CORPORATE SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY

10 Best Business Books for Going Green

Whether you want to change the world or simply reduce your company's environmental footprint, these books from Yvon Chouinard, Jeffrey Hollender, and more provide both advice and inspiration.
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In 1970, when Earth Day began, business was the enemy. The previous year, a blowout in a Union Oil platform had dumped more than 80,000 barrels of black stuff into the Santa Barbara Channel. Students and activists loudly protested pollution from factories and power plants. Today, business often is still the enemy. But it is sometimes a force for good--or at least a mouthpiece for good, as evidenced by the nearly 2,000 titles in Amazon's "Green Business" category. The best of these books combine concrete practices and provocative proposals with personal vision and a sense of urgency. Most argue that it makes good business sense to be a responsible citizen of our blue marble.

Here are 10 recommended green books for CEOs and other business leaders. Download them to your e-reader and save a tree.

1. Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, by E.F. Schumacher (1973): Schumacher's early clarion call to conscience condemns "gigantism"--the trend toward ever-larger markets, companies, and production levels. The German economist and philosopher further argues that innovations that solve a problem but degrade the environment or society are of no benefit. He advocates instead for more humane forms of capitalism and the adoption of small-scale "appropriate technology" that is environmentally sound and labor intensive (as opposed to capital intensive). Today chiefly discussed in the context of developing countries, this classic deserves new readers in U.S. executive suites.

2. Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins (1999): Hawkins, an early social entrepreneur and co-founder of the garden company Smith & Hawken, teams with the celebrated environmentalist couple to explain how growing scarcity creates opportunity as well as peril. The authors sketch out an economic model that values natural capital (energy, water, and topsoil) as well as manmade capital and recognizes the interdependence between the two. They urge companies to increase the productivity of natural resources, to redesign industry to operate on biological models, to shift from selling goods to providing services, and to reinvest in natural capital. Many themes picked up by later books had an early outing here.

3. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart (2002): Suppose you looked at recycling not as a social obligation but rather as a principle of design? McDonough (a designer) and Braungart (a chemist) lay out a vision for products developed with materials and processes that allow them to feed into other products down the line, rather than end life in a landfill. Their lifecycle approach relies on materials that fall into two categories: "technical nutrients" (synthetics that can be used over and over and don't harm the environment) and "biological nutrients" (organic materials that can be returned to the environment). Nature is elegant, and so are the prescriptions rendered here.

4. Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman, by Yvon Chouinard (2005): Patagonia's mission statement reads thus: "Make the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis." Who would argue with that? Chouinard, Patagonia's founder, has a deep, personal connection to the natural world that is evident throughout this memoir. In it, he recounts his distress as he observed the natural world's deterioration during his wide-ranging travels. In response, Chouinard resolved to donate 10 percent of profits each year to small environmental groups--a practice that evolved into the respected "1% for the Planet" organization. And his green approach to things such as product design and distribution have made Patagonia into the environmental icon it is today. 

5. Green to Gold: How Smart Companies Use Environmental Strategy to Innovate, Create Value, and Build Competitive Advantage, by Daniel Esty and Andrew Winston (2006): Increasingly, going green isn't an option companies choose for themselves: Their customers and stakeholders drive them toward it. These two Yale professors offer concrete advice--including a toolkit--for reducing a company's environmental footprint. They encourage practices like "eco-tracking" (capturing data and creating metrics for all a company's environmental impacts); redesigning products and processes to reduce waste; and fostering a culture that folds environmental thinking into decisions at all levels. Unlike some similar treatises, Green to Gold acknowledges the many bumps over which such initiatives may trip. Among them: efforts to extract a price premium for being green and assumptions that customers will change their habits.

6. Business Lessons From a Radical Industrialist, by Ray C. Anderson (2009): Anderson, founder of the $1 billion carpet company Interface and widely known as "the greenest CEO in America," died in 2011. His book is a reminder of what we have lost. Twenty years ago, Anderson set for his company the inspiring, jaw-dropping goal of taking nothing from the earth that could not be replaced by the earth. That goal ignited all kinds of innovations (the company holds numerous patents on machines, processes, and products that reduce waste). In the year this book was published, Interface had made and sold more than 83 million square yards of carpet with zero global-warming effect. What was once landfill fodder returns to the factory as "feedstock." There's lots of practical advice here. But it's also a compelling business yarn written by someone who truly walked the talk. 

7. Strategy for Sustainability: A Business Manifesto, by Adam Werbach (2009): Tales from global brands such as Toyota, Nike, and Wal-Mart inform much of this book. But entrepreneurs will instantly relate to many of its tenets for a sustainable strategy, including that cash flow matters more than quarterly earnings, that everyone's operating environment is undergoing massive change, and that internal cohesion and flexibility are required in a chaotic external world. In this context of complexity and interconnection, seeking to be green is no longer enough, argues Werbach, a former Sierra Club president now with Saatchi & Saatchi. Instead, he casts sustainability objectives as part of a strategic framework for responding to changes of all types: social, technological, cultural, and economic as well as natural-resource-related. 

8. Sustainable Excellence: The Future of Business in a Fast-Changing World, by Aron Cramer and Zachary Karabell (2010): Scarcity is the mother of innovation. Consequently, companies as diverse as Method and Best Buy have taken sustainability as a "design brief" for their research and development efforts, the authors explain. Cramer, an authority on corporate responsibility, and Karabell, an economist and author, urge companies to think big when addressing global environmental issues, to set the right internal and external incentives for responsible behavior, and to embrace the scrutiny of their every action (transparency and collaboration are your friends). The most committed companies educate customers about becoming more sustainable themselves.

9. The Responsibility Revolution: How the Next Generation of Businesses Will Win, by Jeffrey Hollender and Bill Breen (2010): "Less bad" isn't good enough. When it comes to the environment, companies should strive instead to be "all good." This book presents case studies from a nice mix of organizations. (Those on Nike and Marks & Spencer are especially strong.) Among the excellent--and clever--best practices: Nike's Considered Index, which quantifies the ecological impact of design choices; and Patagonia's Footprint Chronicles, which document for all to see everything that goes into a product. Not surprisingly, some of the most compelling stories involve Seventh Generation, the iconic company once led by Hollender. He was ousted shortly after the book's publication, reportedly over tensions between green and and growth.

10. What's Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, by Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers (2010): The more we share, the less we need to produce, the better for the environment. Collaboration expert Botsman and social entrepreneur Rogers discuss emerging business models for a consumer-driven, more environment-friendly economy. "Product service systems" like Zipcar make it possible to live auto-less; "communal economies" like Etsy empower small vendors against large corporations; and "redistribution markets" like Swaptree allow people to trade or barter rather than buy. There's plenty to think about here, even for entrenched companies. As consumers grow accustomed to these models and want to reduce waste and--perhaps more important to them--spending, the only thing left in the landfill may be old buy-it-keep-it models of commerce.

IMAGE: Bryce Duffy/Gallery Stock
Last updated: Apr 22, 2014

LEIGH BUCHANAN | Staff Writer | Editor-at-large, Inc. Magazine

Leigh Buchanan is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.




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