The TH Interview: Joel Makower on the Green Economy, Electric Sports Cars, and the World's Biggest Eco-Myth
Certain people seem to have an uncanny ability to absorb into their field and permeate it. Joel Makower and the world of green business appear to have all but merged into one another. Joel is a consultant, writer, and entrepreneur who has become an integral voice in the movement for a green economy. He is the executive editor of GreenBiz.com and its sister sites, ClimateBiz.com and GreenerBuildings.com, and the co-founder of Clean Edge Inc., a research and publishing firm focusing on building markets for clean energy technologies. Joel has consulted for General Electric, Gap, General Motors, Hewlett Packard, Levi Strauss, Nike, and Procter & Gamble on corporate sustainability. His articles appear in Grist and WorldChanging, and his blog, Two Steps Forward, is a regular stop on our TH Blog Love roundup. Joel and I last crossed paths at the Aspen Ideas Fest where he was introducing biomimicry godmother Janine Benyus. He was kind enough to shed light on some big questions.TreeHugger: What's the biggest eco-myth out there?
Joel Makower: That we can shop our way to environmental health. It's not that making good, green choices isn't important for all of us—that's what I wrote about in my 1990 book The Green Consumer and have been talking about ever since. But it's not simply a matter of what we buy, or even how much. The transformation to sustainability will require a sharp turn on the part of companies toward radical resource productivity: dramatically more efficient manufacturing systems; new means of distribution; and new business models in which we never really own things like cars, refrigerators, and cell phones—we simply rent their services, leaving the manufacturer responsible for transforming unwanted goods back into the newest, coolest thing. That's only partly a consumer-driven proposition—it will also take bold moves by manufacturers and marketers, and an alignment of regulations and natural resource prices such as oil, timber, and water.
TH: People are writing $100,000 checks to buy the Tesla roadster, an electric sports car that doesn't even come out until next year. Will electric cars hit the mainstream anytime soon?
JM: They're closer than I would have thought just a year ago. If you think back twelve months, people thought that hybrids were the best we could do in the short term. But people started jerry-rigging hybrids to add plugs and heavy-duty batteries. Now GM, Toyota, and others are talking about plug-in hybrids that combine the best of both worlds: the ability to drive reasonable distances on pure electricity with the assurance of a gas-powered backup. And that's just a short leap to plug-in EVs—newer, more powerful, and better marketed versions of the model that was famously "killed." So, we're seeing a pathway to electric cars that we couldn't see just a few short months ago.
TH: What kind of car do you drive?
JM: It's not going to impress you, environmentally speaking. I drive a 2004 BMW 325 convertible. I'm lucky enough not to commute by car and over the past 30 years have averaged about 6,000 miles a year of driving. Because I drive so little, and enjoy driving when I do, I like something that's fun to drive and allows me to enjoy the California sunshine. I'd love for there to be a Tesla in my future, once they lower the price considerably. My (slightly) more realistic dream: a plug-in hybrid Mini Cooper convertible. I'd be first in line if they ever announced one.
TH: Ford may be backpedaling on its hybrid plans, Saturn has a new hybrid coming out but people seem cynical about the mileage. Can American automakers actually stay competitive in the market for efficient and alternatively-fueled cars?
JM: They can, but it won't be easy. To save themselves, Ford and GM will have to think green, and think fast. Toyota is rapidly moving to become the world's number-one carmaker, and it's due in large part to their willingness to make fuel-efficient cars. (That's not the entire reason: they're not saddled with a lot of the healthcare and pension costs that U.S. carmakers face.) I think GM and Ford are getting religion. The big question is whether they're nimble enough to shift their design and production to cleaner, greener (and hipper) models.
TH: You're a strong believer in the idea of a green economy. What do you think has been one of the all-around most successful green businesses to emerge?
JM: There's two ways I could answer. One is to name successful companies that have emerged in the past decade or so, focusing exclusively on green products or services. I can think of a several across a range of sectors—PowerLight, New Leaf Paper, Thanksgiving Coffee, and Portfolio21 come immediately to mind—as well as many of the smaller companies that exhibit at the Green Festivals. I've just invested in a new green bank that's starting up in the Bay Area. That's the future I want to see.
But in many ways, I'm less interested in these pure-play green companies than in the greening of big business, helping large, industrial companies, from utilities to plastics companies find their way in the emerging green economy. It's no pipe dream; it's starting to ramp nicely: companies as varied as GE, Dupont, Shaw Carpets, and Sharp are creating new products and services that have the potential to be game-changers from a sustainability perspective. What gets me up in the morning is the prospect of seeing these and other companies make radical shifts in their thinking about what they do and how they do it.
Please understand, it's not that I don't care about the smaller, more progressive companies. I think they are our future. But we won't have a future if we don't bring old-line industrial companies into the fold.
TH: If you could wave a magical eco-legislation wand and pass one law, what would it be?
JM: No question, it would be something that puts a fair price on carbon and other constrained resources. Note that I didn't utter the "T" word. I don't believe there's the political will for carbon or natural resource taxes, at least in the U.S., and there won't be for some time. But there are other means of incentivizing green behavior on the part of consumers and industry, and in ways that won't place an undue burden on the economically disadvantaged. There's a lot of good thinking going into this, and I'd use my magic wand to bring one or more of these good ideas into being, and fast.
TH: Do you think that in our lifetime green business interests will become "normal" enough that Congressional hostility toward all things eco will turn around?
JM: Green business interests already are becoming mainstream. We're seeing the CEOs of major utilities (Duke Energy), oil companies (BP), and others (GE, for example) calling for carbon taxes and tough U.S. government action on climate. And, in the meantime, some of these companies are themselves showing the way, making ambitious commitments about their own performance. That doesn't make them "green businesses," of course. But it demonstrates that being proactive on the environment doesn't have to negatively affect business. In fact, it can make them stronger, improve their efficiency, provide regulatory (and therefore business) certainty, and spur innovation and new business opportunities. We're not far off from that being considered "normal" by all but the most recalcitrant politicians. And give us a couple more elections and we'll get most of them out of the way.
TH: How can the economy move towards a more comprehensive means of accounting for its activities, a system that includes the true costs of things like ecological damage?
JM: As much as I'd like to see that happen, I don't think it will for a long time. The big challenge is that after years of trying there's no consensus on how to do that. This past spring, China abandoned its plans for a "green measure" of gross domestic product. Said one Chinese government official: "It is virtually impossible to calculate accurately a figure for GDP adjusted for the impact on the environment." China's not alone. Few other countries have created "green GDP" metrics that are anything more than symbolic.
Instead, we'll have to take it on faith—that when we degrade the environment, we degrade the economy and all of our well-being—and work hard to establish policies and programs to prevent that from happening.
TH: Your work spans so many fields. What do you see out there that you find especially exciting? Maybe something that hasn't shown up on the radar much yet?
JM: That's tough. I'm excited about so many things. The world of clean technology in general has become a big focus of my work. Clean Edge, which I co-founded, is working with companies, investors, and governments to spur the acceleration of markets for clean technologies, such as solar energy, biofuels, and advanced materials. I'm excited about the potential of biomimicry to produce innovative and cool new products that dramatically reduce environmental impacts. (I recently joined the board of the Biomimicry Institute)
I'm excited about the potential of new Web tools to help inspire and educate companies and their employees to continually strive to improve their environmental performance. GreenBiz.com is developing some tools to facilitate that. And despite all the great advances I'm seeing in the business world, there's still a huge need to provide basic environmental education to companies of all sectors and sizes. I still think there's tremendous power to be tapped in the creativity and passion of people going to work every day, finding ways they can make a difference.
And, perhaps most of all, I'm excited and inspired by all of the entrepreneurs who are harnessing sustainability principles to invent new products and services—the kinds of things I read about everyday in TreeHugger.