Joel Makower Q&A: Can businesses lead the way toward a sustainable future?

Monday , March 14, 2016 - 5:00 AM

LEIA LARSEN, Standard-Examiner Staff

In just a few weeks, the Intermountain Sustainability Summit will return to Weber State University.

Sustainability, however, can be a tricky topic, especially when it comes to running a business.

That’s why the summit tapped Joel Makower as its keynote speaker. He’s a prolific writer and thinker on corporations and environmental stewardship. He’s the executive editor and founder at GreenBiz. He has written around a dozen books, mostly on issues of sustainability, and co-authored the forthcoming book, “The New Grand Strategy: Restoring America’s Prosperity, Security and Sustainability in the 21st Century.”

Ahead of the Summit, which starts March 24, Makower spoke with the Standard-Examiner about business, technology, society, their demands on the planet’s finite resources and how to find a balance. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Many people see businesses and corporate greed as the root of a lot of our environmental problems. What would you say to that?

A: I’m not sure I’d characterize it as “greed” so much as the wrong incentives are in place. Through our tax structures and other polices, we don’t value resources the way they should be valued in terms of their replaceability over an extended period of time. In fact, we incentivize waste. So companies are largely doing what they have traditionally done. They’re doing what our policies have enabled them to do through cheap energy, for example, or very cheap water or underpriced natural resources. 

But I do think there’s a growing core of business leaders who are beginning to get it. Some of their consciousness is being raised by the millennial generation — they have a set of values that is different from previous generations.


What: Intermountain Sustainability Summit 2016

When and where: Conference Day will be Thursday, March 24, and Workshop Day will be Friday, March 25, at Weber State University 

Cost: Registration for the general before March 15 is $105; after March 15 it’s $120 (discounts for students and faculty; workshops are extra)

For more information and to register online, visit 


Q: What changes are being driven by the millennial generation? 

A: Less car ownership is one example. I think with millennials, market forces will lead companies down due paths toward the sharing economy and circular economy. A lot of change is also being driven by technological cycles. Our globally connected, mobile society is enabling everything from cars to cities to individual consumers to be more efficient and less wasteful. 

Q: What are some examples of corporations making great strides in terms of sustainability?

A: Electronics companies like Apple, Hewlett-Packard and Dell, are changing not just their equipment but their business models to allow more upgradability and repairability. Office furniture companies like Steelcase are reinventing products so they can be taken apart and the components can be reused many, many times and in many different forms. Part of a table could become part of a wall. We’re seeing it in the apparel industry, too. Nike makes materials that use a fraction of the resources and can be endlessly recycled into the same kinds of materials. It goes on and on. It’s happening in almost every sector, with the exception of some of the extractive industries which are stuck in their old ways.

The reality is, contrary to what most people think, companies are walking way more than they’re talking. They’re doing far more than they’re publicly saying.

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Q: GreenBiz has written stories in the past about companies’ fear of being labeled as “greenwashing.” Is that why they’re not talking? 

A: There are a few reasons. Much of what they’re doing amounts to “doing less bad” — less waste, using fewer resources or fewer toxic ingredients. It’s hard to make claim that “this product has fewer toxic ingredients this year than it did last year.” That’s not a very compelling market point.

Number two is that many, if not most, of the changes companies are making aren’t reflected in the value of what they sell. For example, more than 100 of General Motors facilities around the world have achieved zero waste. There’s nothing going to landfill. That’s a significant achievement, but it has nothing to do with selling cars. You won’t see in a sticker in a showroom saying “this vehicle was made in a zero-waste facility.” It’s not why people buy cars. 

A third reason they’re doing more walking than talking is what you’re alluding to. When they do make claims, they often either get criticized for being imperfect or it means they’re pointing out problems the public didn’t know they had. It’s “how dare you make landfill-free facilitates when you make internal combustion engines?” It’s not something they really message to the public.

Q: So many large corporations are turning to more sustainable practices, even if we don’t hear much about it. But is it all enough? 

A: The answer is, not so much. For all the good work that’s being done by companies, we’re still not making progress at the scale and scope we need to address the water, energy, climate, toxins and other challenges we face. But you know, I tend to be on the “glass-half-full” side of things. There’s a lot going on, and some of the progress hasn’t yet shown up in the marketplace, but it will because there’s a lot more change to come. So companies will become increasingly more efficient and increasingly less polluting. And they’ll become increasingly more innovative with materials. 

Q: It seems at their essence, businesses and corporations need us to consume things. That’s how they make a profit. How can that ever be sustainable as populations grow?

A: That’s a big challenge. We’re seeing signs of progress, certainly with the sharing economy, the digital economy and the Internet of things. This is what’s generally been dubbed as the “resource revolution”  — a clean and advanced energy economy. All of these are steps in the right direction to enable 3 billion more consumers to come into the middle class by mid-century. We honestly don’t know if we can pull this off — if we can feed, clothe, and house everyone, or if we can power the world people want without running ahead of clean air, water and climate. Those are open questions.

But there’s a lot of thinking being done about this by some visionary CEOs and a growing core group of consumers. They’re beginning to understand ways of addressing these issues — like not owning a car. That used to be, when I was growing up, the best thing you could do. Now this generation is seeing it’s not a better thing. The better thing is having access to mobility. We’ll see more of those shifts. That gives me hope we can address the consumption challenges you’re talking about.

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or Follow her on or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen.

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