GreenOrder: Behind the business of corporate sustainability

What's the secret to a greener company? And how are corporations faring? GreenOrder's Catherine Potter gives us a peek at the business of corporate sustainability.

As the green tide turns and businesses look toward sustainability, firms have sprung up in every corner of the world to help them make and meet goals to please shareholders and board members alike.

GreenOrder is one such company. Officially a "sustainability strategy consultant," the New York City-based company specializes in leading companies into the great green beyond.

So what's the secret to a more sustainable enterprise? I spoke with senior associate Catherine Potter about that and other topics, including the smart grid. She told me that a smarter business isn't just about statistics -- it's also about strategy, too.

SmartPlanet: Tell me about what GreenOrder does.

CP: GreenOrder is a strategy consulting firm. We serve Fortune 500 companies on how they can infuse their business strategy with sustainability -- how they can grow their business and propel forward through green.

There are three platforms that customers look to us for: better performance or operations, better products and better influence and leadership.

We serve a number of clients that are either active in the smart grid ecosystem or thinking about participating in it.

I'm a senior associate, which means that I project manage and work in energy, retail and other spaces. I bring to GreenOrder four years of policy experience and experience at OPower, which serves utilities on how to shape residential habits around energy.

SmartPlanet: I'm a consumer who gets an electricity bill every month. Why should I care?

CP: Up to 70 to 80 percent of consumers have never heard of the smart grid. There needs to be a lot of consumer education, awareness and engagement around the potential of the smart grid. It has the potential to provide better service, greater satisfaction, better comfort and convenience.

Utilities need to get the message to customers right. It's not just about the meter. They need to share what the value of it is to them. One aspect is talking about how the meter outside your home that no one can glean information from is antiquated. It's decades-old technology that has served us over time. You stand to benefit from technology gains. The meter is sort of an enabling tool.

Not all customers are the same. For quite awhile, utilities have been able to get away with treating their customers the same, because they were focused on reliability. Now, it's no longer sufficient to treat them all the same. It's looking within the residential, commercial and industrial sectors for those differences.

What matters most to them? Often, it's cost -- how they can keep their bills at a reasonable or reduced rate. The same way we choose cell phone plans that make sense for us, utilities have to think about simple plans and offers that are targeted to different customers. And the first step is understanding your customers.

SmartPlanet: Your clients include big names like General Electric, General Motors and Polo Ralph Lauren. What do you tell them?

CP: One thing that we advocate strongly is that you need to have a comprehensive strategy. You need to look at what the capabilities are that are required to succeed. In this space, many players have internal capabilities, but most likely they'll need to look outside their organizations for strategic partners they need to succeed.

The smart grid space is a complex ecosystem. It's very dynamic. There's a lot of change going on. There are players coming to this space that you may not expect. An example of this would be Google or Home Depot.

For each company, what's their unique contribution to the space? It's about being very clear.

There are a lot of components that are very important. Think about where your company has a strength and where you want to distinguish yourself. What's your core competency? How do you really leverage that? Cisco's core competency, for example, is around IP technologies and networks. They would want to think about their strategy building from that as their core strength.

It's a different set of questions for each company to figure out where they can be competitive.

SmartPlanet: Tell me some lessons you've learned about companies trying to go the sustainability route.

CP: I've learned that not all customers are the same.

Another thing that I often hear players talk about is data or information, more data points from a smart meter. Information is not sufficient. Customers need insight.

Seasonal patterns aren't going to mean much to the customer. You need to give them very specific key takeaway messages: you can save money if you do this. Just thinking through not just that there's a proliferation of data, but what that data enables to you.

The corollary to this is that technology is not a silver bullet. There's a lot of, "This is a new era." Technology is important, but it's not sufficient.

Take LEED buildings. Buildings don't always perform as designed. In many cases, LEED-certified buildings actually perform worse after certification. So if you're managing a portfolio of commercial buildings or stories, you need to work on continuous efficiency, or "continuous commissioning," as it's called -- finding places that aren't efficient and making them so. Have a constant eye to managing that building in an efficient way.

We look at these as a strategic example. We don't go in and audit a facility. But clients ask us to look at their footprint and their operational opportunities within their sustainability initiatives. Identifying outliers and thinking about how that ties into their core business strategy. In the end, how do you actually drive business value and use that as a differentiator?

SmartPlanet: It's 2010, and most major corporations are on board with going green, because now it has financial impact. They already buy the argument. So how do you justify your paycheck?

CP: We're centered around risk management, but we also focus on sustainability leadership. Companies that are looking to transform markets and propel their business forward in dramatic ways.

A client isn't always at that point where they've fleshed out that business case to move initiatives forward. On the other hand, clients who have "gotten it" -- seeing green as an opportunity and looking for ways to capture it -- we work with them on ways to refine it and shore up their success.

In the smart grid space, it could be thinking about the next five years and how you get there. It could be thinking about their policy agenda. Or capital. There are policies that could help or hurt the growth of this business area.

In addition to policy, it's [the emerging power of] China; it's the changing customer. We help our client through different scenarios and how they're going to shape their destiny.

SmartPlanet: What's the hardest part of your job?

CP: At the beginning of working with a new client, one of the most important things is to listen and understand the unique context that they're operating in. Their internal dynamics, and how they approach things culturally and from a business standpoint. The better we can listen and understand at the beginning, the better we can help.

Things are not always as they seem. What's hard is to strip away our incoming expectations, have an open mind and really focus on understanding them.

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