s really profitable just to go green, just to cut your energy bills, cut your water bills, cut your trash disposal, make the world a better place, and make more money, and you not only cut your expenses, you also can then boost your marketing in a whole lot of ways because, interestingly enough, if you give people a choice between two companies and their product quality is similar, their pricing is similar, but one has a public environmental commitment and the other doesn’t, pretty much anybody except the serious wing nut climate deniers are going to go with the one that’s green. So, you look at, for example, a company like Mark Howard, a paper products company. They make toilet paper, napkins, paper towels. They went recycled — my God — they went recycled in 1950. I wasn’t born. They didn’t tell anybody. They totally didn’t tell anybody, and in the 1950s with the Leave It to Beaver, I Love Lucy mindset of that time, like “You’re making toilet paper out of other people’s junk mail? Ew!” But by let’s say 1972, maybe 1974, that was not an issue anymore, and they were just leaving money on the table because it was really hard to find on their packaging that they were recycled. Then in 2009, they did a whole big rebranding after a bankruptcy, and they started really talking about this, and oh my goodness, they became the number one recycled paper in the country, trumping even companies like Seventh Generation, who’d been loudly talking about recycled from the get-go. So, I started really focusing that. I do a talk called “Making Green Sexy,” in which I talk about three kinds of audiences that a green company has to reach, the deep greens, the lazy greens and the non-greens, and the different kinds of marketing messages for each. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s great. SHEL HOROWITZ: Yeah. Just really recently, I had another big epiphany, and that was like now that it’s become so much more mainstream to understand that the environment is important and to market to it, and incidentally this is not just me saying this, there’s a wonderful report from Green America called “The Big Green Opportunity” that came out last year. Oh my goodness, during the recession when the construction trades were shriveling up, the whole sector shrank 17%, the green buildings sector in that same time up 1,700%. And sector after sector, it’s just amazing. Organic food, everything. Walmart develops a market for organic food among people who have never been inside a Whole Foods and probably never will. But Walmart is a company, if there’s ever a company that was driven by profit, it’s Walmart. So, they realized that it was good for their business to sell organic food to people who’d never had it before. They pretty much doubled the market, and make about $15 billion a year doing so. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, Shel, if I’ve got this right now, I’m just going to try to bring it into a nutshell for our listeners, then I want to ask some questions. For our listeners out there, we’ve got Shel Horowitz. He’s the founder of Business for a Better World, and to check out all of Shel’s great work and his books, go to www.business-for-a-better-world.com, and there’s a lot of great information there, and you can find out how to even contact Shel if you want to use his great services. You wrote a book, Guerilla Marketing Goes Green, so you’ve really synthesized these mega-trends of ethics, green and sustainability, and marketing, and you’ve packaged them, and you’ve now made a whole, not only a business, but like a whole enterprise around getting people on the ethics, green, and marketing train, and that’s really where you’ve taken this whole movement. SHEL HOROWITZ: Yeah, and I like to think that I’ve been at least a small part of making this happen, that it’s really more developed, at least a little bit, because of some things I did. Certainly, I was not the only factor, and Al Gore’s climate change video An Inconvenient Truth, certainly raised a lot of people’s awareness, but I do think that the work that I’ve done for, good Lord, 40 years, has made a difference in the world. I’m now, in the last few months, really looking and thinking even bigger than this. The whole reason I set up the Business for a Better World site is now that we’ve kind of convinced businesses that there’s a case for going green, let’s go bigger. Let’s make a business case for ending poverty, ending hunger, ending war, and staving off catastrophic climate change. It’s a big, ambitious thing, and I expect to spend about the next 15 years of my life working on it, and at that point I’ll be old enough for it to be somebody else’s turn if it’s not done. People will say, “You can’t do that. It’s too big.” JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s what they say about everything. SHEL HOROWITZ: Exactly. There is never going to be a situation that is so easy that it doesn’t take any work. It’s going to take some work. It’s going to take a lot of work. JOHN SHEGERIAN: It’s always a crazy idea until it becomes obvious, and what you just said is obvious. SHEL HOROWITZ: Yeah, Gandhi said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they get angry with you, then you win,” or something like that. I gave a TED Talk in May, and the theme was Impossible is Not a Fact, It’s a Dare. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I love it. That’s awesome. SHEL HOROWITZ: And, I talk in that TED Talk about all the impossible things that we now take for granted, such as the year my house was built, 1743, the general feeling was that humans can’t go faster than the fastest horse they can ride. Tell that to the people up there on the space station going by at 17,500 miles an hour. From there, I levered into looking at Nelson Mandela and how he, from the prison cell where he was serving a life sentence, for goodness sake, never expected to see freedom again, becomes not only the president of a free South Africa, but the president of a free South Africa that is not rooted in vengeance, but in reconciliation. So, if we can do that, if we can take the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland and make it look like the border between New York and New Jersey, except you don’t actually have to pay a toll, if we could take that highly militarized, terribly fearful society and make peace over there, why can’t we do these things? I think the way we can do it is just with the green, to show business that they can make money doing it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Shel, what year did you write Guerilla Marketing Goes Green? SHEL HOROWITZ: It was published in 2010. I wrote parts of it considerably earlier because that self-published book I published earlier, Principle Profit, a lot of that material went into Guerilla Marketing Goes Green, and there was also a lot of new material that went in, and I’ve continued. I could probably do another edition tomorrow because there’s so much happening now in this space. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Before we get to tackling the bigger issues you just mentioned, hunger, poverty, war, climate change, go back to the great example you gave a couple minutes ago of Walmart. For our listeners out there, can you share some other great examples, because you’re intimately involved with this whole movement on many levels, of well-known companies that are just thriving because they’re going green? SHEL HOROWITZ: OK, let’s start with those two famous hippies in Vermont, Mr. Ben and Jerry. Let’s face it. From the outside looking in, these guys look like clowns. It’s 1978, they’re starting a business that they know nothing about, in fact they know nothing about business in general, their knowledge of ice cream is based on a correspondence course, they’re working out of not exactly the mainstream commerce hub of the United States, they’re working out of a converted garage in Burlington, Vermont, and they become the ice cream geniuses, and they become the people who have nearly half the market share of super premium ice cream in a space that has how many hundreds of brands? I am going to submit that the reason that they were so successful is because they gave people that choice. Here you have cold, corporate Häagen-Dazs, the Exxon of ice cream, and there on the side, you’ve got these two weird hippies who, from the get-go, have talked about social responsibility, have talked about the environment, they’re out there at solar fairs handing out popsicles, they were walking the talk. I think the reason that Ben & Jerry’s took off was number one, because they gave people the option to spend that $4 on a pint of ice cream that’s socially conscious and still really good ice cream, and also number two because they were scrappy New York-style street fighters who were not afraid to challenge when Häagen-Dazs essentially tried to shut them out. They actually made a huge marketing campaign around it, though. What’s the Dough Boy afraid of? At that time, Häagen-Dazs was owned by Pillsbury. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Isn’t it fun, Shel, when David slays Goliath? SHEL HOROWITZ: Yeah, we like it. I have a wonderful experience being the David right here in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts, where I live. One day I was reading my local paper, and on page one, there is this story about the developer who’s planning to build 40 McMansions on the next hill over in the state park behind my house. I thought, “That’s not a real good idea.” Then I read further into the article, and all these people who should know better, all these so-called experts, said things like, “This is terrible, but there’s nothing we can do.” Well, remember when I talked about impossible before not being a fact but a dare, and that, by the way, comes from Muhammad Ali, of all people. It’s a great quote on that. So, when you tell me there’s nothing you can do, you just waved the red flag in front of the bull. So, I was like, “What do you mean, there’s nothing we can do? Of course there’s something we can do. Maybe one day I’ll write a book called Of Course There’s Something We Can Do. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Do it. I think that’s a great idea. SHEL HOROWITZ: Yeah, I’ve got a research file for it. It’s one of about a dozen research files for books I haven’t gotten around to writing yet. I’ve only done eight so far. But, you know, I wasn’t going to sit there and say that it’s totally OK for you to build this thing on my mountain, and that there’s nothing we can do about it. So, I organized a movement, my wife and I got together, and formed Save the Mountain. We got on the phone with friends, and I immediately wrote a press release and wrote a flier and wrote a web page, and started distributing all that material. My goodness, two weeks later, we had the first meeting in my house, and my house is built in 1743, but it is not a McMansion, and it was pretty crowded with 70 people in my dining room, and another 30 who called and said, “This is really important to me. I can’t make it tonight. Please keep me posted.” The next thing we knew, we had a movement with thousands of people involved. Thousands. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, you’re not only the founder for Business for a Better World, you’re also a community organizer. SHEL HOROWITZ: Absolutely. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I love it. SHEL HOROWITZ: I’ve always been a community organizer, whether I was paid or not. So, yeah, I did this, and this is actually really the genesis of Business for a Better World because — get this — not only was there something we can do, I thought, “OK, it will take us five years. We’ll be enough of a thorn in the developer’s side that it will go away eventually.” Well, by the time we won, which was only 13 months, just over a year, we had already whittled the project down from 40 to 32 and then to 12, so we were three-quarters of the way to victory before we even knew that we had won, and then the state actually took title to the land by imminent domain. It was added to the park next door, and it was preserved forever, and we let them build two houses at the bottom, which if you had asked me privately during the campaign, “What do you think is appropriate for that site?” I would have said, “Privately, two houses at the bottom.” Ask for what you want, because you might just get it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Shel, I love that. SHEL HOROWITZ: But that’s success. Wow, that really changed my life around professionally, because I looked at the work I was doing, and this was 1999-2000, and I looked at how effective that had been, and I looked at is there a way to make a living doing this kind of thing? I’ve been a marketing consulting and copywriter for how many years now? Could I do it for the kinds of companies that I really want to support? That’s when I started getting into the green and ethical piece. That’s when I started writing the Principle Profit book that eventually evolved into the much larger Guerilla Marketing Goes Green, and that, in turn, led to Business for a Better World, so it’s all, in my mind, at least, it’s a linear progression. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Yeah, it is, and it’s tied together. We’re down to the last two-and-a-half minutes, unfortunately. We love giving solutions on this show, Shel. Can you share your thoughts on individuals’ roles and companies’ roles in doing Business for a Better World, in terms of achieving the greater goals that you set out to do in the next 15 years? SHEL HOROWITZ: OK, well, I’d say start by looking at where your core competencies and interests are, and look for what you can intersect with that in terms of what the world needs and what you can build. I’ll give you some examples in companies that are doing great things like this. There’s a company called D-Light. They make solar-powered lanterns, and they sell a lot of them in Africa and Asia, and they sell them to people who typically have a kerosene lamp in their house. Let me tell you a little bit about kerosene lamps. They’re highly toxic, they’re highly flammable, enormous numbers of people die every year because of fires caused by kerosene lamps, and of course you have to keep buying the kerosene month after month after month. So, they thought, “What if we could sell a lamp really cheap that’s solar-powered, runs in LED so there’s practically no energy use, and you only have to buy it once, you don’t have to keep buying the fuel, and it gives, by the way, a better quality of light than the kerosene ones?” So, what do you get from that? You get kids that can do their schoolwork late into the night and get better grades, there are parents that can run a cottage business after the days in the fields and maybe get themselves out of poverty by selling some kind of handicraft of whatever it is, you get of course more money in the pockets of the family because after the second or third month, the cost of the kerosene they would have been buying every month is gone, they’ve paid for the lantern which might take a couple months’ worth of kerosene, but that’s it. So, one little LED lamp becomes a ladder out of poverty. Isn’t that fabulous? Isn’t that just wonderful? So, there are opportunities all over the place for this sort of thing. We talked about Ben & Jerry’s earlier, let’s talk about their brownie supplier. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Shel, we’re going to have to go today. We’re going to have you come back on, though. For our listeners out there that want to learn more about Shel’s great work, business-for-a-better-world.com or makinggreensexy.com. Shel, thank you for proving to our listeners today that impossible is not a fact, it’s a dare, and for helping us create a better world together. You are truly living proof that green is good. SHEL HOROWITZ: Thanks so much, John.