Business in Vancouver column, September 20, 2011

A tool you may have used in strategic planning, and which is often used in sustainability planning, is backcasting. You envision the future as you want it, then work backward to determine how to get there.

But what about envisioning the future you don’t want, and trying to figure out how to avoid it?

This summer I read a novel that had me backcasting furiously. Set in Bangkok a couple hundred years from now, The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi painted a picture that felt all too uncomfortably like a future we would never choose, but may be heading smack into. And the book gave plenty to consider about the role of business in shaping that future.

It’s a great read – good characters, compelling plot, intrigue and drama. (It also won five awards and dozens of accolades from respected reviewers, so you don’t have to take my word for it.) The story and characters take precedence over the apocalyptic backdrop; far from preaching, this book leaves you wishing for more detail about the author’s well-imagined future world.

It’s not a pretty one, unfortunately. But it is painfully believable: cheap, plentiful oil is a thing of the distant past… Read full column


Green economy: Everyone’s talking it up

By Nina Winham, From Business in Vancouver November 16-22, 2010; issue 1099

In recent weeks, ideas relating to a green economy have been at play in both large and small forums in Vancouver. From internationally renowned speakers to small startups looking for advice, the green economy is percolating at an ever-more-rapid pace.

First of all, what is it? The Globe Foundation’s September report, British Columbia’s Green Economy: Securing the Work Force of Tomorrow, says B.C. has six key green sectors that contributed $15.3 billion to the province’s GDP in 2008 – 10% of the province’s GDP that year. The sectors include: green building, energy management and efficiency, clean and alternative energy, environmental protection, carbon and finance investment and green knowledge. Together, they represent 166,000 jobs in the province.

The report says the green components of the economy are growing faster than the economy as a whole – and will continue to do so over the next decade. Globe forecasts this area to be worth between $22 billion and $27 billion by 2020.

More change, more quickly

At this year’s annual BC Hydro Power Smart Forum, Thomas Homer-Dixon of the Centre for International Governance Innovation was invited to speak about progress toward a green economy. Focusing on green-energy technologies, peak oil and climate change, he said the shift to green energy and a green economy will be “as big, or bigger, than anything we’ve seen before.”

Homer-Dixon described what are called “general purpose technology transitions” – shifts in a core technology that produce a wave of change, including an enormous surge of investment, bankruptcy of entire sectors, formation of new industries and sectors, and great opportunity for profit and growth.

Such past transitions include the advent of railroads, electricity, the internal combustion engine and the personal computer. But where those entailed only a single-key technology, Homer-Dixon predicts this one will be characterized by a half-dozen or more paradigm-breaking technologies. Good reason to fasten your seatbelt and start looking hard at where your company will land in a greener, rapidly changing landscape.

Other speakers at the Forum, such as Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts, Chrysalix Energy Venture Capital CEO Wal van Lierop and the sustainability VPs of both Canadian Tire and Sears Canada made it clear that much more than talk is happening across sectors to drive, respond to and benefit from a shift to a green economy. (Many presentations are available at, including archived webcasts of several speakers.)

Growth and change

Across town a few weeks later, a much smaller gathering of entrepreneurs convened to ponder how to make their own “change-making” ventures grow. Ubizo, a workshop organized by business adviser Lisa Princic, owner of Changemakers Toolbox, invited entrepreneurs to examine real-time case studies and offer each other guidance. (In the interest of disclosure, I was involved as a mentor.)

While nearly half of B.C.’s green economy is in the clean energy sector and will be represented by relatively large efforts and investments, smaller ventures continue to help redefine the concept of “business as usual.”

The local companies and organizations that volunteered for self-analysis at Ubizo included: Eclipse Awards, a recognition business and sustainable business leader; Tofino’s Ocean Village Resort, now owned by green developer Robert Brown; Green Bean Baby, a “mompreneur” company producing organic cotton baby clothes; Synapse Strategies, a sustainability consultancy; EcoUrbia, a startup social enterprise hoping to catalyze sustainability actions and networks; and A Little More Good, a multi-author blog focused on social change.

Other participants, who gave feedback on the case studies, were also mostly small-business owners seeking to learn by listening.

They got what they came for in part through storytelling sessions by two of the early innovators in Vancouver’s local social change/sustainability sector: David Van Seters, founder of SPUD organic grocery home delivery, and Madeleine Shaw, the founder of Lunapads International.

These companies, launched in the 1990s, have broken through in new categories, built sales and locations beyond Vancouver and Canada and proven that values-based business can not only make a sustainable profit, but change the way we think about business and society.

Van Seters shared his “agony and ecstacy” experiences in growing a change-making business. (He said for three years SPUD lost $2 on every order, making it hard to decide whether to laugh or cry each time a new customer signed up.) He also offered tips for change-making entrepreneurs.

Shaw shared the dilemmas related to funding a company with strong values that permeate not only product, but work styles, relationships and long-term goals.

They were very different events, the BC Hydro Forum and Ubizo. Traditionally one would have perceived the events to be at opposite ends of a spectrum. They are not.

That there is convergence in the ideas, drivers, aspirations and challenges faced by big companies grappling with change and smaller do-good/feel-good ventures innovating on the edges demonstrates the magnitude of the shift underway. •


Sustainability Cheat Sheet
Business in Vancouver May 18-24, issue 1073 – Sustainability Column

I recently helped a friend prepare for a course in carbon accounting (see below) and realized how fast the lexicon of sustainability is evolving. Considering that just about every facet of business needs some adjustment if we’re to figure out how to live within our planetary means and still eke out a living, it’s no wonder. Still, it can be a challenge to keep up with. So here’s a cheat sheet of a few quickly-becoming-mainstream terms and concepts – if you haven’t heard of them yet, you likely will soon. And if I’ve missed one you think should be included, email me and I’ll get it in a future column.

Cradle to cradle (C2C)
A design principle aligned with nature in that nothing is waste – every end product should be capable of being used as an input to another process. Materials used in manufacture are either “technical nutrients” – non-harmful synthetics that can be used over and over without losing value, or “biological nutrients” – able to be returned to the soil for use by healthy micro-critters. (There’s no “grave” in this thinking – just an elegant ongoing loop of materials.) Read the book by this name by McDonough and Braungart for more.

Product take-back
Producers take responsibility for their products by accepting them back at end-of-life (by regulatory requirement in some cases). This encourages design that allows easy disassembly and recycling of components (including packaging), and discourages hard-to-dispose of toxics.

Design for the Environment (DfE)
An umbrella term that encompasses a variety of design approaches aimed at considering the environmental impact of goods or services over their entire life cycle, including extraction, production, transport and disposal. The US EPA has a DfE standard that helps minimize waste and pollution and allows a DfE label on qualified goods. See their webpage (easy to Google) for more.

Smart Growth
Basically an anti-sprawl urban planning concept, aimed at concentrating growth in cities, retaining green space, providing high quality transit and walkable communities. Lots of case studies and examples at

Five R’s
Most of us grew up with just three “R’s” – reduce, reuse, recycle. Now there are two more lower down in the hierarchy – “recovery,” which usually means some sort of energy from waste system, and “residuals,” which is what’s left for the landfill after every other attempt is made to deal with our waste stream. (“Zero waste” means getting that last R down to nothing.) Despite increasingly sexy and attention-getting technologies for recycling and recovery, the real answer in garbage still lies in the first two R’s – reduce and reuse.

Life cycle analysis
Used two ways – as a design question and a purchasing framework. For design, see DfE and C2C. In purchasing, this invites a robust consideration of all the impacts a product has while in your hands, such as energy use and end-of-life disposal. If a new piece of equipment comes with a low sticker price, check that it’s not an energy hog or a toxic waste problem – and factor those costs into the equation. The higher-priced purchase may be less costly in the long run.

Coined by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, this basically means producing more with less – more durable goods produced more efficiently with fewer resources. Within companies or economies, it can provide competitive advantage. As one sustainability speaker I heard said, “It’s never been a bad thing to reduce waste in a business.”

Carbon accounting
Basically, a method for measuring carbon dioxide equivalents emitted by a process or within an enterprise (also known as your “carbon footprint”). As cap-and-trade systems emerge and markets start to handle carbon trading, accounting for carbon will become necessary. Standards have evolved quickly – if you want to calculate your carbon footprint, use an on-line calculator for a rough estimate, or get someone immersed in this stuff to give you some guidance.

Carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e)
There are a variety of gases that contribute to the greenhouse effect, the increasing layer of insulating gases that are causing global warming by trapping heat at the earth’s surface. Some, such as methane, have a much higher heat-trapping effect than others (such as carbon dioxide). A “carbon dioxide equivalent” is a unit of measure that allows all gases to be compared on a standardized basis commensurate with their relative damaging impact. You can read the math and jargon at Wikipedia.

Sustainability innovation
Not so much a new term as an emerging discussion. Two authors at Harvard Business Review argue that sustainability is the key driver of innovation today (search for those terms and you’ll find it). If crisis tends to beget either failure or innovation, it stands to reason that the hard-edged realities of our limited planetary resources and growing global population are positioning us for some major creative outbursts (and unfortunately, some failures). Getting your business in the game is the only way to see the opportunities, and, some would argue, to survive the shift. The good news: the Harvard folks say it is “simply not true” that sustainability represents a net cost – their study of 30 companies yields bottom and top-line returns.

Nina Winham ( is principal of New Climate Strategies, helping clients build value through sustainability and communications strategy.

Business in Vancouver April 27-May 3, issue 1070 – Sustainability Column

Could you operate with no water?
If oil were $500 a barrel, what would you do?
Can you make money by helping customers use less of your product?

In the depths of the recession last year, sustainability consultant and author Andrew Winston posed questions like these in a book called Green Recovery (Harvard Business Press, 2009). Winston called on businesses to adopt green practices more vigorously than ever, first for their intense bottom-line (survival) value, and second, for their ability to unleash competitive advantage.

“[In late 2008] I was starting to hear corporate leaders say, ‘We can’t afford to do this, we can’t do this green thing,” Winston said in a recent interview. “So the book was written to say, ‘Not only can you afford it, but it’s a risk to your business not to, because you can save money doing this at quick return and often low investment.’ Plus, when things are in flux, it’s a good time to ask some tough questions and think very differently about your business.”

Winston was the guest at a webinar hosted earlier this year by the Vancouver-based Board of Change, where he shared the basic arguments of his book:

• Get lean: work hard on energy and resource efficiency. In 2008, the staff at Dupont identified 245 new efficiency projects that cost $50 million to implement – and saved $50 million in costs per year. A one-year payback and annual profits from then on.
• Get smart: ramp up data collection on water, energy, waste and other resource use. Share the numbers with managers, customers and suppliers. People get more efficient when data is visible – and when a little competition comes into play.
• Get creative: don’t cut funding for R&D. Fuel innovation with savings from efficiencies – and use the added impetus of hard times and disruption to look for new paths forward.
• Get (your people) engaged: synergize innovation by engaging employees in solving their own, the company’s, even the world’s environmental challenges. Green helps galvanize energy and commitment when people are seeking meaning in their work.

Since Winston’s book is now a year old, I called him up to ask what he’s observing, and what may have changed since he set out his mid-recession prescription.

“This may seem obvious,” he said, “but whether or not there’s a global recession, most companies are not flush with cash. Things are always tight, people always have to justify the people they have and the money they’re using. [Sustainability] has to be done on a shoestring, and that’s why you have to start with getting lean and saving money.

“But I don’t know of any company that has pursued these strategies and cut costs, or figured out how to satisfy customers in a way that reduces footprint, that’s saying, ‘Oh, we shouldn’t have done it.’ There’s just too much value in it. [No one] says it was a waste of money.”

Winston says businesses that aren’t working to align themselves for sustainability will have trouble surviving in the “fundamentally changed” world of the near future.

“There’s more and more acceptance that there are big forces coming to bear – resource shortages, changes in demands from customers, pressures from the greening of the supply chain – they’re profound,” Winston says. “So there’s more interest in the innovation side of the story, and thinking big. You have to figure out the questions you need to ask your business, and your industry. There’s just no way around it.”

Which brings us to the questions at the beginning of this column. Winston uses them to stimulate what he calls “heretical innovation.” He tells a story about Xerox, working to help customers use fewer printers and cut back on printing costs.

“What Xerox is fundamentally asking is ‘Use less of our product,’” says Winston. “They want to be the one to sell you that category, but they’re saying you can use less of it in total. That’s a pretty profound question – it’s heretical to our notion of making and pitching and selling as much as we can – but it’s happening in a lot of industries. It’s the classic disruptive innovation story where it’s better if you do it, because someone else will find a solution that uses a heck of a lot less of your product [and steal the customer relationship].” Similarly, Winston tells the story of waste haulers who, facing a world where customers are trying to cut waste, are offering waste reduction services instead of watching their haulage fees dwindle.

“Leading companies have been accelerating their sustainability efforts,” he says. “Then there’s a vast middle ground where there’s a lot of putting it on hold, because sustainability is considered fundamentally a cost. That’s the biggest misinterpretation, and the biggest hurdle.

“It’s a part of being human: change is really hard, and you sort of believe that things will be a direct extrapolation of what they are now. There are plenty of seismic changes in industry that have happened over time, and a lot of people don’t make it. It’s the typical sticking point to change.”

If you’re feeling stuck, read Winston’s book. The recommendations are illustrated with great stories about companies making good on green recovery. If the new game is constant change, it’s one good playbook to start with.

Nina Winham is principal of New Climate Strategies, helping clients build value through sustainability and communications strategy. She writes regularly on sustainability topics.

Published at, which provides subscriber access only.

Of all the writing I did for The Challenge Series, a project telling the story of the sustainable community development at Olympic Village in Vancouver, this is perhaps my favourite. Thought I’d post it to share. ———–


In an environment as water-rich as the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, it is easy to use water with complete abandon. We don’t save it, we throw it away blithely, we think little about how we use it. Water is taken for granted – as it is in many other industrialized, wealthy, water-rich corners of the world.

We overlook important truths when we are frivolous with water. The first is that water – the treated, drinkable, piped-to-your home commodity used in North America for every household purpose – is energy intensive. Every time we use it we depend upon a vast infrastructure that collects, cleans and delivers it to us, then carries it away, treats it and discharges it far from our homes. Using less water saves energy, and reduces the polluting and warming impacts of energy production. Of course, it is easy to overlook what you do not see. In aiming for all sorts of goals, laudable and otherwise, modern cities have effectively rendered water invisible. To allow for unhindered vehicle movement, public health, dry basements, tall buildings, efficient maintenance and development patterns based on straight lines and hard surfaces, modern cities have paved over streams, drained wetlands, channelled water into culverts and pipes, and forced this precious resource underground, inside walls and out of sight.

This causes us to overlook another important truth. We know, scientifically, that our bodies are made of water. But we have lost our relationship to it. Most of us only know it as a flow from a tap. We are unaware of its cycles, its ecology. We forget that we share it with salmon and eagles, forests and farms. We don’t know where it goes when it disappears down the drain.

Water is perhaps the best place to start the shift towards sustainability because it defies non-holistic thinking. It flows from place to place, adapts to any environment, infiltrates any opening. It is a connective tissue, linking us to our landscape and all the life around us – literally flowing through our bodies as it cycles within our ecosystem. Stopping the flow of water is like ceasing to drink – life withers quickly.

The designers of SEFC were told to bring water back onto the landscape, to make it visible, to “Celebrate the Water.”

Celebrate, indeed. For where we have water, we have life. How we treat water is, then, how we treat life. And where we learn to celebrate life – its perpetual flows and transformations of matter, energy, spirit, and yes, water – we take another critical step towards sustainability.


Excerpt from The Challenge Series, Chapter 6: Water and Building Landscape. To see great images and read more about how this innovative development handles water, visit

Hi, and welcome to my occasional blog. I’m Nina Winham. I work in consulting related to sustainability, values-based communications, engagement, and change management. You can visit that part of my life over at the website for my company, New Climate Strategies.  (I have a bio there too, if you want it.)

Over here, I live another part of my life, as a storyteller seeking to understand, share, and just maybe help guide us on the path to a sustainable society. I know this path incorporates elements of technology, business, art and science. It also relies critically on rediscovering our souls – for that is where we make whole all the other amazing endeavours of our human society. And that is why I believe stories are a key to helping us nudge our way forward – they can relay fact and reason while being nuanced by emotion and relationship. They are whole, in the way we must remember to be.

“Stories of the New Climate” is my attempt to capture fragments of a vision – a new climate of civility, global connectedness, healthy enterprise, community wellness, shared wealth, and a rich, respected, and restored ecosystem able to nurture and sustain us. No one story will carry a whole vision of what the sustainable society we must achieve will look like, but it’s my hope that a collection of them may help us gather these fragments into a place of knowing – even if we can’t quite see it – what true sustainability is, and who we must become to attain it.

This blog is not too developed so far – and mostly populated with writing I have done for various purposes – all of it sustainability related in a way. I’ll be adding slowly! I look forward to hearing from you.