Big Awards SYNC with Green Business Guru Andrew Winston

Green Business Guru Andrew Winston
Green Business Guru Andrew Winston

Andrew Winston is one of the foremost green business gurus and founder of Winston Eco-Strategies. He literally wrote the books on green business having authored Green Recovery and co-authoring Green to Gold, the international best-selling guide to what works - and what doesn't - when companies go green. Andrew is a globally recognized expert on green business, appearing regularly in major media such as The Wall Street Journal, Time, BusinessWeek, New York Times, and CNBC. Andrew is dedicated to helping companies, both large and small, use environmental strategy to grow, create enduring value, and build stronger relationships with employees, customers, and other stakeholders. Andrew is also a highly respected and dynamic speaker, reaching audiences of thousands of people around the world and acting as a practical evangelist for the benefits of going green. He writes extensively on green business strategy, including a weekly column for Harvard Business Online and regular pieces on Huffington Post and his own popular blog. For his efforts, Andrew was named a "Planet Defender" by Rock the Earth.

Andrew received his BA in Economics from Princeton, an MBA from Columbia, and a Masters of Environmental Management from Yale. He lives in Greenwich, CT with his wife and two young sons.

Transcript of Interview

Russ: This is Russ Fordyce from the Business Intelligence Group. Today we’re here with Andrew Winston from Winston Eco-Strategies. Andrew is literally the guy who wrote the book on businesses going green, so Andrew, thank you for joining us on the Big Awards SYNC.

Andrew: Glad to be here. Thanks for having me.

Russ: You have quickly become renowned for helping companies really devise and execute their green strategies. How did you get into this business?

Andrew: Yeah, it was kind of a personal shift about 12 years ago. I spent the first half of my career in regular business jobs. I worked for Boston Consulting Group originally, and then I was in media companies, in strategy marketing, “biz dev” jobs. I didn’t actually come from a green or environmental background, but after the dot-com bust … I had taken a detour into a small digital startup … we ran out of money, because that’s what all dot-coms were good at back then.

I had a chance to step back and say, “What do I really care about? How can I bring my business background to what I think about a lot?” I was concerned about the environment, and about resources, and about the base of our economy and how we were going to keep functioning the way we were going.

I ended up going back to grad school and getting a degree in environmental management, and started a new career from there. I had an MBA, and I had done the business thing, and I wanted to marry the two. “How do I bring business to environment thinking, and vice versa?” That’s been my mission for the last 12 years.

Russ: You’ve actually built a very impressive client list. You work with several Fortune 500 … I’m looking at the list now, you’ve got Allstate, HP, IKEA, Pepsi, and Unilever … how do you go about getting into those organizations? Are they seeking you out, or are you seeking them out?

Andrew: I guess I’ve been lucky. When I came out of grad school, I wrote a book with a co-author, Dan Esty, and it’s called Green to Gold. We sold over the last six years about over 100,000 copies. As business books go, that’s really good. As green business books go, that’s kind of unheard of. There was enough of a presence very quickly from the book, and then I was doing a lot of speaking. I still do. In the first couple of years after the book, that was really a heavy part of my career.

My name was just out there enough that I’ve mostly been approached. I’ve been lucky that way. But in the last couple of years, I’ve signed a partnership with PricewaterhouseCoopers, so I work part-time with PwC on my consulting. I have my own consulting practice, but I do a lot of the big-company consulting now with them. I kind of have an outlet: I can bring them in, and vice versa. That’s another channel for me.

For the most part, the advisory work I do, like sitting on advisory boards for large companies, has been invited, and I’ve been lucky.

Russ: That’s interesting. There’s a big discussion or a big movement in the marketing world to content marketing and to pushing out knowledge out of your organization. It sounds like you took your own knowledge and pushed it out in these books, and that kind of original content marketing really paid off in spades.

Andrew: Yeah, and I continue putting out ideas. I have an almost-weekly column for Harvard Business Review online, as part of their blog network. I just finished my third book. I just handed in the manuscript and took a couple of months off from the blog side. But I’m always putting out blogs, I have magazine articles periodically, and, like I said, I speak a lot, so I’m out sharing my ideas.

Yeah, it’s content, basically. It’s a content form of marketing. I think that puts me in people’s eyes. I’ve had people in the field say, “God, you seem like you’re everywhere.” I would like to take credit for it being completely coordinated, but I can’t really claim that. A lot of it’s just worked out that way. I’ve been in the right place a lot of the time, and I get invited, I think, to the right conversations a good percentage of the time. That puts me in people’s eyes, and they keep seeing me, and eventually I guess they figure, “Well, I’m going to keep seeing him, I might as well talk to him, and ask him for his thoughts, and his perspective and advice.”

Russ: You’ve formed this bridge with PwC. How did that come about? How did you go approach them, or how did they approach you?

Andrew: It was kind of mutual. I had decided about five, six years ago that I didn’t want to build my own consulting firm. Once the Eco-Strategies technically made it … it’s a one-man shop, but I have part-time help in a bunch of different things, like a research assistant, a personal assistant. I’ve worked in concert with others, and I’ve always had trained freelancers to do projects when I need to.

I had one or two firms that I generally worked with, and, to be honest, a lot of the little firms … 10-, 20-person firms in my field … have been bought up over the last few years. A few years ago, one that I was working with was bought by one of the Big Four accounting firms. It forced me, frankly, into finding other partners, and since the big guys were buying everyone, I was talking to the big guys. I basically had conversations with most of the Big Four and the big consulting firms, about how we could work together, and decided after almost a year of conversations to work with PwC. It just felt like the right fit for me.

Russ: If you had to tell viewers what your overall goal was, what would you tell them in terms of a business goal, other than revenue?

Andrew: In some sense, I’m mission-driven. That sounds probably more fluffy than it really is. I’m trying to effect change. My purpose in my business and all the work I do is to change people’s perspectives, change the minds, really, of executives and managers to see the management of environmental and social challenges, of which there are many, to see that as a business goal … a very deep business goal, and one that’s very, very profitable, if you do it right … and to not treat sustainability, which is the kind of catchphrase, as philanthropy or part of some sort of responsibility agenda, but that it is part of core business.

My mission is always, “How do I extend reach, and how do I effect change in the largest organizations I can?” So it’s, “How do I get in front of the top management of the Fortune 500? How do I get on advisory boards, so that I’m talking to them regularly? How do I partner with someone like PwC who has access to every CFO in the world, really?”

The mission was really effecting change, and the depth of impact, and for me, that’s always then come with a good living. A good business has come with trying to effect that change and making that mission clear, and then, to be honest, not being afraid to ask to be paid for my services. There’s a lot of people that expect, because I’m talking about going green, that it’s an NGO, that I’m a nonprofit. I’m not. People ask me to come speak, and I say, “This is how I make my living.” It’s a very blunt conversation. It’s like, “Yes, I can come help you with making your business better and help your business do better by the world, but this is how I make my living.” It’s a blunt conversation with companies, quite often.

Russ: It’s interesting. I’ve talked to a lot of consultants over time, and it’s something that people often struggle with: that divide of your moving from “help” to “paid help.” Sometimes you’re just doing a favor, and now it’s a little bit more than a favor.

Andrew: That’s always a challenge. I talk with people that are of a similar scale to me, that are one person, two people, that are putting their name out there in the way I do. You often have to give a little bit for free; that’s marketing. You have to talk to people, help them in some way, and then at some point say, “Okay, there’s a limit to that. Now I need some compensation.”

I think people understand that. I’m saying that to big Fortune 500 companies that are very, very profitable, so I don’t think it’s a surprise that they’re ... But often, even the really biggest, the most profitable companies, I think they feel like you should just want to work with them, because of who they are, right? Because they’re a big brand. I think small companies deal with this all the time. Small, you feel like you get the imprimatur, the stamp of approval, by having their name on your resume or on your website. Sometimes I think they use that. They leverage that big-company, big-brand thing. You have to, at some point, pull the plug and say, “Now I have to get paid.”

Russ: I don’t know if anybody’s coined it, but it’s kind of the Walmart effect, right? You want to be in Walmart, so you’re almost willing to do anything.

Andrew: That’s right. That’s true for people offering perspective and advice and speaking. I did two or three talks for Walmart free at the beginning. Went to their Saturday morning meeting they have in Bentonville, Arkansas, and spoke to their executives. Then when they asked me to come and speak in Brazil, I said, “Okay, now it’s a trip. Now you’ve got to pay me.”

I think that’s a typical path that a small firm has to go through, is you pick your battles. You have to give up something to show value at first. Again, luckily for me, I think having a book, having a best seller out certainly helped, because then they already saw value. But yeah, Walmart and others play that game of, “Well, you should be happy to come work with us because of who we are.” There’s certain truth in that. It gives you credibility, but you can’t do that forever, right?

Russ: Working for free does not pay the bills. Insurance and electricity is not for free, and housing. Getting on to the green side, what are these companies really looking for? Are they looking for your expertise in how to roll out a sustainability program, or are they looking for the overall strategy of what they should be doing? What’s their mission?

Andrew: It’s all of the above. The advisory boards that I sit on … I sit on three for large companies: Unilever’s U.S. North American Group, HP Global, and Kimberly-Clark. It’s a little different by each company, but basically, they’ve got executives tasked with developing environmental or social strategies and dealing with this huge array of issues: climate change, resource constraints, commodity prices, pressure from their own customer base. We mentioned Walmart already. If you’re a consumer products company selling to Walmart, you’re getting a lot of questions about how you make your products, where are they made, who makes them.

There’s a whole range of issues, from innovation to marketing and positioning to goal-setting, that they’ll bring a group of experts or advisers in and get our opinions, and say, “Here’s our strategy right now maybe for this particular division or this brand or for the whole company. What do you think? What are we missing? What will different stakeholders think about this? Is this an aggressive enough goal or plan? What should we be considering in our innovation agenda?”

Those are the kinds of questions that I tend to get involved in, and it’s a blast. I love what I do. It’s very high-level strategy stuff. That’s where I originally came from, from BCG, and I’m back to that but with the angle of trying to work on these environmental and social pressures that companies are under.

Russ: You go in and you develop a strategy. You develop a long-term plan and areas where the companies can focus on. I would imagine when you present that plan, and the costs, and the sacrifices, and the change in culture that will have to go on, there’s a lot of pushback inside of, even, the executive tower. How do you deal with that?

Andrew: It goes back to, I said before: the big part of what I do is changing minds, and frankly, kind of evangelism. I talk about practical evangelism, making the case that this is good for business. There’s always going to be resistance to change, and especially, to be blunt, on the green agenda, there’s almost a visceral response in a lot of people, that they think it’s somehow anti-business.

In the past, the environmental movement was, in many ways, anti-business. That’s not totally irrational. But that’s changed an enormous amount in the last five, ten years, and there isn’t really this “either/or” mentality. It’s more of an “and.” “How do we reduce our environmental impact and profit?” Those two things are not at odds at all.

The case that I make is very much that the pressures you’re facing in business are very real, they’re not going anywhere, they’re growing, they’re coming from your biggest stakeholders … your customers, your consumers, your employees. The changing demands on what a company is about is just happening. I think most top executives know that.

There’s, first and foremost, some very quick ways to save a ton of money through eco-efficiency, through reducing your impact, but then there’s an innovation agenda here. You can drive top-line growth. If you go to executives and say, “We’re going to cut your costs and raise your revenues,” it’s pretty hard for them to not listen. It’s basic value creation. The hurdle is really just the starting point for a lot of people, that if we’re going to talk about green, we’re just going to be talking about, “What’s the right thing to do?” and about philanthropy, and that we’re not going to be talking making money. I come in, and people like me come in, and say, “Look, this is about making money. You’re not going to make money if you don’t go down this path, and you’re going to make a lot more if you do.”

You get over the intransigence, or the people that don’t want to move, by making the business case. This is just too valuable to ignore. I think that’s getting easier and easier. For me, it’s a matter of, “How deep a change can you get a company to undertake?” I think the basic stuff, everybody’s on board with.

Russ: Yeah, recycling paper and printing on both sides of the sheet of paper are the easy starts. I recently heard, I think it was Subaru, is literally developing a plant that will have zero waste.

Andrew: Actually, Subaru had a plant … it’s almost been 10 years now … they’ve had zero waste to landfill in one of their U.S. facilities for 10 years. GM actually crossed the 100 manufacturing plant mark. A hundred of their factories … it’s more than that now, they announced 100 last year … are zero waste to landfill. That’s actually becoming the norm. The things that were bleeding edge five years ago are now table stakes. That’s the kind of conversation I have with clients, to say, “Do you know where the table stakes are? Do you know what’s the norm?”

So yeah, double-sided copying in the office is kind of a joke, taking water bottles out of the cafeteria … that’s all the stuff that the employees want to take care of in their “green teams.” That’s great, but it’s really, “How do you change the core of the business: the way we make our products, the way we design them, the way we deliver them, the way we communicate them … the core business?” That’s what’s really changing now, in a really fundamental way. I think companies have to. There’s not really a choice. The pressure is just so real. We can talk about that for a long time, but the demands on companies are growing very, very quickly.

Russ: If you had to highlight four or five companies that are really knocking the ball out of the park in driving real change in the green discussion, who would they be?

Andrew: The leading light, I think, in corporate sustainability now is Unilever, which is a company that’s not very well known in the U.S. They make brands that something like two billion people use every day, around the world, and people know their brands, like Dove soap and body care and Axe body spray, and ice cream brands like Dove bar … There’s a bunch of stuff they make that everybody knows.

At the corporate level, they’ve set the most aggressive strategy agenda around these issues. They’ve made the goal of doubling their sales while halving, or cutting in half, their impact. That’s their strategy. That’s not their sustainability strategy; that is their corporate strategy. That makes them very unusual. They’ve made these issues the core of their growth strategy and their innovation agenda.

Walmart has been leading in the big-company ranks for quite a while on a number of dimensions. In their own operations, they’re now the biggest corporate user of renewable energy in the country. They’ve also sent pressure up the supply chain by asking their suppliers … the 50 to 60,000 companies that work for them… frankly, to change their practices. There’s companies like that.

There’s tons of companies that have done different pieces of this agenda very, very well. Ford has done a lot of good work on their product development, and making greener cars and greener vehicles. GM has done a lot on zero waste in their factories. There’s a lot of international examples: IKEA, Puma … There’s smaller companies … Patagonia is kind of the leading light that’s been doing this for years and years. There’s a range of companies that on different pieces of the story are world-class.

Russ: On the flip side of that coin, if you will, who’s one company you’d like to go shake and wake up, and tell them to get on board?

Andrew: It’s not like I’m avoiding the question, it’s just hard to answer because there’s no black and white. Someone listening to this will say, “Yeah, but what about Walmart’s labor issues, or what about their business models shipping stuff from China? That’s not sustainable.” Every company’s got good and bad.

I will say that the oil giants, companies that are dependent mainly on fossil fuels, have a very big challenge ahead of them. It’s not a personal dislike or something for energy; it’s that we have to drastically reduce our carbon emissions. Climate change is a threat to our species, frankly. It’s going to be very good business for companies to use a lot less energy. They’re doing that, and they’re discovering that. It’s going to be increasingly good business for them to use less fossil fuel energy.

I would say that the companies that are dependent on selling coal and selling oil … oil companies are making more money that anybody in history right now. It’s very hard when you’re that successful to shift, right? It feels like, “Well, the money’s just going to keep rolling in.” But the change that’s going to happen globally in where we get our energy from is going to happen and is happening very quickly. I would like to see those companies stop and think pretty hard about what their future is and the amount of money they’re spending finding new sources of fossil fuels that we cannot burn, if we want to keep the planet at a relatively safe temperature, is not smart business, I think. There’s going to figure that out after they’ve spent literally trillions on finding and digging up sources of energy that we actually can’t use.

That’s the sector that’s got the most to lose, and they’re fighting a lot of these things because of that. They’ve got a lot of money at stake, and I understand that. But I do think they’re going to have to change pretty profoundly.

Russ: Is it consumers that are driving the change, are they the ones that are pulling this strategy through? Or is it going to require constant legislation on behalf of consumers?

Andrew: Look, there’s always three legs to any discussion about society. There’s government, and the united front of our community that government represents … we always treat government like it’s the other, but we’re a representative democracy here. Government is us, right? We elect people. … So there is the government and regulation, there’s private sector and companies, and there’s citizens, and citizens as consumers.

I actually think that consumers have been the least of the groups to press for this. The reality is, the percentage of people who will pay more specifically for green is very low, and has been low for 40 years and hasn’t moved very much. They’re not really driving this. The percentage of people that want greener options at the same price and quality, that’s growing very fast. That’s becoming everybody. Everybody younger, Millennials … it’s not as much a question for them. They want it all. They want you to give them a product that was made safely, that factories didn’t collapse when you made the t-shirt, that there wasn’t toxic chemicals used, and that used less energy. They are going to demand that.

The real pressure is just coming from business, I think, on itself. Like I said, Walmart asking its suppliers … and by asking, I mean that lightly. Asking is a light word for what it means when Walmart says, “You need to change your process.” … They are becoming de facto regulators. Walmart and Target, if they say to their supply chain, “We want you to make toys with plastics that don’t have certain chemicals,” they change the chemical industry. That’s happening right now.

I think the real pressure is companies, and we’ll see some pressure from government. Not from here. The federal government here is broken. I don’t think I’m saying anything out of school. We can’t get anything done. But other countries are moving much faster: China is moving faster than people realize, Germany, and Brazil … there’s a lot of activity around the world to drastically reduce carbon as fast as we can. That’s going to affect business all over the world. Here, we’re going to lag a little. We always kind of wait and then we jump in when we think we’re ready, when we think we can win.

Russ: When we think we can win is about right. I think China’s got the most at stake with the growing population. It seems like they have the most health concerns …

Andrew: They do.

Russ: … escalating and the biggest problem ahead of them, so they better …

Andrew: It’s hard. Yeah, they’re facing the worst pollution maybe in history at the largest scale, so they’re building the clean economy faster than anybody. They’ve created the largest solar and wind industry in the world in just five years. They’ve built 5,000 miles of high-speed rail. They’re investing just gobs of money … like 80, 90 billion dollars a year … in the clean economy, just dwarfing our investment. But they’re also building tons of coal plants. They’re building everything. They’re going around the world, sucking up resources because they’re growing so fast.

They’re facing, now, pollution and pressure from their citizens in a way that it can’t sustain. They are changing, and they’re going to change. It’s going to happen. We’re going to see massive changes in how we lead our lives, in how we make products, and how companies operate, because the pressures just are what they are. Resource constraints and commodity prices … commodities are higher than they’ve, basically, ever been, fundamentally … and extreme weather and climate are changing the way we operate.

Look at New York City. Couple days ago, just came out with a 20 billion dollar plan to shore up the city from rising seas and storms. I lived in Boston in the early ‘90s when the Big Dig started. If there’s a price tag on a city project, it’s usually going to be a lot more than that. So if New York says it’s going to be 20 billion …

Russ: A hundred.

Andrew: … let’s assume it’s going to be more like 50. That’s a big price tag, and that’s going to affect all of us. That money doesn’t come from nowhere, right? It comes from taxes; it comes from business; it comes from citizens. This is the cost of doing business today.

Russ: You’re up in Connecticut, the executive capital of the world?

Andrew: Yes. We’re the hedge fund.

Russ: When you’re not out on the road in Brazil or speaking for free in Bentonville, Arkansas, what are you doing for fun?

Andrew: Well, I have two kids, a nine- and a six-year-old. I’ve got baseball practice tonight, those kinds of things. It’s summer now, so it’s great. I run and play tennis when I can, when my joints agree with me … I’m in my forties now, so I’ve discovered that everything aches now more than it used to. I don’t know how that happened … When I’m home, I work out of my home office, so I see my kids a lot when I’m not traveling. That’s how I strike balance is, I’m home a lot, or I’m not home for a while. It’s a way I’ve found that keeps me sane.

Russ: I think your wife is probably challenged by that, I would say. The on and off.

Andrew: It’s tough. She was a very successful executive, and she chose about five years ago to stay home with the kids, after we had the second one, and thank God. It’s allowed me to get on the road. It would have been much harder with the schedule I keep as a small business and consultant. Consulting always takes you on the road, and speaking just puts you on the road a tremendous amount.

At peak, I’m gone 40 weeks of the year somewhere, for some part of the week. I go somewhere, it seems, almost every week outside of the holidays. Hopefully it’s local, maybe a New York City trip for the day, but often it’s abroad. It’s tough. But like I said, I love what I do, and I’m passionate about what I’m doing, in trying to convince companies that there’s a better way and make companies more profitable and better at what they’re doing. That’s my mission.

Russ: That’s great. Well, I appreciate you taking a half hour out to talk with us and to the Big Awards SYNC audience, and really do appreciate. This has been Andrew Winston of Winston Eco-Strategies. Andrew, really do appreciate your time.

Andrew: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Russ: Thank you. Have a great day, everyone.