Forward07 Recap

First off, a huge thank you to Brooks Gilley over at 52 Ltd. and the AMA group that pulled together the Forward07 event. It was a great time, and the speakers and panel were spectacular. The discussions and topics really made me think, which is exactly what this kind of event is supposed to do.

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(Sorry for the blurry photos… I didn’t want to use my flash, and, well, this is the result.)

Ray Anderson from Interface kicked things off. He’s an incredible speaker. No PowerPoint presentation, just Ray and his ideas and passion. You’ve got to be pretty confident in your story to do this, and Ray was. He told stories about biomimicry and how it has helped innovate Interface’s products. He talked about how permission to fail from the top spawns innovation and ideas, and that the best way to have good new ideas is to stop having the old bad ideas. He said why “compliance is not a vision,” and talked about Interface’s quest is to go beyond zero harm to the environment to making the earth a better place (Interface’s Mission Zero). I could go on and on…

Really inspirational, not just about the environmental aspects of sustainability, but about fundamental change in the way business is done. He realized what his company was doing to the world, and decided change was not only necessary, but his duty. He said something along the lines of, “If no one leads, who will follow?” That’s what prompted him to start, because someone has to. And finally, his belief in “doing well by doing good.” Great stuff. Go see Ray speak if you have the chance.

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Ray was followed by an interesting panel discussion with (from left to right in the blurry photo): Brian Rohter, CEO of New Seasons Market; Ian Yolles, VP of Marketing at Nau; Kierstin De West, Founding Principal of Conscientious Innovation; Jason Graham-Nye, CEO of gDiapers; and Bill Scott, General Manager of FlexCar in Portland. (All the names link to their site or blog.) Building on what Ray spoke about, these folks expanded on the idea of “doing well by doing good.” They were all entertaining, and each told great stories about their businesses, from their start to where they are now. As a new business owner, I loved hearing Ian talk about how Nau put additional language in their Articles of Incorporation, specifically about going beyond financial responsibility to include social responsibility, environmental responsibility… the “doing well by doing good” ideas. Basically, they want to change the way that apparel business is done, and be held accountable by their own company articles. Makes sure you do business the right way.

One thing bothered me, though… gDiapers cost 15% more than traditional diapers, the same stuff we buy at Fred Meyer costs between 10 – 20% more at New Seasons, and a t-shirt at Nau costing $55 (though it’s on sale now for $39.75, so if anyone wants to get me that sweet olive/carbon fade in medium, I won’t complain). Substance is in the business of creating premium brands, so this is somewhat cynical of me to say… but how can most people afford to purchase environmentally friendly diapers, shop at New Seasons, and wear Nau clothing? I understand that sustainability and efficiency make businesses more profitable (Ray talked about this with Interface), and that as a consumer we’re buying more than just a product, but an environmental and social investment. But with a median household income of around $46,000 in the United States in 2005, how can charging more result in more people being more sustainable, environmentally friendly, and eating locally produced food? How does it benefit people if they can’t afford it fiscally?

Both David and I bike to work fairly often. We both love riding, and there’s nothing like experiencing a beautiful Portland morning by bike. But one of the biggest motivators for me, beyond love and fitness, is the fact that gas is about $3.40 a gallon. It’s more economical for me to bike than for me to drive. So will I shop at New Seasons when Fred Meyer charges $15 for a pound of grapes and shop at Nau when a t-shirt from Old Navy costs $50? I don’t know, because I love shopping at New Seasons for the food and the customer experience, and I’m also a slave to fashion. I’m probably not the best person to ask about paying more for a premium brand. Anyway…

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After lunch, Kevin Carroll gave an amazing presentation. Kevin, unlike Ray, had some screens and some props. They were great props. Posters, books, CDs, and balls, balls, balls. And he shared… giving gifts to many audience members. Oh, and a Box of Magic. Can’t forget that. Kevin shared his belief in the benefits of play at work. Not just play for play’s sake, but play to improve inspiration, ideas, and keeping the fuel tank full of energy.

Two of Kevin’s quotes really stood out for me: “ingenuity over technology,” and “not mission statements… inspirational dreams.” The “ingenuity over technology” is something we’ve been a huge proponent of. Technology merely provides a tool. Ingenuity provides the thinking on how to use the tools in the most effective way, and use the tools in ways they were never intended. These are the ideas that come up with new thinking, including technology.

“Not mission statements… inspirational dreams.” That’s what we believe. Our inspirational dream is Substance, and there’s no way we’d want to (or be able to) sum up what we’re doing in a mission statement. Things like passion, beliefs, and spirit… those are the things that great companies are made of, not mission statements.

Obviously a lot was covered at Forward07. While I tried to give a short summary, I think I’ve merely raised more questions and ideas. Hopefully those of you who attended share this result from the conference. And we’re also curious to hear what you thought… post your comments about the event and the ideas. Thanks!

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