Beyond the Cliche: Why Efficiency Needs Success Stories, Not Catchphrases

January 5, 2015
Catchphrases are making practical solutions like energy efficiency look tired and boring, says the Institute for Industrial Productivity’s Jigar V. Shah.

Published in Greentech, 5 January 2015

The term "low-hanging fruit" has become a rapacious weed in energy and environment circles. But it’s not the only catchphrase taking over our conversations.

As I flip through energy efficiency articles and reports, I am struck by a plethora of other phrases embedding themselves in our language, like "low-cost" and "no-cost"; the need to move our focus "from the shop floor to the top floor"; or going "from the boiler room to the boardroom." 

I cannot help but replace the phrase with "from the boiler room to boredom” -- because these terms, while very clever and inventive when first coined, are now stultifying clichés due to overuse.

When it comes to green issues, it seems the only way to attract a crowd is by peddling puns, neologisms and phraseology. In looking for a magic solution for the world’s ever-increasing emissions and waste and pollution, we’ve bowed down to catchphrases. 

Moderation, good sense and logic have always been hard concepts to sell, regardless of the product. But to take action against climate change, we’ll need to do exactly that.

Energy efficiency is perhaps one of the best weapons we have against rising greenhouse gas emissions, yet people are not sitting up and taking notice because it’s simply too practical and doesn’t have all the whiz-bang appeal of other technologies. It’s just not enough to argue that energy efficiency is the fastest and most cost-effective response to growing energy demand and the global climate crisis. It’s difficult to get people excited about how it brings a host of benefits to human health and the environment, generates jobs and drives economic growth.  

We shouldn’t need to dress up such a practical solution with fancy turns of phrase or adorn it with fruit of any kind. But if a plain meal doesn’t entice people, we can at least use the oldest trick in the book: storytelling. Stories have always proven effective to engage people on complex issues.

We need stories like the health and safety tale about Paul O’Neill, the former CEO of the metal manufacturer Alcoa, and what he achieved by putting his workers’ safety first. His goal was to make Alcoa the safest company in America and cut workplace accidents to zero.

He almost hit that impossible number, and profits went the other way: up, up, up. How did he do this by focusing on just the metric of safety?

According to Charles Duhigg, who penned The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, this singular focus rippled through the whole company and instilled a new culture. By opening the lines of communication on safety, workers were soon calling to tell their managers about all their great ideas -- ideas that, once implemented, saved the company money and increased profits.  

As for the safety record, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, employees were rarely sidelined by injuries under O’Neill’s leadership. Lost workdays fell from 1.86 per 100 workers to 0.2 during O’Neill’s thirteen-year tenure. That’s proof of the power of transformational change, something other companies can aspire to in creating better businesses.

Another example is that of Paul Polman, the inspirational CEO of Unilever. Polman is acutely aware of his responsibility as a leader in a multi-billion-dollar company with sites all over the globe. Every inch the social entrepreneur, he has been very vocal about the environmental impact of business, including at the U.N. General Assembly. These words have been backed by tangible actions.

Under Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan, which Polman has driven, the company aims to halve its environmental footprint by 2020 while cutting costs, increasing profits and becoming more competitive. The plan seems to be working. Carbon dioxide emissions from energy used in manufacturing were 32 percent below 2008 levels in 2013; 75 percent of its factories now have zero waste; and the company has avoided cumulative energy costs of €150 million since 2008 by improving its energy efficiency.

I also have a story about Ken Nelson, an energy efficiency expert and engineer. When Nelson was responsible for energy efficiency at Dow USA, he made some radical changes by challenging employees to get involved. This was back in the 1980s and '90s, when energy efficiency was just a cost-saving measure rather than a potential solution for climate change. Instead of going the traditional route of auditing, measuring and then proposing energy efficiency projects, he ran a competition at the Louisiana plant to see who could come up with the best solutions.

The first year, Dow had just 27 projects. They cost $1.7 million to run, but the return on investment was 143 percent. Ken thought, "This is good, let’s do it again," and in the second year, employees came up with 32 projects at a cost of $2.2 million, and the ROI went up to 340 percent. It didn’t stop there. The ROI got up to $37 million in one year at a cost of just $7.5 million. You can read more about this story in Amory Lovins’ great book, Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for a New Energy Era.

Jeremy Moon, the CEO of merino wool clothing company Icebreaker, offers yet another example. Moon has put sustainability front and center of his company, even inviting customers to trace their garments back through the entire supply chain to the sheep station, using the company’s unique “Baacode” system

If I were to plug the number listed on my merino wool sweater into the company website, I might learn that the wool came from Branch Creek Station in Cardrona Valley, New Zealand, and that one of the farmers, Glen Curtis, met his sweetheart (and now wife) working on the farm (she was the daughter of the boss); or that the sweater was produced in a factory that has a commitment to minimizing environmental impact; or that the “plastic” packaging is in fact made from vegetables. Moon is right on the money in connecting customers to his brand in this way. Drawing people into a story and giving them heartfelt experiences are surefire ways to provoke positive change and incite them to take action on important issues.

I’m certainly not the first to push the point, and I won’t be the last, but it’s time to get into people’s hearts instead of their minds if we’re to do something significant about climate change. Energy efficiency is a tool we can use to drastically cut our greenhouse gas emissions -- but we’ll need to tell the story in a way that we’ve never told it before. 

This is an invitation to all of you who have inspirational stories about people that championed energy efficiency and environmental sustainability and won hearts and minds in the process. Share your stories. We’re listening.