Michael Dell is the opening Q&A in this week’s issue of Time. The theme:
In the past year, though, rivals have gained on him. So this year he’s going for a green advantage: he wants to erase some of the environmental cost of running computers by offering a way to neutralize the carbon dioxide emitted by a PC.
Assuming there is more to the story for Dell, they could have used this opportunity to lay out a clear plan of what they are doing internally, not only that they are giving consumers a chance to spend more to offset the environmental impact of their purchase. Coming at this with a critical eye, it’s similar to if an auto company looking to sell more SUVs says, “hey, we’re not doing anything to make our SUVs more efficient, but don’t worry, you can buy a carbon credit and that will be enough to clear your conscious and then we (auto company) don’t actually have to do anything on our end to improve.” To give them credit, Dell does mention an energy calculator for consumers but I just typed it in on their home page and nothing relevant popped up in the first search results.
My point – Dell must have more to their green story and they could have spelled it out in a few bullets. Is Dell changing the amount and type of material used in production and packaging, do they have a consumer awareness program educating the public about ways to save money and energy using a Dell PC, are they increasing X percent of R&D for energy efficient design, have they developed any breakthroughs that serve as a best practice for the industry? Consumers would probably like to know this stuff, and after following the lead of GE Ecoimagination and now companies like Wal-Mart, investors may also respond well to a computer companies green roadmap.
Maybe the problem is that everyone is so quick to jump on any big company when they come out with a green story. It’s never enough for a lot of people. Instead of rewarding them, we bring out our critical eyes. As I just did. Incremental progress is progress. More trees are great. And a company the size of Dell can probably plant a whole lot of trees. But we need to be tough on people so that the improvements get bigger. Leaders recognize accomplishments while continuing to push people to their potential. Maybe that’s where we are. Recognize, reward and keep pushing.
The PR side of this. If you have a story, be honest and tell the whole story (or as much as you can recognizing the needs of your shareholders). Here’s where we are, here’s where we can improve and here’s where we’re going. People are going to be critical. Don’t leave gaps for questions. Considering Dell had less than half of a page for this, he did a good job. But I still have questions.
I was just checking out Martin LaMonica’s blog at CNET and it looks like the 2006 clean tech numbers came out from the Cleantech Venture Network. $2.6b invested in clean technologies; 78 percent increase over 2005. Even better, Martin references a recent study by the National Venture Capital Association showing that VCs plan to maintain investment levels in “hot” sectors such as energy and the Internet in 2007.
Lots of money. Lots of startups. Lots of VCs building their clean credentials. Let’s hope the path to commercialization is fast and successful.
We’ve hit it big. Reality TV has gone green. This sounds like fun and I’m not even a fan of reality shows (although my cousin didn’t do too bad on the first Amaging Race so I had to be a supporter of that).
Check out the write-up for HDTV’s newest show, Living with Ed:
TV and movie actor Ed Begley, perhaps the greenest man in Tinsel Town, rides his electric car to the Academy Awards and powers his home with the sun and his stationary bike. But Living with Ed and his environmentalist passion isn’t always a walk in the park for wife, Rachelle. This first-of-its-kind reality green show chronicles life with an earth-friendly fanatic with humor and heart. Check out this fresh unscripted docu-soap about the lifestyle of a diehard activist who puts his money and his time where his mouth is 24/7. Definitely not recycled TV.
A fun show with a sustainable message. I’m looking forward to watching. The PR opportunity? Green product placement goes mainstream, maybe? You can only imagine all of the things Ed Begley Jr. will test out. You’ve got a product or idea that can make a difference. Tell Ed! Maybe he’s listening.
Living in San Francisco, plenty of days are filled with news of increased venture funding for clean tech companies and products. And rightfully so. VC funding in North American clean tech companies in Q3 2006 hit $934 million according to the Cleantech Venture Network.
Luckily there’s good reminders, such as Kevin Bullis’ recent article in Technology Review, Alternative-Energy Spending Fizzles Out, showing that there’s another side to the story. Or we can look back at the success (or lack of) with Prop 87. Highlights from Bullis:
Although Bush proposed a fiscal-year 2007 budget that would have increased funding for some renewable-energy resources, including solar and biomass, as well as for research into hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, the budget was not passed. Instead, Congress passed a stop-gap continuing resolution that will keep the budget at 2006 levels, which, because of inflation, amounts to a cut in funding, and it specifically decreases funding in some cases.
“We’ve lulled ourselves into thinking we’re the leading country in renewable-energy technology because we were the early leader,” Eckhart says. “But we’ve gotten old, and soft, and underfunded. We are simply not competitive in the world market anymore.” Indeed, he says that countries like Germany, Japan, China, and India are now the primary manufacturers of technologies that were originally developed with U.S. funding. “Of the largest ten wind-turbine manufacturers, the only U.S. company is GE,” Eckhart says. “Nine of the ten are non-U.S. companies. Of the largest ten solar-cell manufacturers in the world, none are U.S. companies.”
Perhaps more important in the short term than funding energy research is changing government policy, say some experts. Technology exists today that can reduce emissions from power plants and cut petroleum use, but it is not being put to use. If a price were put on carbon emissions, Moniz says, “that would be a huge influence almost immediately in terms of what existing technologies industry deploys.”
Can venture investing, research organizations and private sector innovation take clean tech where it needs to go if things don’t change at the federal level?
The December 2006 issue of the The McKinsey Quarterly Chart Focus Newsletter provides a good look at the full circle approach required for companies to successfully improve in the area of social responsibility.
“Eighty-four percent of the executives from around the world who participated in a McKinsey survey agreed that their companies should pursue not only shareholder value but also broader contributions to the public good. Most acknowledged that their companies could handle sociopolitical issues more successfully, as well. To improve, a company should identify emerging trends and develop coherent organization-wide responses—an approach that requires it to integrate social issues into all dimensions of the business, not just the making of strategy…If companies don’t adopt that approach they run the risk of misalignment—a CEO saying one thing, the rest of the company failing to translate those good intentions into practical action. A company whose external-communications strategy emphasizes the search for more environmentally friendly products and processes, for example, will stumble if it simultaneously fights limits on carbon dioxide emissions.”
PR lesson: as is true in all industries, but especially when dealing with social and clean tech issues, a story doesn’t go too far if it’s only a story. “Spin” and chasing hype will get you to first base. A company that is aligned and has an executive team that believes in what they’re doing, socially and fiscally, will bring you home, or at least to third.
For more on how companies should manage sociopolitical issues—and can benefit if they do, “When social issues become strategic.” Or check out what executives think about the way companies handle social issues now, “The McKinsey Global Survey of Business Executives: Business and Society.”
As someone who enjoys a good conversation, the The art of conversation article in the December 23rd issue of The Economist was an enjoyable read. First, check out these rules to conversation published by Cicero in 44BC: speak clearly, speak easily but not too much, especially when others want their turn; do not interrupt; be courteous; deal seriously with serious matters and gracefully with lighter ones; never criticize people behind their backs; stick to subjects of general interest; do not talk about yourself; and above all, never lose your temper.
It’s a few thousand years later and I think people could use a refresher course in most of these. The Economist points out that Cicero left off two golden rules: remember people’s names, and be a good listener.
The article goes on to discuss the skills of some of the greatest conversationalists, the differences between eras and cultures, and the current state of conversation.
Charles Dickens commented that Americans seemed taciturn after visiting the US in the 19th century. According to the article, he “blamed this on a love of trade, which limited men’s interests and made them reluctant to volunteer information for fear of tipping their hand to a competitor.” It then references George Orwell’s complaint in 1946 that “in very English homes the radio is literally never turned off. This is done with a definite purpose. The music prevents the conversation from becoming serious or even coherent.”
All of this has clearly continued into today, and in many ways has gotten worse with TVs, PDAs, surfing the Internet. The art of conversation for many high school kids today is in two word exchanges over IM. Add blogs and social media into the mix and you’ve got a unique situation. People who would have been at the bottom of the list of great verbal conversationalists in traditional terms now have a voice. They can debate, educate, build relationships, and most importantly (going back to the main point of the article), derive enjoyment from the conversation. The art of verbal conversation is something that I hope will live forever. It’s been a site, though, watching blogs give people a chance to start a real conversation, so long as they have an audience to converse with.
To all those bloggers out there, make note of Cicero’s rules. They apply on the Web as well.
What’s this have to do with clean tech PR? The conversation in the industry has started and it’s buzzing in today’s hype cycle. Will 2007 be the year that businesses, PR people and the media educate the public with enough real substance to fuel and sustain the conversation? Right now there are only a few real leaders (conversationalists) doing this: think Al Gore, John Doerr, Vinod Khosla, Joel Makower. There’s room for a lot more.
My counterpart in Text 100′s clean tech group has a nice Q&A running on the PR Week homepage today. Jodi provides some interesting commentarty on the current climate for clean tech public relations. You’ll need a password to check it out.
An article in one of Forbes’ newsletters today by Will McClatchy of ETFZone describes how clean and green investing options have evolved significantly in recent years and highlights what we need to know about the two main approaches to social investing in the form of exchange-traded funds (ETFs). A lot of this isn’t new to people tracking the clean tech industry closely but it’s nice to see it summarized in one place for a mainstream investor audience. If you have a few dollars to spare and are looking for socially responsible investment options without the time commitment of individual stocks, one of these clean ETFs could be your answer.
Rather than give you another review of 2006, I’ll stick with a few good pieces by Joel Makower and Jennifer Kho, two people who followed the industry closely during the year.
Highlights from Jennifer’s article, Clean Energy’s Big Year, include:
- Renewed confidence in the industry, seen through the strong and growing investment from institutional and private investors
- Good year for IPOs; capital raised in clean-energy-related IPOs more than doubled, reaching $10.3 billion in 2006, up from $4.3 billion in 2005 and $0.7 billion in 2004
- Silicon shortages continued to weigh on the solar industry, but also led to technical innovations from companies looking to offer alternatives to traditional solar panels
- More ethanol plants drove increased production and ethanol startups saw green from the venture community
- Electric cars made a comeback
Joel digs through more than 500 articles to come up with a thorough list of the year’s Top Green Business Stories of 2006. He does an excellent job breaking down the year in a way that is easy to digest. Joel starts off with a nice summary,
While a couple of new issues or companies gained traction last year, 2006 did not offer any sea change in how companies are addressing environmental challenges. Rather, the year saw a continuation of existing trends: big companies moving in the right direction, but most having a long, long way to go.
Here’s to moving these companies further down the road in 2007. Time for me to have some drinks. Happy New Year!
- Moving to a new location
- Time Magazine: Michael Dell on green
- 2006 clean tech investment ends strong
- Living with Ed
- Clean Tech funding goes both directions
- McKinsey gets social
- Has conversation evolved?
- PR Week discusses clean tech with Text 100′s Jodi Olson
- Clean exchange-traded funds
- A good year for Clean Technology
- WorldChanging and communications
- It begins