Cultivating a culture of green: An interview with Andrew Winston

Each year the keynote speakers at the NAEM Forum inspire attendees with their mix of practical insights and leading-edge thinking.  This week Forum committee chairman Steve Walker spoke to Andrew Winston, author of “Green Recovery” and the opening keynote at this year’s conference, about how companies can cultivate a culture of green. 

Andrew Winston

SW: What does this recession mean for the greening movement?  Do companies still need to think about going green?

AW: Many companies slowed their green initiatives in the downturn; this was a big mistake.  It’s a common misperception that green equals cost.  Combine that with a recession that has slashed everyone’s spending and budgets, and you get a seeming logic to stop all environmental activities.  But going green doesn’t raise costs, it lowers them.  Seeing your business through an environmental lens drives innovation as well.  But on top of that, nearly all of the driving forces behind the green wave of pressure on companies have not slowed down.  The greening of the supply chain has accelerated, with companies like Wal-Mart taking the lead.  Consumers have continued to evolve and grow more ‘conflicted’ about purchases.  Weather/climate-related events have exacerbated an already short supply of almost all basic commodities.  The cost of doing business is rising.  In short, this is an amazing opportunity to go green NOW: It will save money (if done right) and prepare a company for a much more resource-constrained, environmentally concerned future.

SW: What are the five areas where a business can get lean and save money fast?

AW: In recent years, it’s become the norm for companies to deal with tight times by laying off people first.  In the fourth quarter of 2008, before the recession hit a lot of companies directly, we saw massive layoffs, nearly guaranteeing the recession.  But in most industries, we’re discovering that we have enormous opportunities to get lean on energy, waste and water.  In a shrinking economy, you can’t save every job, but some people could be re-purposed to pursue sustainability goals and find ways to get leaner.

In Green Recovery, I focus on five areas of the business where companies find very quick paybacks:

  • Facilities (heating, cooling, lighting)
  • Information Technology (IT) systems
  • Distribution and
  • Fleet, waste, and telework/communications (the upside of more IT)

The examples in each are rampant:

  • Hotel chain IHG changed 250,000 bulbs and saved $1.2MM in energy, a 4 month payback.
  • Many of the big IT companies are tackling the heat buildup in data centers by simply venting hot air instead of expensive energy-intensive cooling schemes.
  • Trucking and shipping companies like Conway or Maersk have discovered that slowing down a bit can save big on fuel.

In all these areas, companies can meet internal hurdle rates easily. These quick wins can help drive buy-in by showing that green pays, and they can help fund the larger, longer-term investments in innovation and green energy that we need.

SW: How can businesses systematize their green innovation?

AW: Innovation can come in many forms, the most radical of which is what I call ‘heretical innovation’. This is a way of thinking that challenges the fundamental nature of the business or process.  Imagine asking whether you can operate without fossil fuels, or in the case of car companies, whether cars can be sold as a service rather than a product only.

In terms of creating a culture of green innovation, there are a number of approaches companies can take to make it a normal part of the business process.  First, making it someone’s job and sole focus can help (and ideally this is someone in research and development, not sustainability).  Companies also can set aside time for green innovation, much like 3M and Google do, when they ask employees to spend about 20 percent of their time on whatever they want.  Additionally, setting big goals for innovation or revenue from green products can help. GE’s ecomagination targets are a good example.

Andrew Winston advises some of the world’s leading companies on how to profit from environmental thinking.  He is a globally recognized expert and speaker on the business benefits of going green.  Andrew is the author of “Green Recovery and co-author of the international best-selling “Green to Gold”. He will be the opening keynote presenter at this fall’s 19th annual EHS Management Forum in Tucson, Ariz.

Steve Walker is the Manager of Environmental Sustainability at Burt’s Bees Inc. and chair of the 19th annual EHS Management Forum. For more information about the Forum or to register, please visit


About NAEM Staff

The National Association for Environmental Management (NAEM), is a non-profit professional association that empowers corporate leaders to advance environmental stewardship, create safe and healthy workplaces, and promote global sustainability. As the largest network for environmental, health and safety (EHS), and sustainability decision-makers, we provide peer-led educational conferences and an active network for sharing solutions to today’s corporate EHS and sustainability management challenges. Visit NAEM online at

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