Profits should come not from creating the world’s problems but from solving them. Companies must ask themselves: Is the world better off because your business is in it? These are just a few of the urgent and inspiring lessons offered by the globally renowned sustainable business author and advisor Andrew Winston in his recent book, “Net Positive: Courageous Companies Thrive by Giving More Than They Take,” co-authored with Paul Polman, the visionary former CEO of Unilever. In this episode, host Gil Jenkins speaks with Andrew about the principles and practices of net positive companies that are outlined elegantly and colorfully in his seminal new book. Gil and Andrew talked at length about the growth of clean energy and sustainable businesses, what ultimately convinced Andrew to write his fourth book on the subject, and what makes his co-author’s journey so compelling and instructive for others. They also discussed the Golden Rule, why corporate climate advocacy is so important, the failure of shareholder primacy, and a whole lot more. We hope you enjoy this spirited conversation on how businesses can prosper while also helping to confront the massive dual challenges of climate change and rampant inequality.
Profits should come not from creating the world’s problems but from solving them. Companies must ask themselves: Is the world better off because your business is in it? These are just a few of the urgent and inspiring lessons offered by the globally renowned sustainable business author and advisor Andrew Winston in his recent book, “Net Positive: Courageous Companies Thrive by Giving More Than They Take,” co-authored with Paul Polman, the visionary former CEO of Unilever.
In this episode, host Gil Jenkins speaks with Andrew about the principles and practices of net positive companies that are outlined elegantly and colorfully in his seminal new book. Gil and Andrew talked at length about the growth of clean energy and sustainable businesses, what ultimately convinced Andrew to write his fourth book on the subject, and what makes his co-author’s journey so compelling and instructive for others. They also discussed the Golden Rule, why corporate climate advocacy is so important, the failure of shareholder primacy, and a whole lot more. We hope you enjoy this spirited conversation on how businesses can prosper while also helping to confront the massive dual challenges of climate change and rampant inequality.
Book: Net Positive
Andrew on Twitter
Andrew on LinkedIn
Article: Sustainable Business Went Mainstream in 2021 (Andrew Winston, December 27, 2021)
Article: Companies Must Find the Courage to Back Up Statements on Climate Action (Andrew Winston and Paul Polman, September 7, 2021)
Episode recorded: December 15, 2021
Andrew Winston: You start to think about what could this sector look like? Again, it's not philanthropic, it's building a thriving world. How else are we going to thrive as business if we keep drawing down on our natural and human capital? How good is that going to be for business in the long run?
Chad Reed: Welcome to Climate Positive, a podcast produced by Hannon Armstrong, a leading investor in climate solutions. I'm Chad Reed.
Hilary Langer: I’m Hilary Langer.
Gil Jenkins: I’m Gil Jenkins.
Chad: In this series, we host candid conversations with the leaders, innovators, and changemakers driving our climate positive future.
Gil: Profits should come not from creating the world’s problem’s but from solving them. Companies must ask themselves: Is the world better off because your business is in it?
This is the urgent and clear frame offered by globally renowed sustainable business author and advisor Andrew Winston in his recent book, “Net Positive,” co-authored with Paul Polman, the visionary former CEO of Unilever.
In this episode, I speak with Andrew about the principles and practices of Net Positive leaders. We also talked at length about growth of clean energy and sustainable businesses, what ultimately convinced him to write what is now his fourth on book on the subject, and what makes his co-author’s journey so compelling and instructive for others.
We also found time to talk about the golden rule, why corporate climate advocacy is so important, the failure of a shareholder primacy, and much, much more.
I’ve been huge fan of Andrew’s writing for some time -- having first met him at a book signing at a Ceres conference in Boston about a decade ago. The last time we chatted was during very early days of the pandemic -- Andrew had just started writing Net Positive and we hadn’t yet started this show. So it feels like some measure of providence to have him on our podcast as we kick off the new year to talk about the ways businesses can step up their game to confront the massive challenges our world faces and help lead us to better future.
With that here is my conversation with Andrew. I hope you enjoy it.
Gil: Andrew, welcome to Climate Positive.
Andrew: Thanks. Thanks for having me.
Gil: Let's begin with level setting for our audience. In reading Net positive, I was really struck by the elegance of the question that you and Paul raised, which I think really captures the concept and this notion very simply that all businesses should ask, "Is the world better off because your company is in it?" Can you expand on that for our listeners and give us a sense of how you arrived at, what's a simple, but really arresting prompt, I think?
Andrew: Yes. It's funny. I don't think we started with that question exactly. We ended up with it and it's become the main thing. I think we built up to it as we wrote the book and as we wrote a definition, a more detailed definition of what we meant by net positive. I don't know how we got to that one day. It might have actually been-- We had like a third author, which was Jeff Seabright that you may know. He's been around the block, Koch, Unilever. He was in the Clinton administration. He worked in oil and gas years ago, he's been everywhere. He may have come up with that question.
I think the core question, which is to be net positive, as we define it is that you are creating well-being. It's important to say that your business is thriving because you're creating well-being for every stakeholder. This is employees and customers and consumers and communities, everyone, and you're doing it at all levels, every product and service every building you operate, every country you operate in. This is a north star and it's not something companies can claim to be at yet. Unilever isn't there yet. It's going to take some time, but it does all boil down to if you're doing this right, and you're building towards a net positive impact on everyone, then you can pretty clear really say, "Okay, we have a positive impact on the world. Our existence is good for the world."
We just posed it that way, "Is the world better off because your business is in it?" It's hard to answer. I find a lot of people have really been pausing on that question. I find myself asking it about just my own career. As a person it's easy to ask that, especially as you hit more middle-aged type birthdays and you start to think about if there's less career ahead of you than behind, have you done what you wanted and all of that. I think it's very personal too.
Gil: I think that also jumped out to me. You've been doing sustainability consulting almost 20 years now. You had a line in there about this evolution of terms that are somewhat commonly understood. You talked about if being green is about doing less damage, sustainability is about reaching net zero, net positive is about making things better. Do you know how you got to that particular frame?
Andrew: Well, we weren't the first to talk about, well, any of these. Look, there's very little new in the world. I always joke that if you write a business book, Drucker already did it probably 60 years ago. There's only so many things to say. Even in sustainability, the fundamental story we're telling hasn't changed that much. I think part of it is about trying to come up with language that's easy to read. That's always been my goal in doing these books is making them accessible. Instead of getting wonky about the terms, just trying to be really basic about it and just saying, "Okay, where we've been? Where we are now? Where we want to head? What's kind of the before, during and after?"
Green, isn't the only term we've used and sustainable is not the only term and net zero is not the only term, but it buckets the world has evolved and business has evolved from. You've probably seen this, everybody in sustainability, every professor, everybody working has some chart that shows a progression of company from not caring at all, and then caring about compliance and law and it builds through these stages to whatever we're calling it now, a more net positive business or a strategic sustainability. There's that progression in your head, but instead of making it five or six steps, I think we wanted to just say, "Okay, what are the three big buckets now?"
Gil: There's so much jargon and it just makes it inaccessible mainstream, which is what the goal of what we want to do here. That's why your writing has always resonated with me.
Andrew: Thank you. Well, I think the sustainability field, sometimes, we get in our own way. We're always looking for better and new terms. Regenerative is really big right now. I don't have any problem with it. I think regenerative works perfectly for certain settings, but there's lots of people who I've tried this it's like blank stares. What does that mean? We've chosen that positive in a focused, purposeful way, which was, I don't know, making it simple. My first book was called Green to Gold. It's like the least subtle title. I've honestly heard this story many times where someone said, "Oh, I brought it to my CEO or something." They said, "Oh, gold, money. I like that."
The whole point is in that title, which is, if you do this green thing, you can actually make money. It's not some plot to take profits away and it's not going to hurt your business, it can actually help. That was, again, one of those early stages of acknowledgment of sustainability, which plenty of companies are still at, are still coming to. We chose positive as like, "Okay, let's make it really simple. Like, are you having a positive impact?" That can incorporate whatever other terms we want to use regenerative, restorative, circular, but try to make it as basic as possible.
I will say I don't really care what language people use, it's really about the level of ambition. Walmart's been talking regenerative, if they're comfortable with that and they know what it means, and they can talk to their suppliers about it, great. If others want to say sustainable or net positive, whatever. It's just about the level of ambition that we need, and it needs to be a lot higher than we're at which is scary for a lot of companies because some are already doing a lot, but we got to go even faster.
Gil: Let's dive down there a bit. You provide some really illuminating examples of specific sectors that might profit from serving the world with this framework. You highlighted food and ag, consumer, finance, of course, it resonates with us and [unintelligible 00:05:52] and social media, and more. I think that really helps bring the concept to life. Could you give our listeners a sense of some of those core tenants or principles of a net positive company using some of those sector-specific examples?
Andrew: There's five core principles that we talk about, and I'll quickly review them, and then we do lay out quickly in the intro like, "What does a net positive company look like really broadly? What would it look like if a agriculture company were net positive?" The five core principles really boiled down to you take on a long-term and multi-stakeholder model. What that means is, you fight the short-term pressure. You're trying to deliver value for society and business in the long-term, and you're doing that by serving all these stakeholders, and by improving their well-being and you put shareholders really at the end of that list.
It doesn't mean that they don't count. It means that you are creating value for them by solving problems for the world, and that a net positive company profits by solving the world's problems not creating them. Another principle is that you're going to need partnership to get there, transformative partnership. The scale of our problem is too big, no company no matter how big, is big enough for a lot of these challenges, but the core one the one, when we start with really is ownership. For me, it's a better word than responsibility. Corporate social responsibility has been around, it has its use, but it's been really about philanthropy in a lot of ways.
It's really about, "Don't do anything really awful, and just try to be a good citizen," which is fine, but ownership means the way you try to teach your kids, you made a mess you own it. I think companies, we hope will step back and look at the full impacts they have on the world. I think you've seen the progression of companies in the-- Listeners are probably pretty familiar with greenhouse gases and Scope 1, 2 and 3 and all that for the greenhouse gas protocol. Scope 3 being your emissions in your value chain outside of your own control, and a lot of companies are just getting to that and looking at it seriously.
We push in the book the idea that you got to think probably even beyond that especially multinationals to the impact of your sector, to the advocacy and policy positions you and your sector has to the largest impacts you could have on the world. Are you affecting just consumption levels or fossil fuel-based society? You take that view it brings a lot of potential opportunities, a lot of probably anxiety about how do we tackle something that big which is why the partnership principle is so important which is you're not alone. You're not trying to do these things alone.
We try to paint a picture early on to say, "If you could imagine food and agriculture through their processes that they are using regenerative agriculture, that they're making the soil richer, that they're protecting biodiversity and they're sequestering tons of carbon through raising cattle or growing crops that makes them net positive. There's work going on on making things like cement or heavy industry carbon-free or carbon positive by capturing carbon in cement, things like that. We try to skip to some of the sectors that we don't always think about as having these big footprint, but imagine social media companies actually helping people find truth and strengthening democracy, strengthening our connections instead of really fundamentally making money now on rage and division.
In financial companies, you guys are obviously by definition, financing the positive, but imagine if they were only financing cleantech which is basically you guys, but that was the financial world, and they were, I think also serving the poor as well as, or better than the rich because that's not what finance has been. You start to think about what could this sector look like? Again, it's not philanthropic, it's building a thriving world. How else are we going to thrive as business if we keep drawing down on our natural and human capital? How good is that going to be for business in the long run? Those are the main principles and there's a lot to it.
Gil: That's helpful with respect to finance and why and obviously the book resonated with us is again, when we think about our vision long-term, every investment should improve our climate future. Our purpose is that we strive to make climate-positive investments or superior risk-adjusted returns, profit through purpose. We're big on challenging some of the folks in finance to say, "That's great that you've invested more and made some climate finance commitments, but you just tripled your fossil investment projects since signing up for the Paris Agreement or doing a science-based target."
Those financed emissions, those are decades. The decisions we make about what we finance now, we're past that. I think what we're trying to do is say, "You've got to disclose all that is you're doing, not just talk about the things you want to talk about. Be transparent, but also acknowledge matching that up." What we're trying to say is, these things can be profitable. There's opportunity.
Andrew: Hugely. Renewable energy is cheaper fundamentally to build now than fossil fuels. It's amazing that misperceptions in business, they still think, "Oh, solar's going to take forever to pay off." I don't know why they still hold those perceptions, but look, it's great that all the big banks now have set targets to be net zero or zero in their portfolios, because those of us in sustainability have been pushing and asking for that for years. The amazing thing is the goals, a lot of them set are 2050. I don't even understand what that goal means, because if you're saying, "We're going to have a net zero investment portfolio by 2050," are you still investing in fossil fuels in 2049?
Because since we have to get to zero emissions basically by 2050, and infrastructure is 20, 30 years, that means you have to stop financing it now. The fossil fuel industry always develops these really interesting storylines for years and years as a hoax, the science isn't good. Then there was a era of-- There's still always this story, "It's going to cost too much to do anything about this." That's the big lie now, I think, "It's going to destroy the economy." The thing they've been on recently, as you guys probably know, that is really subtle, is, "We're going too fast. If you change the grid over, it's going to collapse. Look what happened in Texas during ice storms," which, by the way, froze natural gas facilities as much or more than wind. That's their story.
A good story like that for making your pitch is always got to be based a little bit in reality. Yes, you shut down all coal and oil and natural gas immediately, we have a problem, but nobody's pitching that. Nobody's saying, "Shut down everything." It's really about how do we accelerate the transition, develop the storage technologies for both within an hour, within a day, in-between seasons. Those are big challenges, but start pointing all of that great R&D money to those challenges, not to finding more oil and gas that we're never going to burn. That's, I think, what the larger pitch is.
The idea that we're going to make this transition totally smoothly and if we don't do it smoothly, we shouldn't do it is just ludicrous. Of course, there's going to be problems as we switch energy sources. It's a whole transition, and that happens in all technologies. It doesn't go 100% smoothly.
Gil: I think you wrote in your forum that you weren't sure that you'd write another book about sustainability strategy. You've been writing regularly for HBR and MIT and giving talks in the interim, but what really convinced you to do your third book? Put us in your head and heart when you were thinking about the commitment to do this again.
Andrew: I appreciate that. Actually, it was my fourth book. [crosstalk]
Gil: Fourth book, I'm sorry. Green Recovery.
Andrew: I've acquired a little stepchild. That was meant to be a short and a short-term book, right as the collapse of '09, '10. The market was collapsing and Harvard Press that I've been working with [inaudible 00:13:44], "Someone should write a quick book about how green can get us out of the recovery." I was like, "They're right." I was like, "I'm going to have to do that." It was an intense six weeks to write this little book. There's a lot of reasons I thought I might be done. One, the big pivot for people who haven't read it is basically saying that we got to solve the biggest problems in the world and work back from there, and use the tools of economics and markets and all that to solve them.
In a lot of ways, that's the whole story, and that's what we're saying in net positive as well. I figured, I said my piece and here's what I think are the strategies that are needed. In that book, which came out almost eight years ago, I talked about science-based targets, which I was one of the earliest to talk about, and then there were science-based targets programs after that. I talked about lobbying, I talked about regenerative. I felt like I had set my piece. Then Paul Polman called me. The short answer is, why do I do this? Because Paul asked. We met Climate Week in 2019 in New York. I didn't know what we were meeting about. I didn't know him very well, I'd met him a couple of times. I'd worked at Unilever in the US, but of course, I knew him. He's the giant of this field.
Gil: One of the most well-known, sure.
Andrew: He's the most well known, I think he's done the most as a large company's CEO to try to show this is a model that fundamentally works. He basically said, "People are always asking me to write a book. I never really thought I would." He talks about this in his Breakfast. Enough CEOs were coming up and saying, "How do we do this? How do we get started?" that he realized talking to them individually is not going to probably move the needle, getting some ideas out there. Long story short we did decide to do it.
I took a beat before I agreed because Paul knows a lot about the world. He knows how to run a €50 billion revenue company, but I know one thing which is writing a book. I knew what it was going to take and I still underestimated because I selectively forgot that co-authorship is an exponential change from solo. I knew I talking about at least a year of my life and probably a couple. It was not a quick decision but then I was like, "I'm crazy not to do this." I don't know what will come of it, but I think my goal has always been that we mainstream all of this and that I felt like we should see someday a sustainable strategy book that is in this scale of big strategy books, that is Good to Great, that sells a million or more copies.
Green to Gold was one of the best selling of its kind, sold 100,000, that's really great. That's a lot for a book. I was like, "We're an order of magnitude off or more from mainstream." I thought, "If I'm ever going to get to that scale, it's got to be with this guy." He's the best known, his network around the world is unbelievable. He's done it. He's got a lot to say. It was an amazing process and trying to take this brilliance of a CEO who thinks in systems and thinks about the world and cares, bring my 20 years of experience in the field and communicating about it, and try to combine and tell a linear story of a systems problem, it was a challenge. I really enjoyed it in the end.
I always tell people, it's great to have written a book. Writing one is brutal and almost everybody I've ever heard, writers, going back centuries, you'll see quotes from Dickens [inaudible 00:16:56] how horrible it is. It's not fun but the result can be incredibly rewarding. It seemed like there's more to say here because I always wrote from a strategic perspective not having worked-- I'm not inside as a sustainability officer. I'm not inside as a CEO. I'm a pontificator. Really, I'm watching and try to synthesize and to sit there with someone who did it and try to lay, "Okay, what does big pivot look like," which is what Unilever did.
I talk about them a lot in the big pivot. They made this big pivot, "Hey, what does that look like on the ground and what do you have to do in a company to really make that a reality?" I think it really adds something to the books that I've written, to all the books in the field, I think there's a lot of great books now. There's so many this year, CEOs all over the place. I don't think there's anything quite as complete as this of how, really how, what are the things you got to really lock down about your purpose, about the goals you set, how you build transparency and trust and build to these partnerships. Really concrete hard to do stuff.
I hope then that it's adding something of real value to help companies move much, much quicker. That's the ultimate goal is that we [inaudible 00:18:09] the movement and the ambition level rises really everywhere.
Gil: For our listeners who don't know your co-author as well, Paul Polman and the journey he had at Unilever and the sustainable living plan, could you give us a synopsis of some of Paul's perspectives and challenges and successes?
Andrew: I guess the short version is he had a long successful career in mainly consumer products. He's a P&G for years and years. Nestle as the CFO. A lot of people don't realize that he didn't come in as this monk in business that just wanted philanthropy. He was the CFO. He got hired as the first external CEO in Unilever's history. Unilever's been around since 1870s in different forms. They were literally the leader brothers. He came in in '09, he was CEO for exactly 10 years, it was a planned- that's a pretty long amount for a CEO but as it was getting closer, they planned for this 10-year mark and started picking possible successors in year seven and eight.
That's how it goes.
He came in and we talk about this a lot in the book in the building a purpose of the company. There was plenty at Unilever. They were one of the leaders already. They had done some amazing things in sustainability but the company was stagnant and the numbers were not great. They had been flat or shrinking. The Act Locally was much more dominant than Think Globally. They were really divided and they were in 180 countries. There just wasn't this connection as Jeff Seabright said there wasn't the Uni in Unilever. There was all this stuff to build on.
The original purpose of the company had been to make cleanliness commonplace for households.
He decided, "Okay, we got to get going. We got to get the house in order. We got to get growing again, give people fairly easy targets. Let's get moving again. Let's invest more in R&D and innovation." Started from the beginning talking about, and let's really refine our purpose. Then over a couple of years, launched the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan. I wrote about it a lot previously because there were other similar plans like Marks & Spencer had a great plan A but the scale of this one again, was bigger than anything before, and it was really the first at scale to be the strategy of the company and not be just the sustainability thing on the side.
For 12 years now, it's been the core of the strategy of how they communicate about what they're trying to do in the world. They were early on things like integrated reporting and they were the first to do a human rights report, they were just kept being first. I think his accomplishments were really moving the bar on what to expect of big businesses, showing that you can bring purpose into the company, then over years into the individual brands. Whenever you see an announcement about a new partnership in this field, Unilever seems to be on all of them. They're always the first one who wants to sign and so there's some legitimacy there and every time I think, "Well, maybe they're overblown."
Then I see an influence map, which tracks political advocacy and shows that most companies are not helping on climate label, 15 or 20, like really good actors and Unilever was number one. I just keep seeing these independent groups saying, "These guys are for real," and they're not perfect at all, there are problems, there's people who like to point out there are some serious problems and they missed some things, probably didn't do enough on plastics and packaging as that became a huge issue, they just were [crosstalk].
Gil: They show up.
Andrew: They show up and they're genuine, but look there's a core challenge about being a consumer products company in a world that's consuming too much. That's hard to get around. I say it in the book and I joke with people like, they have a lot of products that improve the world, health and hygiene, soaps. Those are just good, but nobody needs body spray. Nobody needs that. It's a part of life for someone to feel attractive or whatever. It's not like it has no use, but it's not a requirement.
Gil: We don't need Ben and Jerry's ice cream?
Andrew: You don't technically, but I will say that I think maybe many of us do. It was actually, I think Andrian Newey at Pepsi had the greatest framework for thinking about this. Do you remember there were three categories of products? I can't believe I'm blanking on this because it was so famous, but the last one was fun for you. Things like Doritos and some stuff are just fun and that's okay, we need that in life too and I agree with that. I've never been one to think it's not sustainable to have drinking and gambling. There's adult fun. I don't think it's inherently unsustainable.
Life is complicated. Look how we've learned now. We need people. We need fun. We've been deprived for months and months. Anyways, I forget what the question was. I think we got off [crosstalk].
Gil: No, just Paul's journey.
Andrew: His journey was to bring this into a big company and make it real and then travel the world, become really central at things like the UN Global Compact. He kept getting invited in as one of the only business voices, which gave Unilever an advantage and kept them accelerating. I've learned now working with him, becoming friends, watching him call up his old friends. He's built a network. I can't really imagine over 30, 40 years of work, by being genuine. He's helped people and there are some stories in the book that blew me away and there's some that we couldn't tell even, they were too personal or things that maybe organizations didn't want told.
He's done stuff behind the scenes to help people without asking for anything. I've learned a lot watching him how personal he is about writing personal notes. It's old school, but he does it a lot. I try to do that more now. I try to be more personal all of this.
Gil: Staying on the personal. As the son of two preachers and the grandson of a theologian, I couldn't help, but notice and appreciate some of the connections drawn to the principles of the golden rule, which is ever-present in so many religious traditions. I think you even quoted the Book of Matthew talking about how much need and how much good work there is to do in the world. Is that Paul's tendencies coming through or is that something you lean into as well?
Andrew: I'm not very religious. I was raised Jewish. I'm married to a Lutheran. My kids, I guess you'd call them their Hanukkah Christmas kids. They get gifts on both sides, but they're exposed to-- we do our Seders and we go to Easter and Christmas. We are those kinds of Christians and Jews. I'm not particularly organized religion, but I think there's a spirituality and I believe in connection in humanity. I look for wisdom wherever. There's a great quote from Matthew, we also have really one of my favorite quotes in the world from Rabbi Tarfon, from the first century about responsibility that basically says "You're not responsible for everything, but you're not free from responsibility either."
That's actually the crux of sustainability. That's the core of the book really, which is you have to have ownership. You're not alone. It's not just your responsibility and we're seeing the breakdown, honestly, of society by not taking that view right now. We're having a health breakdown, a pandemic that could be going much slower if everyone did what was best for everyone else. We're in a time of incredible selfishness, frankly, and lack of empathy. We're trying to bring this humanity into business and remind people that a business is just an assortment of humans and leaders can be human, we can all be human in the business.
Yes, the golden rule is really big. It's also big because Paul's wife wrote a book about the golden rule with essays from all these famous people. Think about it, is there any statement that is the best summary of how humanity can function than that? That's why--
Gil: That's why it's in every religious tradition.
Andrew: It's everywhere. If you sat back and did first principles, which is what caveman did, and said, "How can we function?" Okay. Just don't do things to people that you don't want done to you. Then we talk later about what people call a platinum rule or something, a little bit about, "Do unto others what they want done," like what they need, which is an interesting play with it as well. I just think they're human, but look, I'm humanistic fundamentally. Some readers said, "Oh, I've never seen love used in a business book before." We're seeing more of that. We're seeing more leaders talk openly about connection and love and look, emotions are clearly part of our organization.
We have a lot now being run by fear. That's a huge part of our societal problems right now. Fear's an emotion, like how about we go more with love and connection. Let's try that for a little while.
Gil: Let's stay on that too. Courage, you talk about courage and care in leadership. Can you outline a bit more about how net positive companies are fostering that and how you talk about that in the book?
Andrew: Well, they need it. I guess it's a circular thing. They need courage and hopefully, they foster it by demonstrating it. We talk in there about coming together in partnership, working with others. There's a collective courage that comes from a little safer. You've got others around, you got the others peers all pushing in the same direction, it gives you group courage. Look, it does take courage. We're fighting a story. This is the way I think about this. This story of it's based really a neoliberal economic thought and it's about free markets, shareholder value, above all, it's the Milton Freedman, the business of businesses, shareholder value.
It's been dominant for 50 years. It's so dominant that the late great [inaudible 00:27:32] said, the way to shift systems is lot of different leverage points. One is changing the paradigms, but there's a meta version of that, which is even recognizing that you're in a paradigm. That's really hard. It's the proverbial water that we're swimming in as a fish that we don't even notice. It's so embedded. You can see it in the way news is covered, the way everything goes through the lens of, "Okay, I know it might save the species to do this, but what does it do to jobs? What does it do to stock market?" That's the first question. Not, "Can we make sure we survive and thrive?" Changing that story is difficult.
It's been so effectively put out there. If you put on your cynical hat, it's been effectively put out there because it ends up driving tremendous inequality. It takes care of the very wealthiest really well. If you drive shareholder value above all, it's by the owners of capital. That's not well-being for society. The US was more equal and people were better off when there were higher taxes on the wealthy, for example. When there was more money going into shared coffers. We've lost sight of some of those realities and still keep trying to trickle down, which hasn't worked anywhere ever. I'm not against economic policy. If it works, sure, it should be in the toolkit.
Once you've tried it 100 times and it doesn't work, you got to rethink. I think there's this shared prosperity that we've lost sight of, in particular in the US. I think everywhere, there's just every person for themselves thing that's become dominant and it's so damaging. It really is not the golden rule. A lot of people put their definition of freedom above all. They mean freedom from having to do anything other people want you to do. That's scary. I hear these voices where their freedom is a bubble and their opinions, like everybody's opinions are equal.
I know the WHO and all these doctors say vaccines are safe, but I read on Facebook that it's not. I posted something, got a lot of likes. Eerything's just an opinion. Doesn't matter who said it, how much training they've had, how many years of research they've done, it's just an opinion. That's so dangerous, so dangerous.
Gil: Let's talk about another part of your book and some of your writings this fall that I really appreciated was the stuff on climate policy engagement. In your piece in the fall, you talked about the vast disconnect between the company goals or the science-based targets, net zero, et cetera, then what those companies are advocating in the halls of power. You talked about this concept of it's less of a say do problem more of a say, say issue could you expand on that a bit?
Andrew: We say do is pretty common. We talk about it in the book a lot. You've got this great pronouncement and then you do something different but as I looked at what I was really thinking about that topic of advocacy, and what are companies saying about their own goals and then what are they saying to politicians or allowing to be said by their trade organizations, it really was, like just completely different statements. It's a really big problem. The specific thing that made us write that piece was-- I can't believe we're still debating this bill, because we wrote it a couple of months ago, it's the bill back better bill.
The framing of it has been, I think, really dumb. We can get into that the marketing of it. In that bill is the most spending on climate, both mitigation, and adaptation, probably ever, anywhere in the world, hundreds of billions of dollars, that is still woefully inadequate, we need more than that. You have all these companies and like we praise them in the book, and Microsoft, and Google, the most aggressive carbon goals in the world. They're buying gobs of renewable energy, they're investing in sequestration technologies, trying new things. If anybody gets to 24/7, green electrons every minute of the day, it's them, that's their goal.
All of that is great. Then a bill comes along, and it's going to actually invest in the infrastructure that can help everybody get there and tackle this shared problem that their leaders say is existential and they go quiet.
Gil: Or they, "Ah, corporate tax rates."
Andrew: Right. The only reason you can think that they were quiet is that they don't like that to pay for it. It rolls back the tax breaks that the Trump administration put in place. It's not even like it raises them, it just rolls back bricks they didn't need. By the way, what's weirder to me is these companies in particular in tech that have been quiet, they have more cash. Why does it matter if they pay a little more tax? Again, that the story is you fight for shareholder maximization, and you fight all regulation, and you fight all taxation, it's become so ingrained, that neoliberal model that even the companies that know better, are just sitting it out and letting the US Chamber of Commerce try to kill this bill, because it might raise taxes again, on companies that can afford it.
Some of it, it just seems so unstrategic or non-strategic to me. For example, the auto companies have now generally committed to all EVs but that can't happen in reality. I have an EV and I have a hybrid, I'm not buying only EVs, unless there's easy charging. We need charging infrastructure. If you're one of these auto companies, you should want massive public-private investment in things like charging infrastructure, and that's in bills like this. Yet, they come out in favor of the spending itself, like, "Yes, we like that." Then stay quiet again, let the bill try to be killed because it actually tries to pay for it from companies and the wealthy. What I don't get is who's going to pay for it?
What do they think is going to pay for it, because you can't both say we can't keep raising deficits and debt, and also never want to pay for something. It seems like not smart to me. It's just so ingrained that we fight this, and I don't know how we break it. Honestly, the only thing I see breaking it is transparency, and employees demanding change.
Gil: I also appreciate that your book highlighted one of the most impactful things we could do, which is put a price on carbon. When I've worked with other companies, larger, [inaudible 00:33:48], say, "Okay, this is the moment now, we're going to lean into this." It's like, "We've already said this, and we're going on to the cop," it's a passing mention. There's like, "No, no, specifics matter here. This is the moment for this specific policy and that pay for and here's how we can do it equitably." I'm like, "You actually have to say, specifics. That's what legislators need." It's antithetical to advocacy in this space. It is frustrating.
Andrew: If the people who can afford it won't pay for it, who's going to? Let's say it was somehow unfair in charging companies and wealthy people more to help us build out this solution set. What if the tech company said, "Yes, we'll help pay for because we can." Again, there's this belief, if we raise taxes on them, somehow that's going to destroy the economy, it's going to reduce their incentive to grow. I've never understood that. I think Warren Buffett said years ago, "If I pay a higher tax on an investment game, I'm still going to want that investment game."
You're not talking about taking 90% of the marginal dollar like we did in the '50s. You're talking about going from like 30% to 35% or something. The idea that it would reduce investment is ludicrous. Buffet said this, like, "What investment am I going to not do because I get taxed a little more on it?" It's a story, right? It's something we're stuck in that is really hard to get out of and I hope these companies with the means can fight back.
Gil: I hope so too. We need to get bill back better across the finish line and do a proper postmortem because it was never going to be enough.
Andrew: I think it's probably not going to happen now. Who knows? It sounds like I think [inaudible 00:35:29] and a couple of people-- We're going to go back on their word. They told the progressives in the house, they pass it and now they're using inflation as an excuse. I don't know if it's willful, but they keep talking out the expense of the bill, which is part of that horrific marketing. I don't know why you ever called a $3.5 trillion bill. Whoever speaks about their business or spending in 10-year increments, right? If you're like a hundred billion-dollar revenue company, you don't say, "We make a trillion."
I don't know what they're doing and it doesn't affect inflation or deficits if you pay for it. If you're taking money from one place and putting it in another, minimal, really minimal impact. That's the part of this. You could call it a $0 bill if you raise taxes on the wealthy enough to pay for it. I don't get the criticisms and I think it's performative. It's just trying to look like you're against some liberal agenda and that helps you get reelected. I'm feeling not good about the prospects now because I think clearly [inaudible 00:36:25] doesn't care if he's the lone man standing, he enjoys it. What's scary to me is it's an important priority, right?
Obviously, it has climate in it, but we're not getting the voting rights and that's actually the bigger, more pressing problem. I've been working on climate for 20 years and I'm saying that there's a bigger, more pressing problem, which is demise of democracy.
Gil: You don't get good climate policy with that.
Andrew: Right, you're not going to get climate policy in an autocracy. Well, you won't get it in an autocracy that doesn't believe in climate change. You're getting it in China. It's autocracy, right? It depends on who's the benign dictator but we're not going to get it here and it's going to be a disaster. Let alone just living in an autocracy is dangerous for many, many, many people so I don't understand. I truly don't get why the democratic party didn't push week one to pass voting protection. What's more American? What's more basic than protecting the right to vote and let people vote against it. If we want to come out against expanding voting, okay.
Gil: Could be on the record.
Andrew: Be on the record,
Gil: Let's turn, I want to do some rapid-fire, hot seat stuff and these are candid conversations so I require absolute and total honesty while you're on.
Andrew: Absolutely. I've been known for that.
Gil: As I can tell from our conversation, so if you fill in the blanks the most important advice I have ever followed is?
Andrew: Some version of assuming positive intent. It's just about the hardest thing in the world right now, but it's really important in a marriage, for example. Just assume that someone is at the very least, isn't trying to just make your life miserable. They got a lot of stuff going on and they're not generally trying to hurt you is important. It's hard to follow, but that's what I try to follow.
Gil: How about feedback or advice that you've rejected?
Andrew: Well, I'm not saying I've rejected it for my own good, but I could listen more. I'm a good talker and I try to do that thing where you listen and actually listen, not just listen to say the next thing. I'm really bad at it. I can't say I've rejected it, but having a resolution every year that you never get to, you probably should give up at some point after 30 years of New Year's resolutions, but I keep trying.
Gil: Okay, more advice. You have two boys, right? I think they're both grown up?
Andrew: Yes, they're teenagers. They're in that age where they think they're grown up and they're so not. I have an 18-year-old and he's known everything for about three years already.
Gil: Okay, so parent to parent, I have a young four-year-old son and I just had a daughter so I have two. What's the best piece of parent advice that you've heard and would tell?
Andrew: Some of the advice I give to parents is you can't control very much. I mean, to the parents, themselves, not to the kids. They are who they are. In college, you debate nature versus nurture intellectually and then you have a kid and you're like, "Oh, it's nature." They are who they are and you can only manage and work within that and try to help them evolve.
Gil: Who's your writing hero?
Andrew: I don't think anyone's ever asked me that. In recent years, I read Overstory by Richard Powers and everybody in sustainability's been telling everyone else to read it and if you haven't yet, you really should. It's just a truly beautiful book. It has some of the quickest summaries of what sustainability means in story form. I think his writing is amazing. You just go, "Oh, that is just--" turns a phrase, you're like, "Oh, I could never come up with something that good."
I always like the Jim Collins books in business, making things really palatable. Those are easy reads, I really believe in that. My canon originally in this field was natural capitalism, so [inaudible 00:40:16] and their writing and putting things in ways that you get-- Paul Hawken, of course.
Gil: Okay. How do you connect with nature?
Andrew: We try to hike, go for a run in nicer seasons. We've made it a goal and we've done pretty well that-- every year, while they've been growing up, we've done a national park trip. If they take one thing away for their kids is to remember to get out there. We're not big campers, we're not outdoorsy in that way, but we make a trip out of going to a national park, we do a long hike during the day and then we go stay the nice hotel, that's my version of outdoors. We've hit all the big ones in the last 10 years and they're just amazing. We did Arches and Zion and Bryce, we did the five major Utah parks in August. It's really hard to worry too much about autocracy and climate and stuff.
I'm like, "No matter what we do, these Arches are going to be there." Just the geologic time is really helpful. I think that's the bigger thing during the year, trying to make a point of just getting outside. I've been during the pandemic working on nice days, just in our little fenced [inaudible 00:41:25], I just sit outside and that's been great. People are always amazed, "Oh, there's trees behind you." I'm like, "Yes, why do I have to sit in my office to have this conversation?" It's hard, right? We have our future conference and I definitely spend more time on Netflix than in nature, but just planning those trips is a really big one.
Gil: All right, last one. If you weren't a author advisor or consultant, now, a marketer, you would be a?
Andrew: I guess if I'd not gone down this path, I'd be back in my-- came out of Boston consulting group, I'd be doing like strategy at a big firm or something but I think the more fun answer is, if I didn't go down the business path at all, I might have tried to go down singing. I was a acapella singer. I grew up singing and was in an Acapella group in college. My now wife and I re-met-- we knew each other a little bit in college, but re-met in an acapella group, semiprofessional in New York in the 90s. We're about half of us were working and half were professional musicians and still are, writing, working on Broadway.
When we all hit roughly 30, the professionals had to focus more and the other ones were having kids and it broke up, but we did gigs at like CBGB in New York and Bitter End and these clubs, it was great. I don't know if I would've enjoyed singing as much if I had to make a living at it and I don't know if I could have, but I was pretty good. I'm not as good now. It's an instrument, if you don't keep it going-- and I've been-- My performance Jones, is now through speaking and that's part of the reason I enjoy it so much and people always ask me, "How did you learn how to speak?"
I'm like, "Well, I didn't learn how to-- I grew up performing so it's the same to me." I love a big crowd, I love a little bit of nerves. Yes, so that's probably what I'd do.
Gil: Well, Andrew, I really appreciate this wonderful book and I thank you for putting it out in the world with thoughtfulness and a humble heart and a dedication to sharing it. Thanks to your co-author as well.
Gil: Climate Positive is produced by Hannon Armstrong. If you enjoyed this week’s podcast, we’d love for you to leave a rating and review on Apple and Spotify, which really helps us reach more listeners.
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I'm Gil Jenkins.
And this is Climate Positive.