Earth Day 2024 – An Open Letter From Heartland CEO, Jesse Henry

April 22, 2024 – We live at the intersection of the most interesting time in human history.

  • Politically
  • Economically
  • Culturally
  • Internationally
  • Technologically
  • Environmentally

We are undoubtedly increasing the rate we are consuming goods, services, and information. 

This amplifies volatility in each of these areas (which creates ripples into every other area).

To varying degrees, each of these areas is connected to another area. They move in tandem.

This has created a complicated game of 3D chess that is increasingly difficult to navigate.

I would like to discuss some of the underlying levers that are changing the landscape of the sustainability movement. 

If we can simplify our understanding of what’s blocking society’s ability to make meaningful change, then presumably, we can create a clear path forward.

The Politicization of Words 

Decades ago, we started to politicize words that drive the sustainability movement.

  • Climate Change
  • Global Warming

These words mean different things to different people (especially people who identify as a democrat or a republican).

But over the past few years, society decided to politicize words like:

  • Carbon Footprint – GHG emissions (carbon dioxide, methane, etc).
  • ESG – Environmental, Social & Governance.
  • Renewable Energy – Solar, Wind, Hydroelectric, etc.
  • DEI – Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, which has been tied into ESG.

Politicizing an issue, almost instantly, creates headwinds. ESG is a great example of this.

ESG initiatives are facing headwinds at most companies today because of the politicization of the word. 

The politicization of ESG is creating a headwind for internal stakeholders to advocate for budget and resources that go towards environmental, social, and governance related initiatives. It should not be political to advocate for the environment, social good, and strong governance. 

Being caught in an ESG political crosshairs does not help large companies or local communities. 

Large companies have seen multi billion dollar losses in market cap because their company gets caught up in an ESG PR problem. 

Viral culture amplifies these corporate issues to a global audience. 

To zoom back out, if 50% of politicians are going to oppose taking a step forward on any given issue, then we have to reframe the issue.

Otherwise, we have to engage in education (lobbying) to convince the 50% of people who are against steps forward to open up to change.

The problem is, we educate them by using the SAME WORDS that got us to this over politicized point in time. 

Caring for our planet should have absolutely nothing to do with politics. 

Reframing Sustainability

The sustainable solution is the solution that has longevity.

This means that the sustainable solution is the efficient solution

Executives have been optimizing for efficiency since the beginning of time. 

If an executive at a large company realized that the sustainable solution was the efficient solution, do you think they would spend more time focusing on sustainable solutions?

If we frame sustainability as a focus on CO2, then we have to find a potential stakeholder who is optimizing for solving that problem (regardless of hurdles that may be in their way). 

The Root of The Problem

At the core of this situation is the root of how we structure our problem / solution.

We can not use reductionist methodologies to solve holistic problems

So reducing our problem down to carbon footprint (or CO2), means we have to convince someone that CO2 is the problem. That’s a lost cause (if they do not already see the world through that lens).

It’s not a constructive way to frame the problem.

Let’s look for concepts where we can predictably build mutuality (mutual agreement and understanding between multiple parties).

Externalities

We are all familiar with externalities because of large lawsuits and settlements. Every once in a while, a court decides to hold a big company accountable for environmental or health complications.

  • Think about the agricultural chemicals that have created health problems for farmers. 
  • Think about the baby powder that created health problems for mothers and children. 

These are just 2 examples of multi billion dollar legal proceedings where large companies are held responsible for the impact their product has on human health. 

For every 1 externality we are aware of, there are potentially thousands (or millions) that we are still unaware of.

Externalities are created when we “privatize profits and socialize costs.”

This means that companies make all the profit from the sale of their product, but our society pays for the negative seen and unseen problems those products create.

That doesn’t seem like a sustainable path forward.

To the extent we can, we should try to understand the externalities that are created from the production of materials and energy. 

Why Externalities Are Important

If we know that debating carbon footprint is not going to be productive, then we have to create a discussion that’s bigger than carbon

We can do this by becoming more aware of everything else in the equation besides carbon.

When we zoom out and look at extraction as a whole, what are some of the pollutants we know cause harm to our air, land, water, and health?

  • Mercury
  • Arsenic
  • Lead 
  • Sulfur Dioxide 
  • Benzene 
  • Formaldehyde

These are just a few pollutants that are created through the conventional production and extraction of energy and materials. 

To be clear, there are 100+ pollutants. But, let’s just choose 1.

Can we all agree that sulfur dioxide is bad for us? (Sulfur dioxide is a toxic pollutant known to cause acid rain and human respiratory complications).

Can we agree that sulfur dioxide is bad to have in our land, air, and water?

Can we all agree that humans are creating sulfur dioxide pollutants? (This is known to come from burning of coal, oil, and other fossil fuels).

Can we all agree that reducing sulfur dioxide pollution will benefit the planet?

This is deductive reasoning. No sane human would argue that we should be increasing the amount of sulfur dioxide around us. 

Again, this is just an example of 1 pollutant. The point is to build consensus around something that’s easy to build consensus around.

Pollution

To a varying degree, most people understand that humans pollute the planet. 

We consume energy and materials to produce goods (that, broadly speaking, get disposed of).

People in the materials, energy, chemicals, and manufacturing industries have a keen understanding of this. 

People outside of these industries may not have a strong grasp of how much pollution humans create on this planet. 

It’s sensible to get Democrats and Republicans to agree that:

  • Humans create pollution through the production of goods. 
  • Reducing pollution will benefit all Americans (and health outcomes across the board). 

Now, the conversation becomes: “how do we reduce specific known pollutants in a way that uses technology to minimize the cost and time it takes to change?”

If we can get mutual agreement to reduce pollution (or specific pollutants / chemicals that are proven to be harmful), then we are taking steps in the right direction. 

Greenwashing vs Greenhushing

For years, watchdog groups looked for sustainability claims that couldn’t be substantiated. They called out the largest companies on the planet for one reason or another. 

The term greenwashing has been used to describe companies that make unsubstantiated claims about their products, services, or operations to appear more sustainable. 

On one side, this started to ensure that companies were giving investors and the public validated information. 

On the flip side, this created an environment where large companies do not publicize or promote sustainability-focused innovations. 

Greenhushing is when companies intentionally avoid publicizing their environmentally-friendly actions and goals.

Why would a big company participate in greenhushing? To avoid scrutiny and backlash. 

Cancel culture and viral shaming has driven people to make environmentally-friendly innovations and not even talk about them.

There’s a balance here. We want to hold companies accountable and make sure they don’t greenwash, while also making sure they show the world the strides they’re making toward a more sustainable future.

Promoting these types of innovations helps create critical mass so others in industry feel confident enough to take their first step toward an environmentally-friendly innovation that’s relevant for them. 

Every new Press Release and article about an environmentally-friendly innovation is a new plateau and example for what industry can create if they are committed to change.

Headwinds

Recently, political and economic headwinds have been creating barriers for sustainable solutions to make a positive impact. 

This can involve companies pulling back the reins on R&D and innovation that is focused on a sustainability metric.

So, how do we overcome these headwinds?

Back To The Basics

We have to reground sustainability-focused innovations in performance and cost improvements.

If an environmentally-friendly innovation can improve performance while reducing cost, weight, and carbon footprint, it is smart to focus on the cost, weight, and performance. Let sustainability metrics be an afterthought.

As we experience more economic volatility, price will become increasingly important. 

Since Heartland’s plastic additive is stronger, lighter, and cheaper, we are able to lean on those metrics, and make sustainability secondary. 

If sustainability is the primary (and only) benefit to your product, you risk losing a deal because a company doesn’t want to sacrifice performance, cost, or other efficiencies. 

The Solution: Find The Good Externalities

Focus on the areas you win (the problems you reduce, where you create enhancements, etc). 

For example, when Heartland is talking to farmers, we talk about how.

We Reduce:

  • Soil Toxins
  • Water Usage
  • Traditional Inputs
  • Fuel Consumption

We Improve:

  • Soil Health (Microbial content, water retention, etc). 
  • Income Per Acre
  • Future Crop Yields
  • SoC & SoM – Soil Organic Carbon & Soil Organic Matter

This is what we discuss with farmers when we are looking to introduce a new crop into their rotation. 

The average farmer in America isn’t necessarily concerned with “climate change,” or “global warming.” 

That’s ok. We just need to speak in a language they care about. Soil health. Income per acre. Reducing fuel, water, and traditional inputs. More time with your family and friends.

It can be a constructive exercise to figure out what positive externalities your product creates (or negative externalities your product prevents) that your customer cares about. 

If you go deep enough down that rabbit hole, you are sure to find areas where you can build mutuality or consensus with multiple relevant stakeholders. 

Holistic Problems & Reductionist Methodologies

For many years, I reduced the sustainability problem down to carbon footprint. My obsession became CO2 reduction. 

I didn’t realize it, but I fell into the trap that we discussed at the beginning of this note. I had reduced a very nuanced problem down to carbon sequestration. I had blinders on. 

One of Heartland’s early employees, Eric Austermann, had a conversation with me a few years back that changed my life.

As Heartland CEO, I was obsessed with the idea that we could become earth’s most sustainable company by replicating supply chains of carbon-negative materials. I was focused on optimizing for that outcome.

In a conversation during the early days of Heartland, Eric encouraged me to look at sustainability outside of carbon footprint.

  • How you think
  • How you communicate
  • How you react
  • The food you eat
  • The chemicals you use 

I needed to start thinking about integrating sustainability into my life in other ways beyond carbon sequestration.

This exercise radically changed how I show up in the world. If my way of communicating, thinking, or consuming is not sustainable, I’m better able to recognize it now.

I would like to encourage you to think about how you can show up in a more sustainable way for your friends, your family, your co-workers, your community, and (most importantly) yourself. 

How can little things in your life improve by thinking through the lens of sustainability?

As we celebrate Earth Day 2024, it’s important to remember that we are all cohabitating with the planet. Consider planet earth your roommate. 

Are you treating your roommate in a way that is sustainable?

It’s never too late to take a step in the right direction.

Sending you love,


Jesse Henry