Adam Werbach: The Future of Sustainable Business

Adam Werbach has been at the vanguard of the sustainability movement since high school when he founded a national organization of over 30,000 student volunteers who mobilized around environmental projects. A few years later, at the age of 23, he was elected the national President of the Sierra Club - the youngest in its 100+ year history.

In 2004, Adam turned the environmentalism movement on its head by publicly decrying its outdated thinking and lack of progress, given the scope of its mission. He challenged its followers to link their goals to other broad social and economic ones in order to have more impact.

He led the way, controversially, by working with Wal-Mart in 2006 to help them integrate sustainable practices into their supply chain and operations - a model he subsequently brought to many of the world's largest multinational corporations in over 80 countries.

In this interview, Chris and Adam discuss the "sustainable business" movement and its future prospects, including such questions as What does sustainability really mean? What are the key success requirements? What models show the most promise today?

On Business Sustainability

Here is the transition we have seen: We have environmentalism as the framework for that set of things necessary with actions to protect the earth. What ends up happening, one of the reasons why companies in particular and so many institutions weren’t able to adopt environmentalism, was it was largely a kind of a political or ideological goal set that wasn’t actionable by them.

The broad term “sustainability” as a business context has four components: social, economic, environmental and cultural. So instead of just figuring out how does this action protect the environment? the question is how does this action make my enterprise more sustainable? How does it actually push culture, the culture in the company inside and out, how does it move that, how does it move the economics of the initiative we are looking for? Does it save me money? Does it increase my bottom line? What is it doing for society? And what does it do for the environment? How do we blend all of these things together?

In the context that I use it, sustainability in a business context really means long-term profitability. It means the ability of an enterprise to continue into a long term. Part of it involves the missing link in the way that many businesses have been operating -- in the United States in particular -- which has been one of the core reasons why we see this quarterly profit push that has built not a lot of value for shareholders and also has these negative externalities that we see in terms of the environment.

On the Future of Business Sustainability

I think this is completely inevitable: Resource productivity and basically making things work better will just happen. It just does not make sense to constantly make new things from the things we have that are good. It doesn’t make us happy. It is expensive. The formal economy, in durable goods from toasters to bicycles to camping equipment to kids clothing to clothing, is about a trillion dollars a year in the United States  a trillion dollars a year. The informal market for that is much bigger. That means every time you borrow something from your dad, or you give maternity clothes to your sister, or you give a hand-me-down to someone else, or a neighbor borrows a shovel, that happens many, many more times than if you go to a store. It is decreasing, actually, because of the separation that we feel in the communities we live in. What ends up happening is, it is easier to order something on than to ask a neighbor and see if they have it.

What we haven’t seen is the same type of software technology and care and marketing, frankly, to the informal economy as we have in the formal economy. So when we start having the same things, you would expect to see when you go to to know when it is available, to see a picture of it, to be able to get it delivered. The things that you have in your friends’ closets, I think the world is going to start choosing that just because it is easier, it makes sense, it saves money. Actually, in the end, it is more fun to see your friends than to click around online. I actually think it is inevitable. The challenge is, we don’t yet have enough people throwing themselves into it. I think that is why the dialog we are having today is so important and what you are trying to bring about.

Things are the way they are because we made rules to make them like this. We have to change that. We change that with recycling. That has to be a step. Recycling didn’t exist 30 years ago in America. Now most people understand that you don’t throw away valuable resources. Reuse will similarly be a norm. In the same way, we spend lots of care buying things and bringing them into our home. We will understand that maintaining those things and putting them into other people’s hands will be similarly an important and well-respected pathway.

Key Trends to Watch

A trend forwards is productivity per unit of energy.

There are a couple of macro ideas in economics that are on the fringes that I think move into the center. I think one is the fact that we have a circular economy. It has been championed by Bill McDonough and Daniel MacArthur in Britain that suggests that we are moving from a make-take-waste economy  making something, taking it and then throwing it away  to a more circular economy where you take something, you make it into something else, and then you put it right back in the cycle. So the waste of one item becomes the feedstock for the next.

The other idea is this idea of collaborative consumption, or the sharing economy ,where we are actually finding ways to with each other consume items together. You don’t really consume a baby stroller, but you in this case encourage the creation of a better baby stroller that I can use, and I can pass on to my sister, and she can pass onto her brother-in-law and it can keep on moving. That idea we are seeing in all sorts of different sectors. We have seen that with zip car, with car sharing, we have seen it with Airbnb with renting out your extra rooms; we don’t need to build a new hotel. We have seen that in information sharing, Wikipedia. In traffic data with Waze. We are seeing lots of places where we are collectively coming together and making our resources much, much more effective and getting more utility out of it by our collective resource sharing.

The third concept is like what Bill McDonough calls “cradle to cradle” – this idea that you are thinking of a product throughout its entire lifecycle. So when you make it, you think about do I actually just sell this product ever, or actually sell this product as a service? Consider DetailLab, which is a 40,000-person Fortune 500 company based in Minnesota. They are the biggest buyer of dishwashers in the world. Most restaurants that you eat in have a DetailLab dishwasher. They lease it to the restaurant. Restaurants fail all the time. If they fail, they take it back. They rent the dishwasher as a service to the company. So instead of each company having its own dishwasher, if they go out of business or move locations, DetailLab does it. The best thing about DetailLab is they push the manufacturers to make [dishwashers] better, because it is in their interest to have a better functioning dishwasher that they don’t have to go and service every week.

Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Adam Werbach (41m:07s):

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Thanks for an engaging conversation Adam and Chris.  Your decisions and your lives are testimony to an awakening conscious, in many senses of that word.
Here in Maryland, we're proud to be the first state to pass Benefit Corporation legislation and to be the home of the first Benefit Corporations in the country.  We are also the home of the only state supported Genuine Progress Indicator system that looks at 26 social, environmental, and economic variables as a true measure of quality of life.  Maryland also has a moratorium on fracking contingent upon thorough study and refuses to join the many states rushing headlong into very questionable energy practices.  These are just a couple of significant policy changes as a result of politics on the ground and voting in the General Assembly.  As you note, an important part of making change, but painfully slow at even the state level.

Which leads back to your comments on community activism, organization, and relationships - that which will effect most aspects of living from consuming, to creating, to conserving, to food, clothing, shelter, transportation and communication, and even local capitalization, finance and investment.  And, small business is an integral part of all that, but, of course, requires  different  focus and intervention that does working with the big guys, e.g., WalMart - God Love You for those efforts and impact.

Prodviding goods and services in an energy and environmentally efficient manner to innovations in helping people make wiser decisions, small business can have nimble, quick effects that will hopefully spiral outward.  For instance, check a company at the Bethesda Green Incubator,  to see a great example of an individual  having an impact.  Now to business for John Jabara = captialization and scale.

Well, got to run to pick up corn at the only municipal corn silo in the U.S.! About 80 families here in the city have joined to create a corn co-op to use with pellet stoves for heat! Clean and cheap.

Hope springs eternal .  .  .

Thanks again for this site and these conversations.


Great article and another link to a budding movement that will work well in helping address the challenges we all face.
One of the takeaways for me from this podcast was in the beginning when Adam spoke of his early involvement. He said "I think from a very early age I got a sense that you could actually do something even if you were very young. You could be effective."

All too often we tend not to take actions because of the old feedback loops which are so ingrained. They tell us we are just an individual and nothing we do will ever have an impact. As long as we buy into these old beliefs, nothing ever will change. This is a wonderful example to use as inspiration the next time we encounter the old "it's hopeless" feedback loop.

Thanks for the great podcast/transcript.


…take on several truly terrific visuals. Imagine, working with a receptive Walmart and other very dominant businesses, and they be pro-active to change without having to wait on government to finally make the changes necessary. I love that concept, and not being a big fan of Walmart and their practices towards labor I had to give them their props for doing what they are doing. Leadership is always important and they are leaders in a very important chain of events that must be done to manage our Planet as we Must do.
Next, the sharing of things with others is another very important concept lost to neighborhoods over the years. It used to be that the next bike, the Stingray!, came onto the market, bought by a parent in the neighborhood for their sons or daughter, and it was shared by all the kids in the neighborhood as that was just normal (well, the kid who owned the bike had a couple days to feel it was theirs then it was ours, to share. LOL). It used to be that if a bike wasn't in use, and was laying on the ground (yours or not) then you just road it. Gave it back when the kid who owned it wanted it back. If they never came for their bike then you took it back to their house and put it in the backyard. Now, not so much as every kid has the same bike. The old ones today are never used through their natural life cycles, as changes are made which makes the now two year old bike an embarrassment for the kids to even ride so Mom and Pops buys the new bike, and amazingly no one is available to even give the old bike away for free so gets dumped in the land fill.

I wore hand me downs with pride, as though they were new when given to me. We had new cloths, for school and church but they needed to last the year as well as one pair of shoes that were cleaned, polished and care for so they lasted that calendar year. If shoe leather worn out on the soles then they were re-soled at the shoe store. I was a bigger kid and my brother played ball so had nicer cloths. I couldn't wait for when he came home after the season ended. I remember back in 9th or 10th grade, early 70's, my brother came home with a stars and stripes silk shirt, wide collar and truly fashionable, and it was mine! Good stuff.

This was a cool Podcast, and lately, they have all been. Nice Chris, and I can only imagine seeing this Adam dude singing wedding songs to a Japanese audience! That is funny. I know while in Japan myself for 8 months and seeing the Japanese trying to sing American songs to us soldiers how entertaining that certainly was. Too funny. A really funny visual actually.

Incidentally, I will wear out every t-shirt, pants, just everything until that last wash when the item is finally destroy as a useful item. It starts out as dress, gets downgraded to casual, then downgraded to yard work, then messy jobs like oil changes and painting the house, Then it becomes a rag for cleaning surfaces like the lawn mower or cleaning up spills in the garage and elsewhere. Some things are just embedded in your life and using things up has been one of those things drilled into me from a young age.

You talked of turtles Chris and how they are not as common anymore. These last two summers I have seen the opposite for me and frogs. I have always stopped and moved the frogs, are conscious of them when I weed whip or cut and these last couple, few years I have them all over the place. So, I am happy every time I see one. I think with a little effort we all could enjoy these renaissance. One frog in particular I named Fred, and my grandsons look for him when they come over as he lives in a little pond that enjoys a fountain in my front yard garden. I named him as a learning tool for the kids, and how we can be responsible and enjoy what this earth gives us. They even get an allowance for recycling the paper and plastic that appears throughout the neighborhood as we go on our adventures, down the street for a walk, and have flown into our yard after garbage pick up.

It was the crying Indian in a commercial back in the early 70's that did it for me, and I hope I have been a good example since.



Yerdle seems to be a substitute for what the family used to be. Extended families share things, hand things down, repair and  recycle things. Our church has some similar functionality to Yerdle. Also I see potential within Peak Prosperity to have a "sharing network". Selfishly, I have a greater desire to share within a smaller community that I understand and promotes my values.

I agree with you Oliveoilguy. I found the article great up to the point where the Facebook connection was mentioned. I don't do Facebook for privacy/security reasons. If I have to use FB to access a service like Yerdle, then I guess I won't be accessing it.Not to be a party pooper or want to rain on their parade, but Yerdle sounds like it is dependent upon a fully functioning internet as well as computer access. What if access to these tools are diminished or restricted? We may very well face blackouts/brownouts/cyberattacks and so on, all of which will impact access to onine services. Can this be a downside to what appears to be a good service that just might get the sheeple thinking in different terms? Is this not going against the grain of the idea of simplifying our lives? Just asking.

Oliveoilguy -
Just wanted to make sure it's clear that Peak Prosperity's Groups can easily be used to manage a sharing circle of the kind Adam talked about.

Join (or create) a group in your local area. Tell the folks you want to share with about it and ask them to join. Start a thread (or two) to post items you're looking for or would like to share.

Adam and I have briefly discussed the idea that there may be ways for Yerdle and Peak Prosperity to leverage each others' platforms and communities. We haven't been able to explore in depth yet, but if/when we do, I'll provide an update on the site about our conclusions.

They're not all gone thank goodness! We have a snapping turtle that has been coming up from the river and burying herself in the stream bed above our house every winter for the past 20 years. It will be a sad if and when she stops. I would like to think that turtles are just getting smarter about crossing roads, I mean they have been around for millions of years, but I also know this is probably wishful thinking. Enjoyed the podcast, but I also can't help thinking about how Walmart got to be so big and at who's expense, and now being that big and flush with cash, how it must be easier for them to make the change to "sustainability." There is also a lot of PR and marketing that underlies this sustainablility. Sorry, I know I sound cynical, but keeping Walmart's profits sustainable is not my top priority. As all these big corporations go "green," I am glad Adam pointed out that it's not enough.
Thank You

We share a lot of kids stuff like toys and clothes in my workplace, where there is a big enough community of diverse ages such that someone's kid always outgrowing something that a younger child needs in turn.    I  can see internet services like Yerdle as good tools to extend that community and promote more sharing of existing resources.  In the old days before internet we used publications like the classifieds or Uncle Henry's.  Or remember all the postings on bulleton boards in college student unions?  That's how I got my first car .  I really hate throwing anything anway tht might be useful, and try to pass it on even if takes a little effort on my part.  

mmmm… Can dinosaurs who do not wish to succomb to facebook or twitter access it?

Excellent talk. Thoughts run around my mind like hyperactive mice.

Toy Libraries have been in Australia for many years.

The Climate Catastrophe Bites. Queensland has been hit so hard and so often that now housing insurance is too expensive to buy.

Electrolytic zinc in Hobart dumped Cadmium into the Derwent River. They fought for years against the environmental movement. The environmentalists won, forcing the company to remove the cadmium from the waste stream. And Hey Presto, they had a very profitable side line. Some managers are begging to be fired.


It is important to realize the enormous power of the space-colonization technique. If we begin to use it soon enough, and if we employ it wisely, at least five of the most serious problems now facing the world can be solved without recourse to repression: bringing every human being up to a living standard now enjoyed only by the most fortunate; protecting the biosphere from damage caused by transportation and industrial pollution; finding high quality living space for a world population that is doubling every 35 years; finding clean, practical energy sources; preventing overload of Earth's heat balance.

Gerard K. O'Neill, "The Colonization of Space"[26]

It will happen and here is how I think that it will unfold.

The nation states will disintegrate due to their ineptitude.

Global communications will first start in a sterile yelling match about who caused the environmental crisis and when the protagonists get bored minds will turn to how to co-operate to solve the common problem. And a Global government will spontaneously emerge.

The combined pool of wealth of the Government and advances in technology will be sufficient to embark on O’Neil’s vision. Enlightened self interest will not do it, we are just too stupid. But when our backs are against the wall an element of lucidity prevails. We see the light!!


I see that I got mentioned in dispatches. Thanks Ruby.

For anyone who is interested in joining, the group is here:  Group membership requires approval to prevent spammers, but I intend for the group to be strongly inclusive.This group is meant for the general PP community; if anyone would prefer to start a more local sharing circle just for their area, that would also be welcome.
If anyone has concerns about the parameters of the Sharing Circle group, please contact me privately and I'd be happy to discuss my reasoning.  I have 15 years' experience with online swap lists and I'm so glad to see an interest in having one here at PP. 
Thanks, and I hope to see some new members joining soon.

  • Amanda

Excellent podcast and discussion here. I just wanted to add that this model of sharing/re-using/repairing existing goods can also offer a low-cost localized business opportunity for those who facilitate it.  For example, I've read reports of co-op repair shops where people can bring in their broken appliances etc. and use the tools for a small fee.  Those who need help can pay a modest fee for the repair.  The workshop becomes a place to share repair tips, tools, swap parts, get help, pass on useful items, etc., and the small fees help support those most deeply involved in keeping it going.
Though we put thousands of miles on our bicycles,  I am a lousy bike mechanic beyond very basic stuff. I take my bikes to just this sort of co-op. There are repair stands and tools available for your own repair work, and also a few mechanics to do repairs that are beyond your skill level/interest.  People donate old bikes to the co-op which get recycled and sold for a modest rpice to help support the co-op. It really is an "everybody wins" model because it is opt-in and voluntary and the low fees are enough to keep it operating and distribute a bit of money to those who keep it functioning.

Here in Victoria when you don't want something anymore, but it is still useful, all you need to do it put it out by the curb. People passing by will take it if they want it. It is amazing how fast things disappear sometimes!!! I have obtained more than a few things myself this way, in addition to putting things out there for others. It is a great system for those who do not have transportation to take things to recycling shops or centres.
The only downside are the morons who put out sofas and mattresses and leave them out in rainy weather, inevitably ruining them. After neighbors are stuck looking at the eyesores for a few weeks the city finally swings by and hauls it away. Perhaps this is the moron's goal… as always, a few bad apples spoil an otherwise good system.


Coincidently, I just happened to catch this NPR segment a few hours ago on sustainable-labeled food. It mentions Walmart and their role in the market of MSC labeled fish. The segment describes some of the complexity around the issue:

Love the local community sharing ideas!


[quote=Amanda Witman]For anyone who is interested in joining, the group is here:  Group membership requires approval to prevent spammers, but I intend for the group to be strongly inclusive.
Thanks Amanda. I'll check it out

(1) In NYC, I saw residents and businesses put larger used items in the lobby (low-end buildings) or near the trash dumpster or chute (high-end buildings), hoping things with some use left in them would be picked up by those who needed them. It was a very good system. I got and gave a few things from my construction site offices that way: slot files, a director's chair, baskets. 
(2) Here in SC, we are in the Land of Thrift Stores. I can with no effort, count ten thrift stores I pass every week, not counting four large Goodwill locations. In my opinion, anyone who does not look to thrift stores for thngs like play clothes for fast-growing children and home decor/furnishings is missing out on an inexpensve treat. Example: I got my office fax machine at a nearby thrift store for $2. And I keep gving them my excess books, nicknacks and linens.

(3) Craigslist has a "Free" section where I found a home entertainment center, which I use for storage. They also have used items for sale, cheap. I got a nice console/entry table with a beveled glass top–and oak inlay–for $50 when a Lasik surgeon remodelled his waiting rom and put it on Craigslist. I've given away furnture and lighting fixtures there.


Businesses and organizations need to prioritize resource productivity and implement strategies to make things work better. This can involve implementing measures to reduce waste, improve energy efficiency, and promote sustainable practices.
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