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Johnson Says GSA Committed to Zero Environmental Footprint

As prepared for delivery

Remarks by
Martha N. Johnson
U.S. General Services Administration
Potomac Officers Club
Tysons Corner, VA
June 2, 2010

I'm so glad to be here. So many of you I have worked with; I know from other lives. It's really sort of a reunion for me. I'm delighted to be here, and I'm delighted to spend some time telling you about what GSA is up to and how you might reframe GSA for your purchases going forward, as well.

When I entered government, I was an intern back in the good ole days right after we put a man on the moon. NASA put a man on the moon and returned him safely to Earth. And it was a really remarkable time for our science, our technology, and our economy as a result of what NASA had done. At that point, we were experiencing a real boost as a result of NASA's work.

When I re-entered government in the 1990s, the same thing was happening. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency had obviously pioneered a tremendous amount of innovation, including the Internet and Global Positioning System, both of which gave us a huge science, technology, and economic boost. And so it is fascinating to me that as I enter government again, the president has put another challenge in front of this government –– it is work in which we will share and intimately work together with industry, academia, scientists, and technologists on, and that, of course, is the sustainability agenda.

So I'm going to talk mostly about that because it has turned into a very important agenda for GSA, and I want you to understand how that has unfolded for us. I want to bring the president's words to this room because it is framing what we are thinking about and acting on at GSA.

The president says, "Countries on every corner of this Earth now recognize that energy supplies are growing scarcer; energy demands are growing larger; and rising energy use imperils the planet we will leave to future generations. And that's why the world is now engaged in a peaceful competition to determine the technologies that will power the 21st century." He ends by saying, "The nation that wins this competition will be the nation that leads the global economy. I'm convinced of that. And I want America to be that nation."

Last October, he issued an executive order. It is Executive Order 13514. "As the largest consumer of energy in the U.S. economy, the federal government can and should lead by example when it comes to creating innovative ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase energy efficiency, conserve water, reduce waste, and use environmentally responsible products and technologies."

I take you through that because that is the overriding, overarching directive that we have received from the president. He is spinning out a number of ways, and that is where our story begins.

So why should GSA step in on this, aside from being told to? You know, the justification for change can always just be, "The president said so." But really, why are we particularly embracing this, and why is this of deep significance to GSA? We heard some of the numbers earlier. The government handles half a billion buildings, 600,000 vehicles, and over $500 billion in goods and services and systems.

GSA is a significant portion of that. And it's important because it's on the consumer side. And, therefore, how we engage in the market is how many consumers in the economy engage us. We own and manage and lease 350 million square feet of space. We handle about a third of the vehicle fleet. And we oversee about $66 billion of the annual procurement; again, largely, almost predominantly consumer. Therefore, we are, in essence, the storefront. GSA is remarkable in the number of goods and services that it carries on the [multiple award] schedules in its various contracts. So we are the biggest storefront, if you will.

But that's not the only reason. In the executive order, there was also a clear directive, and I'll read it: "Leverage agency acquisitions to foster markets for sustainable technologies and environmentally preferable materials, products, and services."

Every agency was charged with this, and GSA serves everyone. It's actually remarkable to come to GSA and look at the customer list. It is all the executive agencies. It is the judiciary. Our largest public buildings client is the judiciary because of our extensive courthouse programs. We also, of course, serve the legislative branch. We take care of all those congress people as they go home to their offices and districts, and worry about their space and their heating and their air conditioning.

And we serve state and local. When I was at GSA in the '90s, there was very little work being done at the state and local level. We now have a much broader authority to supply technology to schools, to supply state and local entities in times of disaster and security pulses. So our clients are growing in the state and local ranks.

We also interact internationally. There are over 500 products on our schedules that are Canadian. Next week, I go for a bilateral [meeting] to Canada. And we serve former presidents. We take care of their office needs and their payrolls and all of that. So I think about GSA as kind of a membrane between industry and government –– and I do think of it that way –– it is all of government. And it is not as if I can say, "Gee, we'll sort of work that market angle or that product angle." It's sort of everything for everybody, which presents an enormous challenge to an MBA like me.

Therefore, since we are between –– we are the storefront and we're facing industry and government in this huge way — we have a particularly important and strategic positioning with respect to sustainability. And so I'd like to talk about GSA's BHAG. And if you don't know what a BHAG is, you’ve got to go read "Good to Great." It is a "big, hairy, audacious goal." I think that GSA has been waiting for a uniting and galvanizing BHAG, and so I have decided we would adopt one. And it is, of course, zero environmental footprint.

Zero environmental footprint is a huge goal. It is really this generation's moon shot. If we think about moving ourselves away from having impact of our environment, moving the government away from having impact on the environment, you can only begin to scratch the surface of what that's going to mean in terms of science, technology, human activity, economic change. We call it ZEF. It's the ZEF BHAG. How's that for jargon? And it is interesting in how it's already hitting GSA, and that's the story I want to take you through.

But let me say that I am deadly serious about this. We are aiming for a zero environmental footprint, which is not about minimizing our footprint. It's about eliminating it. And I am structuring it that way because if President Kennedy had said to the nation, "We want to take a person and put them outside the gravitational pull of the earth, or we want to put a person in a capsule and run them around the Earth" –– if the moon shot had not been articulated as it was, we would not have gotten to the moon very fast. We would not have had programs called Mercury and Apollo. We would not have been pulled to another level of performance and challenge. And when you think about what we have to do in this economy and this next revolution we need to go through, it has to be that kind of huge goal. It means something to our children, too. So I'll get into all of that. Fundamentally, GSA has decided this is the BHAG we're taking on, and we are off and running. So that's a look at the story I'm going to tell you.

The first thing to be very clear about when you're going into something like this is that it's very chaotic. Nobody really knows what to do. There's a lot of scrambling around. There's a lot of innovation going on. I think of it as we would think of Detroit in 1900, when there were dozens of engine plants and many chassis plants and a lot of people thinking about head lamps and all the various businesses that were trying to figure out how to do this car thing. And there was a tremendous amount of innovation, investment, trial, failure until it began to take shape. I think we are in 1900 Detroit, if you will. And I suggest that because the first question everybody has is, "Well, how are you going to do it?" Well, yeah, how are we going to do it? And it is about watching this shake out and being intentional about it and harvesting lessons as we go through this period.

So at GSA, we have started down this path. And as I said a couple of times in the reception, I've been at GSA 116 days. At 120, I can start moving senior executives around, so that's why I'm counting; which of course, freaks out GSA because they understand GSA.

So we're fresh out of the box here. And of course, the first couple of days I wasn't really there because there was a snowstorm, and I was sitting in my home. But I have been at GSA long enough now to know that we need to be thorough in where we are going, we need to do it fast, and we need to get on with it.

The first thing you have to do when you're doing this, besides declare it, is then back it up. So the first thing we worked on, and we are working on, is leadership alignment. Leadership alignment means that you've got to get the whole team behind you.

How do we do this? We started off last week, and I'm going to tell the story now because it was such a great week. I took the Top 200 members of the leadership team at GSA to Georgia, to western Georgia –– to the carpet belt of western Georgia, if you know western Georgia. And we visited InterfaceFLOR. It's a carpet company, and you probably have heard of it if you're in any of the sustainability world. In 1994, they declared they were going to be a zero environmental footprint company by 2020, and they have merrily been going forward on that BHAG for themselves.

We went there, and I could take the whole time just telling you about that field trip. But first of all, it is a wonderful thing to take people on field trips because in one day you have everybody talking about a different vision. They just see it differently. We did this when I was in the automotive business, when we were trying to figure out what to do with our diesel engine manufacturing facility. We all got in an airplane, went to Nebraska, and visited the Kawasaki jet ski plant to see what just-in-time looked like. And in one day, we changed our whole mentality and our whole approach and our whole vision. So I'm a big believer in go-and-see-it. I also believe that business schools have it right. You go to business school in order to study cases, examples, and you go deep into them and you tear them apart; you figure out what works, what didn't work. And you need to do this over and over with the management team.

And so we went to Georgia, and we visited InterfaceFLOR. And what did we learn? Well, we visited two plants: a recycling center and their design facility. And the two plants were making carpets –– this is the company that pioneered carpet squares. Their first notion around recycling was, "Well, why recycle the whole carpet when you can recycle a square?" So they changed their product, and then they figured their financing model, and they realized that really people should lease carpet. They didn't want anybody to own it because they then needed to get it back because they needed to recycle it. They took a semi up to Cornell University and parked outside the dorms and said at the end of the year, "Put your junk carpet in our trunk because we consider it food. Your waste is our food. So give it to us." And they took it back and recycled it, and Cornell has been buying InterfaceFLOR carpet ever since, of course.

But they took on this notion of zero environmental footprint from their financing model to their product model to their sales model to their supplier model. Everything changed for them. We saw looms that were powered by the methane they were getting off the local landfill. We saw employees putting duct tape on boxes so that they can use them again, shipping around skeins of thread. It was just a tremendous story in leadership and change. We also learned about carpet. It really allowed us as a leadership team to figure out how to all come together around this notion because we had seen it done.

Now, one of the stories that they told us was that in the first year after their president declared zero environmental footprint, all the executive team left except one; he's now the president and CEO. So it does challenge your leadership, and you need to come to grips with whether you're all on board and whether you want to be there. So leadership alignment was the first thing we did.

And then we also decided we needed to do something about our core thinking. We read the book "Cradle to Cradle," Bill McDonough's book. And this is one of the great green manifestos. I'm not trying to hawk the book, but I do think it did for us what we needed, which was it challenged us to some very different thinking about how you take an organization forward on this. He makes the distinction between eco-efficiency and eco-effectiveness. Let's not just recycle; let's actually figure out how we can be returned to the natural environment, and he does a lot of chemistry around it.

But his notions in "Cradle to Cradle" involve closed-loop systems — not value chains, value circles. And that's a profound idea for us because GSA has it all. We have a big design group. We do a lot of very interesting designs for buildings. We have been working the design excellence issue for 20 years trying to recover from our cinder block federal buildings of the 1970s. Design is important to us, and we have a huge tradition of design excellence. At the same time, we have departments devoted to disposal –– real property disposal and personal property disposal.

So the question gets asked when you think cradle to cradle: Why aren't our design and disposal departments talking to each other? Are we designing so that we are disposing off the other end of the pier, or are we designing a closed-loop system? So our thinking was galvanized by this particular manifesto, and I think that's one that we're going to be taking to heart.

We also have to change our approach to risk, and we're already articulating that a lot and telling people that it's okay to try some things out. Bob Peck in our buildings program particularly talks about how we can be a proving ground; we can try things out. How is this? Well, GSA has buildings in every congressional district, obviously. GSA, therefore, is in every altitude in the country, is in every climate in the country. So if you have buildings in those environments, why don't you try the solar panels and see how they work in every environment? We are a place where we can prove products and services, and we need to be aggressively working that way.

GSA is also already engaged in a whole new way of communicating. And we twittered, and we blogged from our trip to Georgia, and we're doing video. We're trying very hard to be sure that we are sharing as instantaneously as possible what we are talking about. But I'm already receiving e-mails from all over GSA about that trip to Georgia because they all know we went on it. And it's heartwarming to know that there are so many eyes on us because everybody wants to figure this out. So we're using a lot of the fun stuff around communications these days. I'll talk about that a little bit more later.

Also, we are changing our language. The way I can tell an organization has changed its culture is that our language changes. And so in 116 days, I'm beginning to hear some of it back. This is just a couple of silly examples, but we are already talking about slams. It's our own name; it's not an acronym. It's what you do when you bring a whole bunch of people together in a room that need to solve a problem; block the door and say, "Get it done, and don't come out until it's done." We did this with our CIO [Chief Information Office] in terms of galvanizing our IT modernization plant, and it's happening. They set up the plan, and they're going to be done with some major milestones by the Fourth of July because they had that slam. We believe in failing fast, failing forward, and failing fruitfully. That's one of the lines we use.

One of the things that's very important to us is that the president has figured out we're an asset. This is a whole new day for GSA. GSA is usually kind of forgotten about. It's considered a government services administration –– get the name wrong. But we are on the front lines of the president's agenda, and that is also impacting how we think about ourselves and how our language is about ourselves.

And finally, I think I can say in terms of what ZEF is doing for us is, I give speeches on this, and afterwards people come up and say, "I really want to work for GSA." Now, I was in GSA for five and a half years, and I did not hear that very often in the '90s. So our idea is to become the cool place to work. So guys and gals, I'm after the talent. You heard it here. I think we're going to have a lot of fun with that, too. We're really getting some marvelous new young people, and it's becoming kind of a cool place to work.

Now, zero environmental footprint we've already been going. The Recovery Act gave us $5.5 billion, and a substantial portion of that was to green our inventory. Our inventory is already much more efficient than the industry standard. And we have hundreds of projects, hundreds of buildings throughout this country that we're able to take forward with Recovery Act money. So we are learning as we go.

We are also greening the vehicle fleet. Lots of good stories there about how we are playing around with electric cars and alternative fuel vehicles and Priuses, and trying to figure out how we can reduce the government's dependency on oil and find ways to be more efficient with our vehicle fleet.

But I'm really here not just to talk and go on forever. What I'm here to do is talk about our shared agenda, and our partnership and relationship. GSA will not be able to do any of this if we are not linked to industry in a productive, open, and exciting, and interesting way. I'd like to share a few ideas about what that looks like from my point of view.

First of all, as the president said, the environmental agenda is about a green economy. And I can't even begin to calibrate how big a statement that is. If you think about going to a zero environmental footprint, just begin to consider what that means for innovation, investment, new jobs, new skills, new talent. I think that the shared work ahead is to be in close collaboration in terms of developing the skills of the work force, and, therefore, creating jobs. We've got some good boosts from stimulus, from things like the Recovery Act. But if we're aggressive on this agenda, that will allow you also to be aggressive, and I think it will move us to an entirely different green work force.

We also are in the process, of course, of needing to green our supplies, our products, and our services. I don't know what that means, really, and I'll tell you why. It's because we don't have agreement on what "green" means. And let me tell you, it is not greenwashing that I'm after. I'm after real green, real sustainability. And, therefore, we need to figure out what those technologies and systems and processes are. And it's innovation, but it's innovation to standards. And those standards are evolving. And we're going to need to be really clear with each other when we're just sort of blowing smoke and when we really have learned and moved the agenda forward on decreasing energy use.

Part of the work that is happening on that front from our point of view is that our sustainability plans are due in to the White House tonight at 5. In fact, I have it here. And the sustainability plan that's going in is going in from, I think, 48 other organizations. This is serious stuff. And I don't know how much of this you've been following, but we are sending in an almost 100-page plan –– and that's not something to be proud about ––a significant plan with serious commentary about greenhouse gas emissions, high-performance green buildings and sustainable design, regional and local planning — because it's where you put the buildings, as well as what the buildings are — water use efficiency and management, pollution prevention and waste elimination, sustainable acquisition, and electronic stewardship at data centers. This is a very aggressive plan, and we are one of the agencies; we are also obviously a catalyst for the other agencies and their ability to do this. I would advise you to be informed about those plans. They're obviously going to go into a comment period; they'll be released in a bit. But they are serious and detailed.

And a really wonderful story at GSA is one of the major authors of our plans –– we had a bunch of green experts on staff, green authors. But one of the critical authors was our budget director — not because he's our budget director. It's because he cares about green so much he has been working around the clock on this. Green excites the talent.

We also have shared work ahead. And this is about this closed-loop mentality. We need to be much more interwoven in terms of our innovation and our disposal through the whole cycle of usage of products and services. It's a little bit mind-boggling to think about. But our policy structure is a tremendous lever that we have, and we need you to help us be informed about how to move that lever. How do we move forward so that we are guaranteeing that the products and services that the federal consumer buys are green?

Let me talk about it this way. If you buy a product off of the schedules now, you know it is safe. There are very few companies out there that are trying to sell products that will blow up on you. Safety is one of those born values now. It is embedded in the products and services that we offer. In the same way, we need to be moving to a place that everything that is purchased off the schedules is green; has a sustainability story to it. How we get there and what that means and how we measure it is the shared work we need to do in closing that loop. And I like to think about it as, right now you go to the schedules and you see little tags on it that tell you to move to the green aisle. Fundamentally, the entire schedule should be green, and the default is green, not that you have to go and find it. We need to flip our mentality about that. What you offer us and how we offer it into the government will help us move more quickly into the notion of green as the default, not as the special aisle.

I mentioned it earlier, but our work ahead –– our shared work — is to come to terms with the issue of how we measure and know if something is sustainable. There are many standards out there. There are many conversations in this business. GSA for 50 years was the lowest-price option. Then GSA was rightfully changed by the Clinger-Cohen legislation, and we needed to learn how not to just get the lowest price, but the best value. Now, we need to look for the best value, and that means the green value.

But underneath this is something that GSA needs to own and be very intentional about: We make markets. We don't just set prices; we make markets. That is a huge responsibility, and it is because of our size, not because of our mandate.; It's just because of our sheer size. I need to know, and GSA needs to know, how to exercise that responsibly with respect to the sustainability agenda because there are so many new products and services coming on. If we nod towards one, and it is not an appropriate one, we need to know. We need to have that discussion. We need to be very open and transparent between industry and government so that we are steering our scarce resources and innovation in a way that makes sense for all us and genuinely moves us toward zero environmental footprint.

We also need to share our stories. And Wal-Mart's the great story –– I talk about Wal-Mart because Wal-Mart went to InterfaceFLOR. When they went to InterfaceFLOR, they took about 10 or 12 people. We went with 200. So they were sort of like absorbing us and telling us about Wal-Mart coming with only 12. But Wal-Mart has done a tremendous amount of work on their packaging, on their disposal work. They have also made some big moves, stocking the shelves with organic products, organic foods. And they're working on their fleet themselves. So they understand the business about making markets, as we well know, and we need to be watching big players like that and understanding what they're doing and borrowing the best lessons.

I also love this story, the story of UPS, which engaged in a very significant technology. They engaged in a new technology with respect to their trucks, and they took 28.5 million –– million –– miles off their odometers, saving at least 3 million gallons of gas, etc. How did they do that? They mandated that their drivers not take left turns. There is a lot that we can learn. When you think of 200,000 vehicles on the road and some simple driving tips like that, we've got to be really collaborating.

Which brings me to my next plea to you. This world is now a world in which we need to learn about collaboration in a whole new way. I've spoken about this a great deal, but let me back up. We are, of course, in a revolution. Anybody who has kids knows that Web 2.0 is the name of the game. Everybody is out there doing social networking and blogging and talking and twittering. And the electronic walls of this room are covered with everybody's comments and ideas. That is participation. That is not collaboration. And I want to make that distinction. It's very important, because we are in the middle of the Google mentality.

The Google mentality is that the top-line item is the most popular. It is not necessarily the best solution or the most innovative. It is the most popular. Our way of using technologies steers us towards participation and voting popularity. In order to solve these technology and sustainability issues, we need to collaborate in a completely different way. What we need to be doing is collaborating and converging on solutions.

We need the tools, we need the consultants, we need the expertise, and we need the experience of doing this. And I know this is a little bit of my being a recovered culture executive at CSC [Computer Sciences Corporation]. I got to play with this at CSC, and I learned how edgy this is. This is new, and this is hard, and it crosses a line for many of us because we want just to find a tool, and this is about understanding collaboration and then finding a tool that works. I beg you to get good at this so that we can get better at this. It will help us have conversations with you. It will help us find solutions, not just talk and vote and find the next prom queen. I want real answers, and I think that we can have just the edge of grabbing technologies and event management that could allow us to solve these problems together. So that is one very specific thing I'm putting out to you.

I am asked, "Martha, are you greenwashing? Will we get there?" And I can only say, as I've already said, we have to try. But I don't think the right question is, “Will we get there?” The question is, “Can we get there?” And the answer, of course, is “yes, we can.” I am very serious when I say the United States is about the great next collaboration exercise. We have the diversity. We have the skills. We have the openness in order to figure out how to do this collaboration and come up with solutions.

And I like to use the picture of the Statue of Liberty because it represents that real intention around collaboration that we have, but it's also because it's 100 percent wind-powered; very important for you to know that.

And I close in simply saying the zero environmental footprint goal for GSA and for the government is not a moon shot. It's an Earth shot. We are trying to return our Earth to ourselves, and we are trying to galvanize the next generation in helping us do that.

*Modified Sept. 27, 2010, to correct quote.

Last Reviewed: 2017-08-13