In 2002, sustainable business guru and Time Magazine’s “Hero of the Planet” Hunter Lovins founded Natural Capitalism Solutions, an organization that helps communities, companies, and countries implement genuine sustainability solutions to change the way business is done worldwide. NCS is a group attempting to “rethink the global economy” and make an Integrated Bottom Line, which blends financial, environmental, and social elements into a unified measure of financial success, a reality. NCS has had a hand in transforming the direction of corporate policies and international accords, including the Kyoto Climate Accord, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and the Paris Accord. Unconventional, witty, and inspiringly grounded, current CEO Hunter Lovins talks business, and life lessons, and the need for teamwork.
You founded Natural Capitalism Solutions in 2002: what is your organization all about?
NCS is an organization that helps communities, companies and countries implement more regenerative practices profitably. We work in more than 30 countries, consulting for companies that, by making themselves more sustainable, can move their whole industry, helping people and organizations in communities develop more regenerative local economies, and working with global leaders to craft better policies for people and the planet.
What sustainable policies does NCS attempt to incorporate in businesses, communities, and countries? Are these suggested policy changes generally well-received?
Energy policies, agriculture policies, economic development policies, climate protection policies, sustainability policies…. Everything from feed-in-tariffs, to PACE financing, to holistic range management, to buy local, support local business in preference to recruiting from outside, closing waste loops, tax shifting, water efficiency over supply preferences…the list is near endless. Willingness to implement something different typically follows the level of crisis that the government is facing, and the skill of the advocate in putting the business case first. Local people tend to get the ideas quickly and like them.
Receptiveness totally depends. Often a country is not receptive. Then I go somewhere else. But often, if I can frame the argument as a business case, and give them a political rationale for changing course, a few years later, looking back, I can see that things have shifted. I get a call that the proposed power plant has been cancelled, the country now has a renewable energy policy, the policy person I briefed is now running the ministry. I grin and go climb on yet another airplane.
NCS does business in over 30 countries: how do you decide where to go? Where do you think you’ve made the biggest impact?
I don’t target countries. They come to me. Often activists in one or another country ask if I will come and help on some issue, then arrange for me to meet with their officials, dignitaries, policy-makers. I try to do the best I can to serve the folk on the ground who know what the needs are, and can make use of such influence as I can bring to advance their issues
No significant change comes about because of one person. I’ve helped negotiate climate deals in Japan and France, killed a nuke in Taiwan, encouraged ecotourism in Botswana, New Zealand and Jamaica, helped invent sustainable business education In the U.S., and had a hand in cutting the death rate of children under 5 in half in Afghanistan. But if you look at the statistics of human misery and environmental damage, I haven’t done near enough anywhere.
When you say: “helping people and organizations in communities develop more regenerative local economies” what does that look like? Could you give an example of a community where you’ve helped develop a more regenerative local economy?
On reflection, I’m not going to answer this one. Those communities are now all working on their own, and believe that their achievements are the result of their work. It’d do no good to remind them of where the ideas came from, or the jump-start they may have received. Lao Tze once said: “Leaders are best when people scarcely know that they exist. Not so good when people obey and acclaim them, worst when people despise them.” Fail to honor people, they fail to honor you. But of good leaders when their work is done, their task fulfilled the people will all say, “We did this ourselves.” However, you can read the case studies on our website to learn some specifics about the work we’ve done.
As a sustainability consulting firm, what’s the biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge is raising the money to do the work we do. Natural Capitalism has always earned its revenues by consulting, by my speaking and writing. The challenges we are taking on like transforming the global economy are not something that any company is going to pay us to do. So my first order of business is to figure out a new business model. The sustainability consulting we pioneered is now being copied by hundreds of boutique firms, or even by the big consulting houses, many of them staffed by my graduates. That’s handled. Maybe it’s time to get better at begging for money. Or crowdfunding. Or create a whole new business model. The team we have now is the best we have ever had. We’ll figure it out.
As President of NCS, what exactly does your role entail? What is your favorite part of the job?
President is technically the title of the head of the Board of Directors of NCS. We don’t operate hierarchically. Everyone, from the newest intern to our senior staff have a say, and are co-creating our work. If anything, I hold the vision, and the culture of the place: the insistence on collaboration, on solving the challenges together, and celebrating together our successes. My favorite part is seeing the light that comes into someone’s eyes when they realize that we have all of the technologies we need to solve all of the problems facing us, and that they can make a difference too, that we can’t get it done without them.
My greatest reward is seeing our former interns in positions of responsibility in companies, governments, or universities, all making a difference in their own way. No organization that really wants to lead change can own the ever growing team of people it will take to implement the changes the world needs. So young people work with us for a month, a year, a few years then go off to school, a more significant job, their calling. Then years later I hear that their new book is out, the organization they head has just helped negotiate a new international accord, their company is now the leading renewable energy provider…. Or one of my graduates out-bids me for a contract. Or gets the keynote slot at a big conference. And I grin and go have drinks with some of our new interns. Nothing I ever do will be as significant as what all of them will do, and I’m grateful to have been able to play a small role in making it so.
But anything that we may have done is preparatory to achievements yet to be. Whatever any of us may have gotten awards for, it’s not enough. We are still a world in crisis, and there’s work to be done, solutions to put in place. My hope is that when people look back at us they will say, “they were great ancestors.” Check out an article “A talk given at a conservation meeting a hundred years from now.”
You’ve written and co-authored over 15 books and hundreds of articles: where does the inspiration come from? Do you have any books currently in the works?
Inspiration is overrated. I write about the work that I am doing, sharing the work of my colleagues around the world, and the solutions we’ve found to the gnarly problems facing us. Given that we still have plenty of those, I’m never stumped for what to write about. I use the protocol of my friends, Bob Costanza and Ida Kubiszewski at Solutions Journal, who say write one third on the problem and two thirds on the solution. And yes, I’m working on a new book now: A Finer Future: How Humanity Can Avoid System Collapse and Craft An Economy In Service To Life. It acknowledges the seriousness of what’s coming at us but sets forth ways to meet those crises and create a finer future.
What advice do you have for young professionals, especially women, trying to go into your line of work?
There has been no finer time in history to be alive and be a woman. Every fiber of your being is needed to repair the damage we’ve done and to craft a new way of being in the world that nourishes the best of humanity. We need the finest aspects of both men and women, working together in true respect and learning to overcome the crises. And it is only in giving all that is in you that you find and create what you will become.
What got you excited about energy and the environment?
I’m not sure that I had a whole lot of choice. My mother used to work organizing with John L. Lewis in the coal fields of West Virginia. She went on to take a law degree and have about 14 different careers. My father helped mentor Cesar Chavez and Martin King. That’s the sort of people who were around the house as I was growing up. If you saw an injustice, you righted it. If someone was hurting, you healed them. There never was much money, so we spent time in the deserts and forests and fields. They taught me that caring for the earth and its life is the obligation and privilege of being alive. You always leave your campsite a little better than you found
What’s next for you?
True happiness is having every option and knowing that you wouldn’t change a thing. Guess I feel a bit like the farmer who won the lottery and was asked what she was proposed to do with all that money: I guess I’ll just keep farming until it’s all gone.
Hunter Lovins currently teaches Sustainable Management at Bard MBA, serves on the Executive Committee of the Club of Rome, advises companies on how to implement authentic sustainability, is part of the incorporating team at Change Finance (a start-up to move money from harm to healing), serves as a Distinguished Fellow at the Fowler Center for Business as an agent of World Benefit, travels several hundred thousand miles a year consulting, lecturing and promoting greater sustainability. On top of all of that, she runs Natural Capitalism Solutions, the business she co-founded.
To say the least, she is a very busy woman. On a day-to-day basis, she can be found keynoting an international conference, sitting with her students, meeting CEO’s of Fortune 100 companies, writing for a new book, editing a colleague’s book, raising money from investors, “debating with those who are sure that the end of the world is upon us or whether humanity can pull it out (I subscribe to the latter view)” or meeting with heads of state at the Paris Climate Summit or elsewhere. Her amazing work has been duly noted: She was named a millennium “Hero of the Planet” by Time Magazine, received the Right Livelihood Award and the Business Award (to name a few), and was named “Green Business Icon” by Newsweek.
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