The triple bottom line

Protecting people, profit and the planet

L. Hunter Lovins: A cowgirl with eco-business savvy.

L. Hunter Lovins: A cowgirl with eco-business savvy.

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“The future is not possible,” said L. Hunter Lovins to a crowd of several hundred convention goers at the Green California Summit and Exposition, held recently in Sacramento. Her underlying message: In the impending era of peak everything—peak oil, peak energy, peak water—present ways of doing business are simply not sustainable.

This sort of poppycock is all too familiar for doomsday environmentalists who have long foreseen the perils of consumption and rapid globalization, but there was something to Lovins’ speech that resonated far beyond the walls of the Sacramento Convention Center. As she expounded on ways big business can be made to do the dirty work of cleaning up the environment, the future seemed much less bleak.

After all, the suits filling the seats weren’t the typical enviros from the National Resources Defense Council, World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace, though some of their ilk were certainly in attendance. No, the men and women giving their rapt attention on the morning of April 9 were representatives of a booming green sector that has gone decidedly and unabashedly mainstream. Five thousand attendees from across the industry, including solar installers, fuel-cell developers, green-building material producers, as well as officials from numerous state and local agencies, gathered in the exhibition halls over the course of three days to exchange ideas and cash in on the sustainability craze.

Lovins isn’t your typical corporate consultant either. Her appearance, like her philosophy, is a marriage of contradictions. Part Colorado cowgirl, part high-minded hippie, her signature ten-gallon hat completes the image of Western outlaw possessing both business savvy and a return-to-nature ethos that coexist like yin and yang.

As the founder of Natural Capitalism Solutions, Lovins has made a career of turning sustainability into profitability. She helps corporations realize that investing in energy efficiency and preserving natural resources is an investment in their bottom line. With her help, the unlikeliest of companies have started to green their operations voluntarily, not necessarily out of social responsibility or altruistic benevolence, but to make more money.

“Are we in service to the economy?” Lovins asked. In her view, the relationship should be the other way around; free trade and capitalism can be used to accomplish the more noble ends of humankind.

Take, for example, Coca-Cola, which sponsored Lovins’ keynote address and gave introductory remarks. It seemed ironic at first that the most ubiquitous institution, which has reaped profits from every corner of the globe and been charged with all manner of ecocide, should be so bold as to deliver a sermon on sustainability. Yet the young man received genuine applause when he discussed Coca-Cola’s intentions to recycle 100 percent of the cans and bottles used in the United States and return as much potable water to the world as the company consumes in production.

There is logic to utilizing a corporation’s financial resources and supply chains to do good. What faster way is there to disseminate conservation tips and climate-change facts than slapping them on a Coke bottle? What would otherwise cost nonprofit organizations millions in outreach and education programs could be done with two minutes of text editing on existing beverage packaging.

Lest you think Hunter’s just sipping too much of the corporate Kool-Aid, see for yourself ( From protecting watersheds in China to building the world’s largest bottle-to-bottle recycling plant in Spartanburg, S.C., the company is starting to use some of its money and influence to bring about real change.

But it’s not just about Coca-Cola, it’s about all Fortune 500 companies waking up and smelling the emissions. Organizations like Ford, DuPont and Sony are trading carbon on the Chicago Climate Exchange and reducing their emissions. In 2006, Silicon Valley venture capitalists poured $700 million into green start-ups. To date, 2,300 buildings have been LEED certified by the U.S. Green Building Council.

Making corporations realize that it’s in their best interest to protect Earth’s resources won’t happen overnight, but neither will dismantling them. It’s going to be easier to get corporations to go green than it will be to destroy them altogether, and if Lovins is right, getting them to clean up their act and the planet shouldn’t be such a tough sell.