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Administrator Johnson Says That Green Really Does Sell

Condensed Remarks

Remarks by
Martha N. Johnson
U.S. General Services Administration
Corporate Responsibility Officers Association Roundtable
Washington, DC
June 30, 2010

Talking about the corporate social responsibility angle is kind of a special moment for me. My career started at a company that had a corporate responsibility department formed in the late '60s; a very progressive and very much out-there company, to which I want to tip my hat. The company was Cummins Engine Company. They make diesel engines, and they are a very, very interesting case study in leadership.

Irwin Miller was the chairman of the board there and a very well-known industrialist in our society. He was also at one point the chair of the National Council of Churches; a real statesman, a real churchman; and he took that to heart. He did a number of things and one was to create a foundation which engaged in the local community in southern Indiana in some very significant ways. The main one which speaks to me at GSA 30 years later is they funded internationally-known architects to come in and design many of the public buildings in town. If you go to Columbus, Indiana you can see Saarinen, I. M. Pei, and see just extraordinary architecture; 30 or 40 buildings in town, including the jail, were designed by internationally-recognized architects.

The company itself moved into corporate responsibility. He read a story in the press about how carcinogenic particulates were causing cancer. It was early research back in the '70s. That very day, he closed down the test cells in our major engine manufacturing facility. These are the big diesel engines that power up all the major trucks on the road and the generators, and he shut down the test cells.

It was a very critical move to make because that was the pinch point for all production. He said, “I need to understand what we're doing because diesel engines are apparently creating particulates that cause cancer.” They quickly moved forward on a strategy by which they came to Washington, defied the Diesel Manufacturing Association's norms, and said, “we want to work with the Congress in creating legislation to deal with clean air.”

That was the kind of activism that I was exposed to early in my career, and it has really grown and spread and made some interesting turns and shifts. I was engaged in a couple of other steps in that evolution. Many of you have heard of Ben & Jerry's. I was at Ben & Jerry's for a while, and they have been sort of leaders in thinking about how you blend what you do with the social message that you try to send. In fact, they learned that branding and social message are kind of the same thing. This sparked a lot of activity, not the least of which was the early national group of CEOs and corporate presidents that took on some interesting techniques around CSR.

They were sort of the formulators of things like working asset Visa cards. And that was the early notion of a social network where if you use this Visa card, a couple of pennies off your fees and so on would go to particular efforts, rain forests or whatever. It was an interesting way of early on trying to figure out how you harness economic power in a kind of cooperative way to do things.

So we've got 30, 40, years of some very interesting corporate efforts and stories, and you should pay attention to them, because I think there was some creativity then that now could play a lot more, given the technical capacities that we have, the social networks and so on. But at the time, it was moving from being sort of a fringe-y thing to being something that people could engage in as they tried to figure out how to blend corporate responsibility in the corporate world.

So now, corporate social responsibility is, I think, being tremendously impacted by the sustainability agenda. I think that is probably going to swamp a lot of other things. But it is the one that the next generation, so to speak, is really impassioned about, and it is a place where I am getting very active in. Clearly, this is because the case for change is now front and center for people. I'd like to talk about the case for change, because that's what's motivating the shifts.

I worked at Computer Sciences Corporation [CSC]. CSC is interesting because it's a global company, and their corporate social responsibility in the United States was heavily influenced by the fact that the Australian government and the European governments are quite intense about sustainability and have set up laws and expectations, which are moving the corporation globally. This is an agenda item now because it is a strong pressure point from various governments around the world. So it's very interesting, because Australia is saying to the company that it cannot operate a certain way, and you have 8,000 company employees in Australia. The other 92,000 and the other interests and so on start having to wrestle with that internally.

This shows that no matter where you start, if you punch the system a little bit, the rest of the system starts to shift. I think that's an important tactic for us to understand. But the case for change in part is that it's happening worldwide, so we all need to move.

I think we're beginning to understand that green really does sell. We know people are certainly painting "organic" and "green" all over their logos and their brands, and they're advertising it because they understand that it is selling. But there is a case for change that it is now something the consumer is listening for a great deal.

There are also a lot of new markets. The sustainability market itself, people are assessing, creating products, and so on. The president is clearly putting both money on the table and an emphasis on the fact that this is the next war for us, so to speak. This is what's going to introduce a whole lot of new activity and innovation into our economy. I think we can begin to point to places where it's significantly happening. This new sustainable market is what will keep America the innovative leader it's traditionally been.

Green also gets you the best talent. The next generation is interested in joining companies and organizations that are focused on this, and I think that is also burgeoning. And I can tell you some stories about this from GSA’s perspective.

However, while the case for change is strong, the danger of green-washing is strong, too. I think we are at that point where corporations and companies and organizations are saying they're sustainable or organic, and there's now a backlash when they're not. The transparency expectations now are pushing organizations to actually have something behind their claims, and I think we're going to be seeing a lot more of that. But the whole notion that a corporation is just sort of painting itself green has got to be backed up. So that also is driving systemic change rather than just superficial change.

In fact, we have an interesting story at GSA. The logo for GSA is a blue box with "GSA" written in it and the "A" has a little star in the middle. We created this logo about 12 years ago. It's now kind of our “swoosh” statement. We've been playing around with this zero environmental footprint notion so I'm getting e-mails from people asking “Why don't we change the logo to green?” I'm like, no, no, no, no. We're not doing that. Although, I am toying with the idea –– and I don't know if I can get this past the lawyers –– but I would like to have a blue box with a green line at the bottom. We could have that green line grow as we perform better on the green dimension.

I think taking your statements and brands to the market in a way that's a very straight-up, this is what we're trying to do, is a much more legitimate way to pass that green-washing problem. It also has a lot of other side-effects. I think it would be awesome if the brand slowly turned into a green one that people could watch progress. And as a government agency, everybody has a stake in GSA. So that would be a community builder, if you will.

Now I’ll talk about the strategies for organizations. There is a case for change, and the strategy that organizations have to engage in if they're going to go down the sustainability route, however, is pretty significant and needs to be able to As we said, a touchstone –– why bother? Why bother doing it? And if you can't answer the question, don't start. Get the question answered first.

GSA is developing a pretty powerful case for change for sustainability, and it starts at the top. And that's not me; that's the president. I was at an event about two months ago at an Air Force base and they were showing off the Green Hornet, which is now running on biofuels. It's pretty interesting. The plane goes up, and so they had the people that are growing the fuels and processing the fuels and now flying the airplane with the fuels, and it was a really good green moment. The president got up to the podium and he said, “I have this great green team. It's the Department of Energy, it's the Council for Environmental Quality, and it's GSA.” I was like, oh, my goodness.

Anyway, the bottom line is that the president has understood in a new way that GSA is an asset to the government. It is not just an enforcer of rules, it's not just who you call for your air conditioning if you're in the government. It is an asset to the government, and he gets this. This is why I believe he is a significant and powerful example of an executive: He understands where his assets are and he knows how to call them out.

So we are part of the green team. Well, that's pretty interesting news for GSA, which has never been on the front pages about anything good. And so we are really excited to be positioned that way. But that leadership takes us to a new level. You have to start with leadership.

Also, of course, he issued an executive order on sustainability last October, and it has set some goals and some scopes that the agencies have to create plans around. There are three levels of scope, and they’re not all about recycling your Styrofoam. The president has set up the sustainability expectation that we are to look at and measure certain things, but they are impacted by what other citizens are doing. Every agency has pretty strong standards they're going to meet. Those plans are at the White House right now under review and we're going to get them back shortly. But basically, his leadership and his expectations, measures, accountability efforts, some of those words, that's what we're starting.

Sustainability really fits GSA's strategic positioning. Now, who would have thought GSA had a strategic position? Well, we do. We are a really interesting organization because we're kind of in the business side of government, and we are more sort of market-minded, if you will. So it's important to think about our strategic positioning, and you can think about it in many ways in almost business terms.

But our external market requires us to pay attention to sustainability. We touch about $90 billion in government spending. Some of that's the charge cards we handle, some of it's the direct buys that we do for the buildings that we want to maintain. But we touch a huge amount of government consumption. When you think of that river of consumption, who better to start interrupting that with sustainability notions than us? We're strategically positioned to do that. So in the marketplace we are engaged with the entire government in how it works.

GSA, by the way, is an organization –– and I don't know of another organization like this –– that touches every part of government. Our largest client is the Defense Department. Our second largest client is the judiciary. We cross all three branches of federal government. We serve congressmen, senators. We serve the judiciary. The largest building program since the New Deal is the courthouse renovation and building program that we are in the middle of; we're about 75 percent through. In the '90s we were opening a new courthouse every month; huge, huge activity in the judiciary. So: executive, judiciary, legislative.

State and local can buy off our schedules in certain places. We have a lot of activity that deals out in the region, and so that's an important component. We deal with former presidents, people who have left government, and we also deal internationally. I was just at a bilateral meeting up in Canada for Canadian products that are on our schedules. We have impact across government unlike anyone else, which means again not just a river of consumption, but the touchpoints that we have in the market mean we have a unique and direct channel to help everyone.

We are also experts. We have huge expertise. We have huge green expertise. GSA is no longer a regulator. We are no longer an enforcer. That disappeared in the '90s. We're still shifting to being more market-sensitive. Not only can we offer expertise in energy but we also have expertise in green buildings. So we need to offer that, and that gives us more strategic positioning. It boosts our brand. We are in a competition. The government buyer can go elsewhere or they can come to GSA. But if they think that they are getting more clarity about what is sustainable, that's us. So we need to position ourselves that way.

So GSA's position to have impact on sustainability like no one else, it also internally helps us a lot. It's a real problem for every organization that has silos, you have to find another way to pull everyone together, and sustainability is it for us. It allows us to function in a very enterprising and innovative way.

It also overlaps a lot of other expectations the president has laid on us; not the least of which is the Recovery Act. He handed us $5.5 billion, mostly to spend on projects that would green the federal inventory and the fleet. So we already have resources as well.

Okay. So the president's expecting it. Now, the big, exciting thing in the last two months is that the leadership of GSA has embraced it. This is very important in any kind of a social responsibility process. You've got to have the leadership on call. So what we did was we took a field trip and I said, “I would like this organization to go toward zero environmental footprint.” I got to lay that out to the organization. And it's a big, hairy, audacious goal. It's a BHAG. The notion of zero environmental footprint is like the moon shot. You don't know where it is, you don't know how to get there, but you need to put it out there so that the whole organization goes in one direction. It's the big magnet in the sky. And it will invite innovation you don't even know you had.

If Kennedy had said, “Let's go outside the gravitational pull of the earth,” we would have managed to maybe get a couple of rockets up and go around the earth. We would not have gotten to the moon. It is about setting these huge expectations. Government is positioned to do this. We should do this. It is quite unique to put these big significant organizational goals out in front, especially with the positioning we have.

Now, I want to say that ever since we've declared zero environmental footprint as our goal, our hiring process has been swamped. For every single job we are posting now, we get dozens of applications. That talent thing is no joke. We are also getting senior executives from around government who are going to their management and saying, “Detail me for six months to GSA. I want to see what's going on up there.” I mean, this is GSA, right?

So having a big goal, having a leadership team that's enthusiastic and consistently talking about it does do a tremendous amount for your talent base. We're lucky to be in the position where we need to hire a lot of people, and this is fabulous for us.

We are now filing our sustainability plan with the White House so you can actually see measures against all this lofty stuff. I want to talk about collaboration for a minute, because this requires significant collaboration. It requires involvement, engagement, and collaboration. So I'm going to give you a little extra on open government because this folds right in.

The open government directive from the president was about transparency, and the second piece, participation. The third is collaboration. The participation piece we've got. This is social media. This is what happened in the campaign. It is Web 2.0. Participation allows everything to have a part of the conversation: Blog, comment, throw out ideas. It's all out there, the big bulletin board in the sky. It's a huge divergent event. We are in the process of everybody talking. It is obvious that they needed to talk. So we just get online and talk and talk and talk.

And then, in that model is the Google frame, which is when you look at all that mass of stuff on the bulletin board and you decide what is the most popular. We vote on those things. That's what these social media tools allow you to do. You can put in preferences and you can vote. And you can sort of surround the one that everybody goes to the most. That's the Google model. Or you can vote and actually put up rankings. That is so critical, and it's a whole important thing that we do to gather the wisdom of the crowds and apply it in certain ways. But it is only that. It is limited to that.

It is when you move to collaboration that you have a different thing going on. We don't know how to do this yet very well. There are not a lot of tools out there, and I would welcome hearing about any that are. But collaboration is not just opening up and having everybody talk. It's about saying, this is a problem, converge on a solution. It's a Wikipedia notion where you're converging on something because you're gathering in the best thinking. But there are review processes and there are sifting processes and there are ways in which stuff is thrown out, stuff is pushed in and moved around. And there's some governance and cultural ideas that hold in that kind of an event.

So when we are doing sustainability work, it's one thing to go out and ask, “Do you like sustainability?” And everybody goes, “Yes, of course.” They all talk about recycling their Styrofoam. But what we really want are converging events where we can ask how are we going to solve XYZ problem? How are we going to get this chemical out of the product? How are we going to find this kind of flexibility in a certain kind of market? You need to identify particular problems in the sustainability world, and we need to converge on them. So there are two things going on here and this is the frontier. Find better ways and practice and engage in finding it and maturing ourselves so that we can have those kinds of discussions and arrive at solutions.

We're trying to do that at GSA. We are definitely in Detroit in the 1900s, where we didn't know what the car was going to look like. Everybody had different kinds of engines, everybody had different kinds of camshafts. That's where we are now with this. And it's kind of a scramble; it's kind of messy. But it's a creative moment. Have a lot of fun with this. Figure this out. Pay attention to those kinds of events going on in terms of our technology and how we can move our culture to having more problem-solving discussions.

Those techniques will allow us to have better partnerships and genuine shared expertise. I think it's important for government, it's important for industry, and it's the way we can find a lot of overlap.

At GSA, we’re changing the whole performance planning process so that senior executives have sustainability goals. We're also changing our language. I think you have to change your language. You have to change everything. And now, we need to go out and practice and try.

The lesson of sustainability CSR is that with leadership and strategies, with language changes, with measurements, with good collaboration, we can perform. But you can't do it one-dimensionally, and I think there are ways in which if we're all pushing on all of those pieces, we'll be moving forward. Remember, we're standing by the ocean, the waves are coming in, and the foam is kind of tickling our toes. This is early. We are really early in this, and there's a lot to learn. Trying to control it right now is the wrong approach. We need to kind of create order, share stories, good brainstorms, but understand that a whole lot's going to happen in the next five, six, seven years to sort of lock us in. Now is the moment to feel that freedom and that creativity and that ability to affect it.

Last Reviewed: 2017-08-13