This is part of a series of interviews from people who participated in TEDxDirigo which took place in Portland, Maine, on Sept. 10, 2011. Read Roger Doiron's interview here, with more interviews to follow.
John Rooks lives in Portland, Maine, and runs the SOAP Group, a marketing and communications agency that specializes in sustainability. I have known him for a few years and profiled him back in April. He's one of the sharpest green thinkers I know and is a heck of a nice guy to boot. He helped me land an invite to TEDxDirigo a couple of weeks ago when I heard him give a presentation on the need for businesses to be authentically green.
John kindly agreed to take some time to answer a few questions.
MNN: What is special about Maine?
John Rooks: What attracted me to Maine 12 years ago was the lifestyle to cost-of-living ratio it offered. It’s a pretty cheap place to live considering all that it has to offer: plenty to do, decent schools, neighborhoods, culture, ocean, mountains, music, etc.
Maine attracts, that’s what is special about it. People want to come here. They are drawn to it. I don’t think many people are relocated to Maine for a job. I think they come here with intention and are willing to make their own way to make that happen. When that happens, a cool crazy culture grows around it.
And winters. Winters are special.
How should people get more involved in the world?
Engagement is certainly something we need more of. Politically, environmentally, socially, personally … there are lots of ways to get involved. One thing I spend a lot of time writing and talking about is authenticity, but I’m the first to admit that I’m not specifically authentic myself. I’ve got masks and postures I pull out in different situations — but I try all the time.
We’re designing employee engagement systems for some of the most progressive companies in the world. We’re literally traveling the globe working with factory workers helping them see their jobs through the lens of sustainability. Lots of businesses are well on the way to understanding and improving the mechanics of sustainability; the next step will be the culture of sustainability. That starts with more involved employees at every level.
[Shea's note: I invited John to come up with and answer his own question here.]
What creeps you out?
I just re-read "Dune" and was newly fascinated by the stillsuits they wore. The stillsuits were designed to preserve and filter the body's moisture and urine, so the desert dwellers could drink it. And then I see an article out just last week about the Raincatch, a poncho-like jacket that captures and purifies rainwater for consumption. It’s a crazy world.
What's the first step a company should take towards being authentically green?
Perform an Authenticity Audit. It sounds contradictory because there is this belief that Authenticity just Is, that you don’t have to work at it. But we have to work at being nice, not judging people and other virtues, so why not Authenticity? And anyway, corporations are not people. Corporations are complex systems that don’t always communicate, that don’t always play by the rules of sustainability, and have multiple brains, hearts and minds.
Completing an Authenticity Audit gives companies a unique vector into understanding priorities and impacts of their business. The audit reveals authenticity gaps where we can find new innovations, align policies, reduce competition for internal resources, etc. It’s designed to make companies stronger.
Is there any value at all in being inauthentically green?
There use to be. We called it Greenwashing. Greenwashing had real value, in that it increased the visibility of the concept of sustainability. That strategy comes with risk, of course — we risk the entire movement jumping the Fonzonian shark. Today, I think it doesn’t serve much purpose.
One of my clients once told me they wanted to get caught doing good things. They didn’t want to market it. There’s a nice strategy in that, I think.
What is heirloom design and why should we care more about it?
I learned the phrase from industrial designer and energy entrepreneur Saul Griffith, though I’m not sure where it started. It’s about producing products that are designed to increase in value over time. To me, it’s about giving products more meaning than their functional use. We try to take this approach when working with businesses that are looking to understand, improve, communicate and own their impact in the world. We help them answer the question: where do they have more meaning than simply being a business? (Shea's note: I'm a huge fan of Saul. You can read more about his work here and here.)
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