Envolve focuses on indentifying 'green' business needs

Monday, March 30, 2009 at 1:00am

Mark Thien is founding partner and president of Nashville-based Envolve Strategies, which begins operations this week and focuses solely on marketing and sustainability consulting for under-serviced “green” businesses, both established and emerging.

Thien has been involved in public relations for more than 15 years and is co-founder of the Nashville Clean Water Project, the largest water cleanup project in Nashville’s history. He also served on the board of the Cumberland River Compact, a watershed organization impacting Kentucky and Tennessee, and is a founding member of Nashville’s professional chapter of NetImpact. Recently, he sat down to chat with City Paper correspondent William Williams.

How can the “green business culture” best impact Nashville?

Green and sustainable businesses are by their very nature “future-oriented” and they promote a healthy business climate that can mean longevity for their service or product. That stability is fed by creativity because green businesses know they will survive best by adapting to new environmental and economic realities. In short, green businesses provide progressive leadership that plans for the future and that’s what we need in Nashville.

How does a company that engages in green business practices prove a specific financial return on investment? Or is it more of a soft return?

It all depends on the business, but plenty of proven cases are out there. Marriott changed to CFL light bulbs in every hotel room across the country — about 450,000 for an estimated 65 percent energy savings. Locally, Lawrence Brothers and J. Gowdy Consulting have spelled out a succinct case for the cost savings of a green home.

The interesting thing is that we work all week long and become so focused on ROI and profitability, yet at home we’ll sort all the paper from plastic for Metro’s recycling program that doesn’t put one additional coin in your pocket. It’s true that some green business practices could be harder to justify in terms of straight ROI. It’s also true that that shouldn’t stop us from doing what makes good sense.

I understand Envolve Strategies uses a screen to align with truly sustainable, green and wellness initiatives both established and emerging, and that you identify companies that are dedicated to responsible business from the top executive down. How do you approach those alliances?

It’s all about credibility. We incubated Envolve for about 10 months, really taking the time to build a genuine operation. At first, we developed a tool to help sustainably minded companies maintain credibility and affirm their values, so we created our 12 Sustainable Client Indicators. Then we realized that it was perhaps more advantageous to keep it as an internal means of identifying strong clients.

We don't want to be so rigid that the companies that are emerging are screened out — and we don't want “the perfect” to get in the way of “the possible.” So we’re not trying to be the green police. We’re simply attempting to identify other genuine operations that align with our approach to all this.

It really goes back to “greenwashing” — calling a product or service “green” without changing much except the appearance — and protecting ourselves and our business against that.

You launched Envolve with what you call a “consortium of business leaders, outdoor enthusiasts, and eco-marketers.” Tell us more.

We did a lot of research over eight months or so and found a trend among other marketing companies in this green space. Generally, we noticed they fall into one of two categories. One group is heavily trained on the science side of sustainability and is sticking their necks out to develop messaging and marketing programs. The other group is more socially inclined. They are traditional marketing firms that are simply “greening up” their client roster.

We’ve put together a different model, mixing folks who understand both the science and social sides of the conversation. This becomes an important point when you consider how difficult and potentially damaging your marketing partners can be if they don’t understand the baseline discussions. We’re simply ensuring a deeper and proper perspective.

Critics contend the “green business movement” is actually anti-capitalism, left-wing, too restrictive, too idealistic, etc. Thoughts?

We tend to focus less on the political motivations because for us green business is really about discovering what works to help our communities become more livable and sustainable far into the future. The folks we know who consider themselves green are less agenda-driven and more open to possibilities that can help solve problems. That kind of thinking tends to produce more creative and cooperation for the good of the whole community.

Depending on the challenge and client needs, Envolve might use specialists in various industry sectors. What is the strategy behind this?

I suspect you’re referring to our virtual agency model, which is completely flexible and enables us to shape our service teams in a way that uniquely satisfies each client. Depending on the client’s requirements, Envolve might bring together sustainability experts, media strategists, operations analysts, graphic designers, Web marketers, event planners and other experts. As the client's needs change, the team makeup can also change.

So we’re assembling the most qualified team at any given moment, which is far different than forcing square pegs into round holes based on who you happen to have on staff. It also introduces cost savings because we're not paying people to hang out all the time. We can pay them for the actual work they do.

My business partner, Jim Deming, is particularly fond of this concept; the virtual model enables us to assemble a stronger pool of talent than any traditional agency can.

Envolve Strategies, from what I understand, is particularly suited for mid-sized and large corporations and non-governmental organizations. Why is this so?

It really gets into our strengths: helping larger organizations that already have something going but want to add sustainability components. Or better, those that have already added some sustainability programs but struggle with getting the message out about them to employees, customers and other stakeholders.

A lot of start-ups will already have this new way of business built into their plan and small businesses probably don’t need a team of outside folks leading them into change. But we are bringing a new set of values and answers to corporate marketing and sustainability executives, who find these complicated discussions are often successful when introduced and helped along by a team like ours from the outside.

Why Nashville?

Nashville is currently home for Jim and me — it has been for a long time — and our own values tell us to start where we are planted and grow our business organically from our roots. Jim and I have both appreciate that the business climate here seems open to progressive companies like ours.

How “green” is the Nashville business community in general?

The Nashville area has some real industry leaders, such as Waste Management, Nissan and Bridgestone Americas, all of which are exceeding industry standards and norms with certain reductions and sustainable practices. And we have a lot of smaller operations here, too, like Oakwood Cleaners, which are all doing great things to tip the scales.

There is real evidence that Nashville’s green economy is emerging but there’s always more room at the table. We do have a tendency to see the same handful of companies stepping up to advocate and advance the cause.

You could say Nashville’s business community isn’t “there” yet, but this sort of effort is ongoing — we’ll never be completely there. But the seeds have been planted and the evidence is becoming more and more apparent that our growth and opportunity will most likely be in green and sustainable businesses.

What is the city’s greatest challenge on this front?

Genuine transformation requires real behavioral change and that means more discipline and hard labor sometimes. My concern is that social marketing has made it far too easy for us to “support” something without actually doing anything at all. That might work for awareness campaigns, but it doesn’t help to ask the next guy to support your sustainable product if you constantly leave all your own lights and computers on.

We must be genuine in identifying and acting on the kind of changes that are needed. Consumers are smart now. They understand hypocrisy and hype, and over time they will discover who is genuine and who is a superficial. We tend to think that eventually it all comes out in the wash.

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