Morten Albaek has something to say: "I want to change the world."
Coming from a philosopher turned corporate marketer, you might expect something a little more original. But he doesn't stop there: "I want to surprise the world by creating something that has never been created before, something unique enough to inspire people to think, innovate, act, and react differently."
Yes, roll your eyes at Albaek's fantastic idealism, but wait, because there's more: "We could be at the beginning of a new enlightenment period."
In Albaek's vision, this new enlightenment will have its Lockes and its Rousseaus, but they won't be philosophers or writers — they'll be multinational corporations and their execs, who throw their collective weight behind a troika of blue swirls. The cute little logo is called WindMade, and it will be used on consumer products certified as having been produced with wind power. If successful, it would be the world's first global trustmark driven by a corporation. (Think of the Energy Star sticker on appliances, or the USDA Organic label on produce.)
Albaek sees WindMade as much more than just a logo; it's an opportunity for companies to show that they are committed to greater transparency about how they do their business — the kind of power they use is just a starting point. "Many companies still base their businesses on keeping consumers ignorant, but there will be a tremendous and increasing clash between companies and consumers if we don't take upon ourselves the responsibility of behaving sensibly," he says. "The strongest brands in the world must step up."
Obviously, Albaek has another motive: He's a senior exec at Vestas, a company that makes all of its money from wind-power plants, and getting companies to commit to wind would produce a huge ... windfall. But as the WindMade team has traveled the world during the past six months, quietly courting potential partners, it has been met with enthusiasm that has surprised even the biggest cheerleaders among them. The fledgling coalition already includes the media-information giant Bloomberg and the Global Wind Energy Council, an industry consortium. The WWF has signed on as a partner. And the UN Global Compact is backing the trustmark, the first time it has ever done so.
The WindMade campaign will officially be announced at the 2011 World Economic Forum, in Davos. Later in the year, consumers may start seeing the WindMade swirls on store shelves, and by the beginning of 2012, Albaek hopes to have 1,000 companies signed up as WindMade partners. Whether this plan succeeds or fails, it will be a fascinating case study of one company's attempt to take the concept of the multiple bottom line to a new — and, yes, potentially world-altering — level. "Will WindMade change the world on its own? No. It's a step," Albaek says. "What we are trying to do is to create a new model: Is it CSR? Is it sustainability? Is it business development? Is it marketing? Is it PR? You can just say yes."
Trustmarks are like any other startup: Many launch, a few gain widespread recognition, but only a minuscule number ever affect what we buy. Perhaps the most successful trustmark in the United States has been Energy Star, which identifies products that meet federal standards for energy efficiency. According to the 2009 Conscious Consumer Report by the branding firm BBMG, 87% of Americans surveyed said they recognized the Energy Star logo, and 75% sought it out at least sometimes.
The logo was created by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1992, but for years, surveys showed that less than a third of Americans knew what it meant and many fewer said that it made a difference in what they bought. Growth in the number of products that carry the mark has helped — Energy Star stickers can now be found on everything from fridges to laptops to new homes. The key conversions came not among consumers but from manufacturers. Home builders, for instance, began to see "a competitive advantage. Five-and-a-half million homes are sold each year, and only a quarter million are new. Among all those, wouldn't it be great to stand out?" says Sam Rashkin, who heads the EPA's Energy Star housing program.
As marketplace recognition has grown, so has the EPA's understanding of how to turn that into purchases. "Consumers will pick the product that is environmentally beneficial as long as they don't have to give up anything else," says Ann Bailey, director of Energy Star product labeling.
Energy Star has enjoyed two advantages that are tough to replicate. It's backed by government standards, and studies have shown that, as skeptical of government as we may be these days, we still trust it much more than corporations. Energy Star was also a pioneer. "There are probably more than 700 trustmarks now — that's a conservative estimate — all competing for time and attention and trust," says BBMG chief creative officer Mitch Baranowski. "There's a race on now to certify and label, and because of that, there's a lot of confusion and clutter, and questions about who to trust."
Baranowski says the race is happening because shoppers want it. "We see an increased consciousness among consumers who really care about where things come from," he says. "Trust and transparency are the biggest brand drivers going forward." Which is precisely what Albaek wants to hear.
Wind has long been venerated as a vehicle for change,a bringer of clarity, even a deliverer of prosperity. In the Shinto genesis story, Fujin, the wind god lately reincarnated as a Mortal Kombat character, cleared the newborn earth of murk and mist. Vayu, the mercurial Hindu lord of the wind, is said to control the breath of life. And Njordr, of Norse mythology, is described in legends as having the ability to calm the sea, quell fire, and create wealth.
Albaek's ambition for WindMade seems no less grand, and perhaps no more probable, than these ancient myths. "I truly cannot see why there should not be 1,000 corporations — and I mean that literally, so maybe let's even say 1,001, like the Persian fairy tale! — that will join, that will be progressive enough, intelligent enough, modern enough to show the world that the corporate world can lead in fundamentally changing how we act and react to the challenges that confront us," says Albaek one blustery afternoon in Denmark, as he drives from his office in Aarhus to give a talk to a group of school counselors. (Topic: finding meaning in your work and life.) He rambles from Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus to American Idol to the global obesity epidemic to the Renaissance. Eventually, he returns to business. "In the future, the corporations of the world will be divided between the sensible and the unsensible. The unsensible are dinosaurs," he says. "The ones who will join us will help us create a revolution, just as the Enlightenment created the sensibility that created the acknowledgment that we need to change."
Getting his project going has been much more prosaic. It began, aptly, in the upper atmosphere, during a flight on the Scandinavian airline SAS. In the seat pocket, Albaek found an envelope for donations to Save the Children, which had partnered with SAS. What if, he wondered, a corporation had started the charity? (In fact, it was launched in the wake of World War I by Eglantyne Jebb, an English do-gooder heartsick at the plight of ailing, starving European children.) What if Vestas started a charity?
This kind of thinking has propelled his quick rise through Denmark's corporate ranks. At age 26, Albaek, then a young philosopher, was plucked from the academy by Danske Bank, which wanted to see what new ideas this upstart could inject into Denmark's largest and fustiest bank. He dreamed up enough to earn six promotions in seven years. He also found time to become one of Denmark's most prominent talking heads, appearing frequently on TV to discuss everything from romance to world affairs, and to cowrite Generation Fucked Up?, a 2005 book in which he spars with political scientist Rasmus Hylleberg about the degree to which Danes born in the 1970s and 1980s are lazy, entitled, lacking in responsibility, and hypocritical. (The short version of Albaek's stance: Very.) Four years later, Vestas CEO Ditlev Engel lured Albaek, who is now 35, to oversee global marketing.
Albaek quickly settled on an answer to his questions of charity: He wanted to try to save the earth. His original idea was to launch a Vestas-sponsored charitable venture to provide renewable energy — wind, of course — to remote African villages. But he worried that a Vestas-only initiative would necessarily have limited reach.
As he and his team brainstormed ways to have a broader effect, they solicited the input of the New York-based creative agency Droga5. It suggested that Vestas create a trustmark called WindMade and a foundation that would manage it and funnel its revenues toward extending renewable energy in developing nations.
WindMade now has a three-pronged approach that Albaek has dubbed TEA — the T is for transparency, the E for enlightenment, and the A for activation. ("America has voted for its Tea Party," he says, "but I think we need to create a different one.")
Transparency will come in two forms. First, Bloomberg, the inaugural corporation to join Vestas in the WindMade coalition, will build and maintain the WindMade Index, a public ranking of major companies' energy mix and how much of it comes from wind and other renewables. The creation of the index fits neatly into Bloomberg's push to complement its dominance in financial data with information in areas such as renewable energy. "A growing number of investors are looking to what we call 'extra financial' information to better understand how companies are managed," says Curtis Ravenel, Bloomberg's head of sustainability. "The data they need are data we think is important to better understand how companies are addressing long-term sustainability issues."
Second, companies will register for WindMade certification. PricewaterhouseCoopers has been hired to vet applicants for WindMade. To carry the label, a product will have to be made with newly installed wind power. So let's say Tesco, which has discussed a possible partnership with WindMade, wants to put the WindMade logo on its house-label dried apricots. According to the draft standards, Tesco would have to draw at least 12.5% of its power from a wind farm built after 2010, another 12.5% from wind (new or not), and another 25% from any renewable source.
Enlightenment — taking transparency and information to the consumer — will come with the help of publicity stunts. The first, which was set to be unveiled in New York, London, and Abu Dhabi in January, on the eve of Davos, will be an art installation called Blue Box, based on work done by Yale urban ecologists who calculated the amount of water it typically takes to make a range of ubiquitous consumer products. A mobile phone, for instance, will be placed in an acrylic box designed to hold 165,144 liters. The idea is to dramatize that wind power consumes little water, unlike other kinds of H2O-hogging rival power sources.
The E-is-for-enlightenment part of its campaign got a credibility boost when the UN Global Compact decided in November to give the WindMade effort its backing. The compact, a coalition that brings corporations and UN agencies together in support of a range of do-gooder causes, has never before given its official blessing to a trustmark. UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon is expected to cite WindMade in his Davos speech as an example of the kind of public-private partnership necessary to battle climate change, and the Global Compact will have a seat on the WindMade Foundation board. "We have long tried to establish links with the consumer, but it has never really worked," says Global Compact executive director Georg Kell. "For the first time, we have a label that has the power to be a fundamental force."
Both the WindMade team and external analysts say that the toughest part of brewing their TEA will be the A, activation. Even if you can give consumers data, even if you can convince them of the importance of those data, and even if you can get the WindMade mark into stores, how do you get shoppers to open their wallets? Last spring, Vestas commissioned TNS Gallup to survey 25,000 people in 20 nations. In nearly all of the countries, consumers claimed they would eagerly buy products that were better for the environment. (The U.S. was a notable laggard, with only 70% agreeing, versus 91% in China.) But studies have repeatedly shown that consumers don't do everything they tell a pollster they'll do.
Paul Rice, president of Fair Trade U.S.A., knows about the challenges of activation. His organization has been cultivating the Fair Trade label since 1998, but it was after the participation of big brands such as Starbucks (in 2000) and Dunkin' Donuts (2003) "that people realized it had legs," Rice says. And yet: By Rice's count, only a third of Americans know what the Fair Trade label is, and according to BBMG's numbers, it's just 18%.
Albaek knows that WindMade will need big consumer brands in its coalition, yet those are precisely the companies that he has found the most difficult to attract. "Perhaps it was too naive of me to think that you could have 25 corporations signing up quickly for something that was still so undefined," he says. He has also been surprised by a strong strain of what he calls "old-fashioned thinking." He cites a conversation he recently had with the chief of sustainability for one of America's largest food companies. "He said one thing that I found remarkable. He will not create transparency before consumers demand it," Albaek recalls.
Other potential WindMade partners have voiced greater enthusiasm for the concept, yet getting them to sign on has been tough. One company said it could not yet meet the criteria, while another was not prepared for the millions it would cost to switch to wind. For any consumer-products manufacturer that does join, though, there remain some other major questions: Will anyone choose a toy or a cell phone or a pair of shoes because of wind rather than uniqueness or utility or style? The proof of WindMade's potency will be if, when faced with two of the same product, the consumer chooses the WindMade one.
As important as WindMade may be, and as ambitious as it is, one of the smartest things about the label is that it's actually pretty low-risk for Vestas. When asked how much is at stake financially, CEO Engel responds cheerily, "Not a lot, I think!" Vestas has committed to investing $1 million a year in the WindMade Foundation for the next two years. It will also spend about 10% of its annual marketing budget on WindMade — mere pennies relative to the $331 million it spends each year on research and development.
But the reward is potentially enormous. Even if WindMade doesn't gain the consumer traction Albaek hopes for, it has already succeeded for Vestas. Many companies have opened their doors to Vestas and to pitches about the power of wind; several are poised to buy Vestas turbines.
Albaek and his colleagues acknowledge that upside but quickly turn the focus back to WindMade's broader potential. "If this works, it won't just be people buying WindMade products," says WindMade project manager Bragi Fjalldal. "We could have WindMade neighborhoods, a WindMade Olympics, even WindMade cities, and even WindMade countries. If we succeed, five years from now, someone will be working on, say, SolarMade. If we do this right, other industries will want to do this. It will be a new model." If.
One day late last October at Vestas's main R&D facility in Aarhus, several members of the WindMade team decide to climb one of the company's offshore windmills. Though the sky is slate gray, it's a calm day at sea. The water sparkles, a carpet of iridescent blue. Even 300 feet up, the air is remarkably still — how is it that all these turbines are even moving?
Allan Laursen Molbech, the group's tour guide, has done this before. He darts through the nacelle — the capsule-like casing that houses the turbine's mechanical guts — pointing out the transformer, the hydraulic units, the electrical components. He even crawls into an air duct and then maneuvers himself underneath the turbine.
One of Molbech's visitors begins to get dizzy and nauseated; another takes off her glasses and closes her eyes. Molbech continues his work, dismantling the engine and hoisting a massive piece of carbon fiber high above his head. Then he smiles: "It's much easier and much more practical working in virtual reality than in reality."
This is all happening in Vestas's 3-D virtual-reality simulator, where nearly every detail of the company's windmills can be modeled and examined. "We can address all the complexities," explains Molbech, who is Vestas's virtual-reality administrator. "What does this component do? Is there even enough room for someone to make a repair?"
If only Albaek could do the same for a marketing-side initiative like WindMade. The day after the virtual-reality turbine tour, he muses on the science and relative certainty of one part of Vestas's business versus the art and chance of his own. "Will this work? I don't know," he says with a half-smile and a shrug. "I have hope." He'll need that — and a very strong wind at his back.
A version of this article appeared in the February 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.