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Written by Leoneda Inge, Knight Bagehot Fellow 2007-2008
More than 60 people filled a lecture room at Columbia Business School to hear how “Doing well by doing good” can be a motto to live and work by. The “Cradle-to-Cradle” (C2C) session featured Seventh Generation, Nau and the Four Seasons Restaurant as examples of organizations who understand there is an environmentally intelligent way to design and run a business and still make money. But, the panelists told the audience, it is not easy.
Alex von Bidder lives and works by the C2C doctrine, which takes into consideration the beginning and end life of a product at the design stage. The managing partner of the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York City kept his copy of the book Cradle to Cradle on the table next to him during the Friday panel discussion — like it were a bible.
He told the audience that the economic and ecological viability of every aspect of his restaurant is taken seriously, from the fabric used to cover the chairs to the products used in the kitchen.
Our story was, French is better, Italian is better,” von Bidder said. “But American is good enough. We support local farmers. We have it all here. We just have to take care of [sourcing sustainability].”
Gregor Barnum of Seventh Generation, a top seller of nontoxic household, cleaning and child-care products, says the questions people should be asking themselves are, “How do we change the social fabric of society. How do we get to a regenerative economy?” Barnum said that instead of thinking cradle to cradle, we should be thinking Earth to Earth. With that statement Barnum made a symbolic stand during the session, thumbing his nose at big business — insinuating they could be doing better environmentally.
“I won’t drink this portable water from Nestlé,” Barnum said, holding up a bottle of Poland Spring water placed at his seat. The bottled water is distributed by Nestlé Waters, which defines itself as “the number one bottled water company worldwide.”
But doing good has its challenges.
“Every time we try something, someone says, ‘That’s not good enough,’ ” von Bidder said.
He explained to the audience how he has worked hard to find the best carpet for his restaurant, for example, carpet that decomposes once sent to the landfill.
Ian Yolles is the vice president of brand communications for Nau, a Portland, Oregon– based outdoor apparel company that started three years ago. The company gives away 5 percent of every sale to a worthy cause.
Yolles said we are all dealing in a world of compromise. The stylish sea blue jacket Yolles wore at the conference was made from recycled soda bottles, but he says Nau still is not 100 percent satisfied with its product. “We treat the jacket with a durable water-repellant treatment that is not the best environmentally, but we’re working on it.”
Barnum added that it is still too expensive for Seventh Generation to certify its products.
Moderator Alan Webber, founder of Fast Company magazine, asked the panel how their approach and business models create value. Yolles said they have to be profitable, but there also needs to be brand building and an understanding of their customers’ values and how best to engage them. Barnum agrees there is a bottom-line focus but that value needs to be seen from the entire system.
He told an audience member that Seventh Generation is not willing to make a lot of money by selling its products in Wal-Mart. “They would have crushed us, plus we don’t agree with their values.”
Some attendees work in the public sector and for nonprofits. Several people said afterward they were “impressed,” “very motivated” and thought it was “fascinating to hear [the speakers’] perspectives.”
Yolles wrapped up the event, saying, “The stakes are very high. It’s time to start a revolution.”