Josh Prigge - Founder and CEO of Sustridge

Josh Prigge - Founder and CEO of Sustridge

We are turning the tables on this episode of Sustainable Nation, and the podcast interviewer is becoming the interviewee. Josh Prigge was recently interviewed for an episode the Sustainable Winegrowing Podcast, so with permission, we republished the interview for Sustainable Nation.

Josh Prigge is a sustainability practitioner, college professor, published author, and public speaker with nearly a decade of experience managing sustainability programs and initiatives for large organizations. Josh is the current CEO of sustainability consulting firm, Sustridge, and has also worked as Director of Regenerative Development at Fetzer Vineyards and Sustainability Coordinator at Hawaii Pacific University.

Complete Transcript:

Our guest today is Josh Prigge. He is the founder and CEO of Sustridge, which is a sustainability consulting firm. Now, you've had a very long and intriguing career in the area of sustainability. Would you agree with that?

Yeah, it's taken me a few exciting and different kinds of places with some different types of organizations. It's been great.

How did you get involved in this area in the first place?

So, I'm from Minnesota originally and my undergraduate degree was actually physical education, so sports was always my passion. So, I was teaching and coaching back in Minnesota right out of college and I just started to become more and more aware of environmental issues like climate change and started paying more attention to these important global issues. After a while, that just became much more of a passion to me than teaching and coaching was. So, I decided I should go back to school and study sustainability and rededicate my career to sustainability. This was back in about 2007, and I was looking for graduate programs across the US and there were only a few at the time. Now they're popping up everywhere - green MBA programs and masters in sustainability. But back then there were a few and one of them was at Hawaii Pacific University. They had a master of arts in Global Leadership and Sustainable Development. And so being born and raised in Minnesota, I thought moving to Hawaii sounded kind of good, so I packed up everything and drove to California, shipped my car and jumped on a plane. I studied in this fantastic program for two years, learning all about sustainability and was fortunate enough to get hired as soon as I graduated as that university's first sustainability coordinator. So I managed sustainability for the university for just under four years. I also served as the president of the Sustainability Association of Hawaii while I was out there as well. So I got a lot of great experience in Hawaii, which is just a hotbed for renewable energy and sustainability. So really great experience out there.

And then the university was going through a number of layoffs, and I was fortunate enough not to get let go, but I figured it was probably a good time to start looking elsewhere and taking the next step in my career. So I looked throughout Hawaii and the mainland United States looking for the best sustainability job. I came across the job at Fetzer Vineyards up in northern California, a wine company in Mendocino County. I was hired on as their director of sustainability, and the title then changed from sustainability to regenerative development. I got a lot of great experience in the wine industry. Fetzer Vineyards is a wine company with about 10 brands, including Bonterra, which is the number one organically farmed wine in the US. It's a company that really has been leading the industry in sustainability for a long time.

So, I got a lot of great experience starting a new sustainability program from scratch at Hawaii Pacific University, and then on the other end of the spectrum at Fetzer, I got the opportunity to take a very evolved sustainability program to the next level. I had worked at Fetzer for about four years and then realized I have all this experience and knowledge and I could make a greater impact in the world working with multiple organizations instead of just one. So, I left in 2017 to start my own sustainability consulting business. Now I'm working with all sorts of different businesses on greenhouse gas emissions calculating, greenhouse gas planning, zero waste planning, zero waste certification, B Corp certification and all things sustainability.

Let's go back to Hawaii and then talk a little bit more about Fetzer in detail, because those are both pretty special kind of situations as far as this topic goes. One of the things that I think a lot of people struggle with is that for a lot of folks, the word "sustainability" doesn't mean anything. It's too nebulous and too soft. They want to know where the recycled rubber meets the recycled road somehow. So, in Hawaii for instance, it is a self-contained ecosystem in a lot of ways, obviously there's a lot of stuff that's brought to the island, but as an entity it's isolated. What were the kinds of things that you implemented and what were your goals when you were there, both at university and also as part of the island wide sustainability program?

At the university, like I mentioned, I was the first sustainability employee. So, I was tasked with really trying to create a culture of sustainability and embed sustainability into the culture of the university. It started with a lot of tracking and reporting. I had to create a sustainability metrics system to track all of our metrics - our waste, water. energy, supply chain and really all of our sustainability related impacts. That's really the first step is to really track everything so you can baseline your organization, benchmark yourself against your peers and understand where your biggest impacts lie and where the biggest opportunities might be. After baselining everything and benchmarking, I led a sustainability report. So, we put out a sustainability report for the university back in 2012 and used the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education reporting framework. They have a reporting system that is specifically for universities. So, corporations have the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) for sustainability reporting, and universities have this AASHE STARS program. So, I took the university through that process.

The first year or so was tracking, baselining and reporting. Then we did a big greenhouse gas emissions report. I led a greenhouse gas inventory of the entire university. So, what are all of the emissions associated with all of the vehicles that are used on campus, all of the energy in the buildings, natural gas, propane, employee travel - all the emissions associated with that. Beginning a new program, that's really what it's all about. It's figuring out where you're at and where are your opportunities for improvement. The after that reporting and tracking, we started looking at some big energy projects and we did some led retrofit projects and looking into renewable energy systems for the campus. We restructured the waste by doing a large waste audit of one of the campuses to reduce the amount of waste pickups and maximize recycling and landfill diversion. So, a lot of really fun projects. It's a lot of fun starting a new program from scratch. Island wide, as the president of the Sustainability Association of Hawaii, that was a nonprofit focused on businesses. So, we were specifically focused on a moving sustainability through the business sector in Hawaii. So what we'll do is have workshops, bring our members out and provide free workshops and educate them on the benefits of a commitment to sustainability, what kind of opportunities are there, the cost savings and really tried to introduce the business community to the B Corp movement. B Corp was relatively new back then and there were only a couple of B Corps in Hawaii at the time.

So, B Corp is kind of the highest standard for social and environmental responsibility in business. A company goes through a large assessment and answers a couple of hundred questions on all aspects of their business - from their environmental impacts to how well they pay employees, what kind of benefits they offer, what kind of community impacts do they have, what do their supply chain impacts look like. It's a really comprehensive program and if you get a certain score, 80 or higher on your assessment, you can become a certified B Corp. So, we focused on that and that's kind of where I really learned about B Corp. I brought that with me to Fetzer. So when I got hired at Fetzer, that was one of the first things that I looked into - going through the B Corp assessment. We got Fetzer to become a certified B Corp in 2015 - one of only a few wine companies in the world that have achieved that. I think that the B Corp movement is continuing to grow, I think there's now over 2,500 B Corps around the world in about 55 to 60 different countries. Patagonia's a B Corp, Ben and Jerry's, a number of a large well-known companies that are really doing a lot of good things. But as consumers look to continue to purchase from companies that share their values and share their beliefs, I think this movement of B Corp and these sustainability certifications are going to become more and more important.

So, that would be the motivation for a company to go down that road to try to draw this next generation. Is that accurate?

Yeah, that's definitely one of them and there are so many others. Attracting new customers, attracting a new demographic that really care about those things is definitely one important thing, as well as building brand loyalty with those existing customers. But outside of that, I think there's so many other benefits, one being just using that certification framework to not only certify but to use that as continual improvement. So, that really just provides a roadmap for your business to continually improve year after year going through that assessment. Another benefit with B Corp is just joining that community. B Corp's love to support other B Corp's. So, at Fetzer when we became a B Corp, we offered a discount to other B Corps out there who are purchasing wine for the corporate events. B Corps love to support each other and they also like to work with each other in creative ways. Ben and Jerry's is a B Corp and also a New Belgium Brewing Company is a B Corp. They actually partnered on a new beer, which was an ice cream flavored beer. So, they had Ben and Jerry's logo and New Belgium's logo on the bottle and on the packaging as a partnership, and that was to bring attention to the B Corp movement and to businesses making powerful impacts in the world and making the world a better place. So there's a lot of great benefits in that world beyond just attracting new customers, but also really being a roadmap for improvement as well as joining those new communities.

Let's talk about Fetzer a little bit because there's a backstory around sustainability before you got there, as you know. The Fetzer family and the company had a commitment to sustainable farming and minimal footprint from the day they decided to crush their first grape, and that goes back decades. They had a very deep commitment to these ideas right from the get go, and that was an era when there were not certifications. Tell me about how these ideas around sustainability get transformed into a culture and become second nature within an organization.

I think that top down support is key. So you mentioned the Fetzer owners, they were all about. That's about as good as an example as you can possibly have as far as embedding sustainability into the DNA, into the culture of a company - an owner who founds the company with the idea that sustainability is key to its success. So that's the ultimate example, but for companies that are implementing a new strategy around sustainability and want to embed it, there's a number of things that will help. Again, the top down support is key, so having support from the CEO and the C-suite, and having verbal commitments from them so that everybody understands the importance. But it's also important to go from the ground up as well. So, having employees lead sustainability programs and initiatives. At Fetzer we had what was called the Re3 team, which is a sustainability team at the company that is made up of employees from all different departments of the organization. This is key in any business who wants to move sustainability forward - having that interdepartmental team to work together to break down silos within the organization so that all departments of the business are working together to identify opportunities around sustainability and also to engage employees. That employee engagement piece is really important. Getting them active and getting them involved in sustainability is key.

And then another important thing is to identify the quick wins and build momentum. So, where's your low hanging fruit? A lot of times companies that are just getting started, there's a lot of energy opportunities. So, energy efficiency, renewable energy, these types of projects have really good payback and help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They're just kind of win-wins all around. Getting those quick wins early, communicating them to your employees and to your stakeholders and showing that initial success of your new sustainability program can really help build that momentum and get employees engaged and get stakeholders excited. So, I think top down support, as well as engaging and activating employees and identifying and working on those quick wins to build momentum are important. And then setting ambitious goals as well and being very clear about communicating your progress towards those goals and communicating in your success along the way, I think are really important in building that culture throughout your organization.

You had mentioned earlier the first thing that you did at the university was to start collecting metrics. That's the idea that you have to measure to manage. How do you identify or prioritize where you put your efforts? What does that actually look like?

Identifying those metrics and understanding where your key material impacts are is what really helps you prioritize. In the wine industry you use a lot of water. That's a big key material impact of your business operation, so that will be a priority in your sustainability program. But also of course, you want to look at return on investment. So, what type of projects are going to have a good payback and are not just important to reduce environmental impacts, but what are also projects that also include good financial payback and also social impacts? So, if you can find those projects that really impact those three different areas financial, environmental and social and have positive benefits for all those areas, you're really hitting on all three. Those are going to be the ones you want to prioritize. If you can identify some of those strong financial payback programs early, you can almost create a revolving fund which can be used specifically for sustainability. If you're just getting started and you have all your metrics, you're looking at your energy, your water, your waste, your greenhouse gas emissions, maybe some of the water projects cost a little bit more and have a lower financial payback. What you could do is focus on those quick paybacks, like the energy projects. So, you look for those projects that will have a good payback and then use those savings from your energy project to fund those slower paying back projects in water or in waste or in emissions or in those other areas. It's just working with your finance department, your operations team and understanding what's important to the business, what's going to have the most impact and then just being smart around strategizing about short term and long term. How can we fund these projects in the short term and how can we fund these larger projects that might take longer to pay back in the future with some of those previous savings?

And you had mentioned the idea of a culture, gaining momentum, you get people to buy in, you take down silos and we start to build. What about resistance to that? Give an example where you had a really brilliant idea, a really great plan, but you couldn't overcome the barriers because of the beliefs of some of the people involved.

I've been really fortunate to be working with two great organizations, specifically at Fetzer who was just so supportive of my work, supporting me and encouraging me to really help take the company to the next level. There wasn't a lot of pushback there. Obviously, there's tradeoffs and things like that. I think the important thing for people in those other types of organizations, where it might be harder to get projects supported, is having the business case laid out so it's not just a sustainability practice that's going to be good for the environment, but what are the other positive benefits of it? What are the other business benefits? And so being able to use that language in promoting your sustainability projects, the business language. What are the business benefits, the financial, creating resiliency in our business and building towards long-term success and long-term health. Thinking about the bigger picture. But also, getting stakeholder support. At the university for example, if I had a project, a big project that I wanted to pursue, I wouldn't just put that project down on paper and write a proposal and take it to my supervisor. I would go to faculty and go to students and go to other staff, and build support so that when I brought that project forward, it was clear that that the university community is in support of this project. I think you can do that in business as well. Speak with your colleagues at work and find out how these projects will benefit their departments and their aspects of the business, and build that support before bringing the project forward.

Tell us a little bit about your current work. Now you have a sustainability consulting firm. So, clients are coming to you because they've identified sustainability is an area in which they want to improve, there are elements that they would like to adopt, and they are coming to you for help. Can you talk to us a little bit about the motivations and the initial contacts with clients when they come to you?

It's a pretty diverse bunch of folks that I'm working with. I'm working with one pretty large wine company right now on their greenhouse gas emissions inventory. They have dozens of locations, they have wineries and vineyards all over California and Oregon, very large operations and a very complex inventory. So, what I'm doing is calculating all of their 2017 greenhouse gas emissions, all their vehicle fleets, all of the emissions in their vineyards from the fertilizer they use, the soil emissions, the winemaking emissions and the vehicles and airplanes. So, that project that I started basically right when I started my new consulting business was from a previous relationship. I worked with a large tax and accounting firm in the bay area called Sensiba San Filippo, and they just became a certified B Corp. So, I was working with them for about six months through the B Corp certification process and they just became the first tax accounting firm in California to become a certified B Corp and they're doing a lot of great work throughout the bay area, a lot of great community work, employee volunteering and pro bono work with nonprofits. They are just a really great company. I'm working with organizations on helping them create their corporate sustainability strategy and working with some businesses on TRUE Zero Waste certification. There's a large apparel company that has a large distribution facility where they distribute their products, and I'm helping them go through TRUE zero waste certification. I'm also working with some local governments in southern California on a composting education and awareness program for their community. So, it's really a lot of different stuff. I have a podcast as well - the Sustainable Nation podcast. We're really just trying to share information from other sustainability professionals around the world. But yeah, some companies are looking to implement new sustainability programs and others are just looking for specific areas of help, like how to help them with their emissions or help them with their B Corp certification or a TRUE Zero Waste certification. It's been a lot of fun just helping all of these different types of businesses make positive impacts in the world.

You said that to make change, you need to be able to speak that language of business and you need to be able to speak the language of accounting. What I'm hearing in the last couple of examples you've given us, it sounds like there are a lot of businesses that are coming forward and putting a lot of effort into their sustainability efforts for more ethics-based reasons. It's the right thing to do as much as anything else. Do you agree that's the case, that that's part of it?

Yeah, I think so. I think businesses are becoming more aware of these environmental crises that we're facing and are starting to understand what the future might look like if we don't change the way we operate. But then again, I think they're all hearing from consumers, especially this younger generation of millennials and younger folks who will soon have the largest purchasing power and in the history of the world. These are folks that are trending more and more that they're looking to purchase from sustainable companies. So, businesses are understanding the long term importance of being a sustainable company. In the world of social media and transparency, I think they're also understanding that not doing the right thing could really destroy value pretty quickly. So it's becoming almost just the new status quo. If you're going to do business, you have to do things the right way or in the long run, you really face a lot more risks than if you don't.

I think you're right. I think we've had a lot of examples in the past twenty years of companies who were not doing things the right way. They were fine for a long time and then there was a fall, if you will. You were talking about doing the things that we need to do to turn things around and this is a really extreme question, but I really want to hear what you have to say about it. Is it too late? I was working in sustainability education and that was talking to a grower, and he did all these fantastic things. I said, "How do you feel you're doing? How do you feel about making progress and do you feel very good about it? You're doing so much stuff." He said, "No. It's way too late. The generation of my granddaughter is going to inherit hell on earth. We've lost it already." I think there are folks that share that view. Do you have a more hopeful message for our listeners?

It's really easy to take either side of that argument of saying, "Yeah, it's too late. We can't save the planet." But I also think it's easy to be optimistic when you see all the amazing things that are happening around the world. I personally don't think it's too late. I'm one of the optimists. I'm really connected and plugged into all these amazing things that are happening, and I see the momentum building. This new movement that we're seeing is exciting. I had mentioned my title at Fetzer changed from director of sustainability to director of regenerative development. That was because of a new strategy that I helped implement at the company, which was moving beyond sustainable to be restorative and regenerative as a company. Let's not just try to minimize our negative impacts and be less bad, but let's actually try to eliminate those negative impacts and focus on creating positive impacts. So instead of being less bad, we're being more good. So, it's not just how can we minimize impacts, but how can we actually make the world a better place. That's a movement that is growing. i might've been one of the first with the titles of regenerative rather than sustainability, but I think there's a few more now. There is also the Net Positive Project, which is a coalition of businesses led by Forum for the Future, BSR in SHINE. This is a number of companies that are recognizing this idea of regenerative and net positive as the next step in corporate responsibility.

So, moving beyond sustainable from actually reducing our emissions 50 percent, reducing water 50 percent, to how can we go beyond that to actually reduce emissions one hundred percent, or actually be water positive and send more water into our water tables than we take out, or carbon positive - sequester more carbon than we emit as a company. So, these are things that people are focusing on now and I think the regenerative agriculture movement, which is growing, is extremely exciting. The studies show that if all agricultural areas where to implement regenerative practices, we would actually reduce the carbon in our atmosphere. We could drawn down CO2 in the atmosphere. We would actually be sequestering more carbon in our soil than we emit as a society globally. So, regenerative agriculture is a very exciting development. I see all these great things that are happening, the increases in renewable energy around the world, the agriculture movement, the zero waste movement, the B Corp movement and I'm definitely optimistic about the future.