Cautiously Optimistic at Laguna Niguel

LAGUNA BEACH, CA – “FORTUNE Brainstorm Green” is probably the number one environmental business conference in the world. A host of top CEOs, heads of NGOs, and a variety of consultants, private equity investors, venture capitalists and journalists descend upon the spectacular Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel each April — this was my third annual event — to examine the state of green biz.

There was still optimism in the room on April 4-6, but with a strong dash of reality check. As in, many of these guys are not making the returns they expected by now, and a lot of them have tens if not hundreds of millions invested in “Greentech” companies. That said, they still seem confident that their investments will ultimately pan out, even without federal energy legislation.

Many of the firms represented are major, well-established corporations who seem to be making sincere and in many cases effective efforts to operate sustainably. It is impressive that more and more major companies are adding the title “Chief Sustainability Officer” to the C-Suite, as CSOs from dozens of firms were on the attendee roster.

Not surprisingly, a dominant underlying theme was that unless they’re good business, sustainable policies won’t pass muster with management or shareholders. “The key is cheaper. Sustainability is nice but it’s not the driver,” observed Bill Joy, a founder of Sun Microsystems, now a partner and leading greentech investor with the ubiquitous Silicon Valley venture capital firm, Kleiner Perkins. This sentiment was echoed throughout the conference by various speakers in sessions ranging from “The Future of Climate Policy,” with Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp and James Rogers, CEO of Duke Energy; to “Sustainable Seafood, It’s Not A Fish Story” featuring Greenpeace USA Executive Director Phil Radford and Bumble Bee Foods CEO Chris Lischewski, among many more over two and a half days of speeches, round table discussions, networking and even entertainment.

None other than the Allman Brothers and Rolling Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell performed with his band, although he was not just the musical interlude. Leavell has written no less than four significant books about the environment, his latest being Growing A Better America, which examines how we can balance population and business growth with the need to offer everybody clean air, water, plentiful food and adequate natural, open land.

A session of particular interest to me was “Urban Green,” which aired out the tremendous population explosion expected in major cities by 2050 and what we can do to keep some semblance of green in the face of crowding and gridlock. “We expect 80 percent of the world’s population to be city dwellers by 2050,” said legendary architect, urban planner and sustainability expert William McDonough. “Beijing will double in size within five years from 20 to 40 million. How do we provide sewage plants? How do we give everyone the basics of clean air, fresh water and adequate food?”

Laura Turner Seydel, Trustee of the Turner Foundation and yes, daughter of Ted, said Atlanta has become a model of the sustainable city. “It takes a concerted effort from government, business and non-profits. Atlanta received matching funds from Coca-Cola and the Turner Foundation, got Atlanta airport to recycle, now the whole city recycles.” This was echoed by Cindy Ortega, Senior Vice President of Energy and Environmental Services for MGM Resorts, developer of Las Vegas’ City Center, the country’s largest LEED-certified development. “Green is being embraced by corporate America, because waste of natural resources is not good for the bottom line.” The overall thrust was that with skyrocketing urban population growth, only a true partnership of city government, NGOs and local corporations will be able to maintain a sustainable way of life.

Security was tight, and rightly so, as luminaries such as Richard Branson, former Siebel Systems founder/CEO Tom Siebel (who is now doing a green startup, C3), Wal-Mart EVP Leslie Dach and NRDC President Frances Beinecke, among many others, appeared as speakers and panelists. Even Theodore Roosevelt IV (yes he does look like his great great grandfather) was on hand, he is Chairman of Barclays Capital Cleantech Initiative.

The conference closed with motivational words from pro surfer, fitness expert and all-around-athlete Laird Hamilton, who is otherwise known as the “Force of Nature,” also the title of his book, which chronicles the way to a truly healthy lifestyle (no you won’t look like Laird even if you follow the diet and exercise plan). When asked how the average person can follow his program and achieve true fitness, Hamilton reminded us that the old tenet, “no pain, no gain” is really the answer. “My food often tastes like crap, the workouts are hard, they hurt. But you have to push yourself to the next level if you want to improve your results. Potato chips in, potato chips out … you need to eat jet fuel to do these workouts.”

Indeed, our path to a truly sustainable future will also follow his edict: no pain, no gain. It won’t be easy, it won’t be cheap, and it will take sacrifice on everyone’s part. The conference left me with a feeling that we do have the talent, capital, entrepreneurship, science and dedication necessary to make our society — and the developing world — a sustainable environment with adequate natural resources and energy to meet the needs of all citizens.

Here’s hoping I’m right…

Jennifer Schwab Director of Sustainability, www.SierraClubGreenHome.com

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