Interview with Tom Miller, CEO of Blu Skye Sustainability Consultants


Photo via Blu Skye Sustainability Consulting

As the CEO of sustainable consulting firm Blu Skye Sustainability Consultants, Tom Miller oversees teams and strategies that are changing the way the world makes things--from the design stage and production process to the buyer's consumption and disposal. Find out what he says to companies that don't think sustainability is worth anything, how the gas from cows might revolutionize the dairy industry, and what we should all be working toward in the next two decades.TreeHugger: What's your main role at Blu Skye?
Tom Miller: My job is to lead a team that's doing very significant sustainability strategy work with industry-leading clients. We are helping some of the biggest and most successful organizations in the world make money while addressing some of the world's biggest challenges. These companies are, for the first time, looking at how the rules of sustainability play out in their core business strategy--not just, how can we recycle, how can we be more efficient. They're asking themselves, is there something about the way the world is changing that begs us to think about our basic business model differently?

TH: So how does that affect their business?
TM: It might mean new opportunities to collaborate, ways to create new value for their clients, or a fundamental shift in how they do things to measure and manage their impact on the world. They are finding innovations, ways to not just save a little on the fringes but to fundamentally change how they do business--to make more money, save money, and create innovations in terms of new products and services that we hadn't thought of before. In the old days of sustainability, the question was, should we put the blue bucket under the desk and print both sides? Now we're evaluating at a much higher strategic level of, what does this mean for our business.

Business Change that Includes Tapping Methane From Cows

TH: What kind of changes are you seeing? TM: There are radical changes occurring in products and services, as well as how they deliver products. Examples would include fundamentally re-thinking where materials are sourced, finding ways to save money by efficiently designing products to allow a much higher level of recycled content to be used, and creating a truly closed-loop solution. In the dairy industry, for example, we're helping the industry find solutions that allow it to produce its own energy on farms--if you can take the methane the cows produce and convert it into your own energy, that's a radical shift.

TH: Do you target entire industries, or aim for certain companies?
TM: We work with companies across the board. The industry doesn't matter as much as the scale of impact they can have--and it's great to work with whole industries, but it's difficult because few of the organizational bodies have real influence; usually it's the leaders of the industry that can shake the rules of the game a bit more. We've worked with cities to develop sustainability plans, and we work with the government indirectly because the dairy industry is regulated by the USDA.

Transparency Will Force Innovation

TH: What are some of the major projects you're working on now? TM: We are helping bring the sustainability index to life, which we believe will be an engine for innovation unlike anything the world has ever see before. We're starting to see more manufacturers and retailers get involved in the use of credible science to understand the impacts and opportunities of the supply chain.

One of the biggest challenges is that people mistakenly think the value of the index is in the score, but it's really in bringing science to drive innovation, the way things are made and brought to market. Now there can be significantly higher levels of transparency into the process, and where impacts are created. Once these impacts are understood, people can start to make changes and still make money while reducing waste and eliminating the amount of toxicity. In the process of literally making, selling, and disposing of things, when you have a spotlight on that entire chain, the radical transparency will force radical innovation.

TH: So is that for the manufacturer or the consumer?
TM: Eventually it will become clear to the consumer and all the confusion in the marketplace will get clarified--all the various eco labeling, the scorecards, all that confusion will eventually go away. But the real emphasis right now is with manufacturers and retailers--that's the place to start.

TH: What's the end goal of the project?
TM: When consumers understand, they make better choices. One of the challenges is that it's very difficult for them to have a clear picture of the science--it's very hard to determine what's more important: the amount of CO2 created by the creation of this product, or the impact on water, or the social consequences? Many don't care, and many don't understand--and those that do care still find it difficult to sort through the labeling and score-carding.

The first step is to bring a shared set of standards to retailers and manufacturers. Imagine a world in which the best scientists in the world were getting aligned, and making the best choices for making, using, and closing the loop on products--and where that science was integrated and available to the consumer in a simple way, and didn't send costs skyrocketing. The innovation is that people aren't making trade-offs. To design the perfect product that costs twice as much is not okay--we have to design perfect products that cost the same or less.

TH: Tell us about your work on closed loop systems.
TM: The whole notion is that, with the right technology, there's value to be had from what we call garbage, that is taken to landfill--if you can capture, sort, clean, and reintroduce it to the supply chain. If the companies use more recycled content, and that content is available, it can change how products are made, moved around, dismantled, and reused. We have reasonably good methods of separating and reintroducing paper, but plastics are one area where we have a lot more room to grow in terms of sorting and reuse.

TH: What about cutting consumption?
TM: There's only so much reduction of use. Most of the planet, fundamentally, aspirates to consume more, so you have to redesign how things are made, and used, and reused. Imagine if there were an energy-neutral way of taking that paper you use and having it show up six weeks later, you're reading the same newspaper, and it didn't have any impact on the planet so you didn't have to feel bad about reading the paper. We have fundamentally some major challenges in how things are designed, how business is organized, how people make things, how consumers use them and dispose of them. That's the kind of stuff that has to change in the next 20 years.

Sustainability is Integrity

TH: What's the biggest challenge you face in your job? TM: Encountering CEOs that are still wondering if there is a "business case" for sustainability. It's up there with integrity--what's the business case for integrity?

But occasionally we have to use the language of business, so we do spend time developing vases that prove the value. We have recovering strategy consultants that are very good at modeling the economics of sustainability, so we absolutely do that to prove the business case--but the real value comes when people realize it's a silly question.

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Tags: Alternative Fuels | Carbon Neutral | Corporate Responsibility | Economics | TH Interview

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