People in the corporate world kid Mike Brown about the surfing—at 55 years old, he surfs two or three days a week—but it was his surfing that landed him the job that would shape the rest of his career and reshape how the rest of us do business. Brown was among the first people in the country to hold the title vice president of sustainability in a big company—14 years ago, at Patagonia.
Brown and Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia and a renowned surfer, used the same surfboard maker, Greg Liddle. Liddle thought the two men should meet, and one day, out of the blue, Brown got a call from Patagonia's CEO, inviting him to a daylong consulting gig. Brown was then working for the city of Irvine as an environmental manager. Among the things he did during his first visit to Patagonia headquarters—a visit that turned into an impromptu job interview—was to step away from a day of meetings, wriggle into a wet suit, and go surfing with Chouinard.
Ever since, Brown has made it his business to help companies see sustainability not as philanthropic but as savvy, even essential, resource management. He left Patagonia in 1999 to go into business for himself. He doesn't have the profile of visionaries like Amory Lovins or Paul Hawken or Bill McDonough. But in the gritty day-to-day business of figuring out what toxins are involved in your manufacturing process, of choosing the least harmful materials for shampoo bottles, no one is better than Mike Brown.
"Deriving a solution is one thing," says Larry Rogero, managing director of sustainability at
Brown and his partner, Eric Wilmanns, are the principals of Brown & Wilmanns Environmental, a consulting firm based in Santa Barbara. They work for
Dominique Conseil, president of Aveda, the natural beauty-products company owned by
Reality, of course, is what can be hard to pin down in the world of sustainability. It turns out that even simple environmental questions—the corporate equivalent of "paper or plastic?"—have many environmental ripples. The analysis requires the tenacity of a detective and the sophistication of a scientist.
For Nike, Brown is working on a project to look carefully at raw materials—materials Nike might use—"from their origin in the ground as a petroleum product, or an agricultural or forest product," says Brown, "all the way through getting shipped to the factory to be turned into a product, and then at the end of the life of the product, what happens then."
The details of the work for Nike are proprietary. But Brown offers a hypothetical example: Consider the binder clip, a pinch of black metal with two shiny wings. "The binder clip is probably all steel," says Brown. "It's probably two different grades. One is coated with black paint, the other is plated. We'd look at the steel, at where it came from, who made it, and how. We'd look at the process for getting the black pigment onto the binder clip—you could do that multiple ways, you could paint it on, you could powder-coat it." Then there's assembly, packaging, transportation, energy use, water use, greenhouse-gas emissions, and toxins.
Given the complexity of assessing the impact of a binder clip, it's easy to imagine how daunting it is to take apart a sneaker or a bottle of hair conditioner. For Aveda, Brown and Wilmanns have developed a "materials tool kit," a 100-page manual listing all kinds of everyday materials—woods, plastics, building materials—and rating them according to their impact. "It allows the buyer to figure out where a material they are currently using, or considering, falls on the scale," says Brown, "and what might be a better alternative." It's a kind of real-time sustainability index.
Brown is even-tempered about the often slow pace of corporate evolution. But ask him where all this is going, and he'll betray a flash of impatient ambition, a drive to speed along what he sees as tectonic shifts in how companies should think about sustainability.
"The cutting edge, the thing that is getting more traction, is the effort to sell services rather than products," Brown says. It's a shift in perspective that can transform a business. It's IBM selling you computing services—server space, processing capacity—rather than actual computers. A company selling computers wants to sell as many servers as possible, without much regard for the power they consume or cooling they require; a company that sells computer services wants the most efficient, cool-running servers it can make. Companies that are able to turn their business inside out this way find that addressing sustainability issues can change from a burden or cost to an opportunity for efficiency and profit.
"The cutting edge is the effort to sell services rather than products."
Says Brown: "If you're a chemical company, you sell the service the chemical provides rather than the chemical itself"—disinfection rather than chlorine. "Suddenly, you want to conserve the chemicals, to find ways to recover and reuse them." Indeed, imagine what Nike might be like if it sold "shoe services" by subscription—the way Netflix rents movies—instead of shoes.
"Michael is fantastic at offering assistance on day-to-day decision making," says Aveda's Conseil. "But what I appreciated was that by showing me the complete picture, he allowed me to dream, to create an agenda for myself and for Aveda for the next five years and the next 10 years. I needed that."
A version of this article appeared in the November 2007 issue of Fast Company magazine.