Letters From The Earth

Music, nature and measurement

By Calvin Frost | January 23, 2013

Dave Brubeck died. Many of you may not know him. Many of you may not recognize his sound, his music. Those who knew him and listened to his sound realize he was a genius. In my view, he was as creative and innovative as the three B’s: Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven.

I met him in 1959, in an airplane hangar in a cornfield in Ohio. Six hundred of us were drinking beer at four o’clock one Saturday afternoon and we couldn’t get enough of his sound. Paul Desmond was on alto sax. I wish I could tell you the names of the bass and drum players. It was a quartet of incredible sound, a musical experience I will never forget. I met Dave Brubeck because I was one of the organizers.  We shook hands and he wondered if he and the others could have a beer. Needless to say, he had more than one.

Such are memories. I have a friend who lives in Norwalk, CT, where Brubeck died. He will understand my sadness because he has played Brubeck for years. This column is for both of them.

I grew up in the 50s and 60s when Brubeck was king and when “green” didn’t mean a thing.  We had commune-style living, something I think I wanted to experience but never did. (I do like clean underwear so maybe it’s just as well I didn’t participate.) I suppose listening to Brubeck in a cornfield was my idea of commune living.

Music has always been a priority in my life. I think that led me to harmonizing with nature and, eventually, as my career became more defined, a love of preserving the environment in any way possible. As history would have it, I entered the recycling industry in 1969, and the next 10 years, during a series of moves and employment changes, went from traditional recycling to focusing on the development of alternatives to landfilling “non-recyclables,” which I define as coated, treated, and laminated papers and films. Today my entire focus is the development of environmental solutions for those same substrates. It’s my world. I read, breathe, and eat anything and everything that has to do with offering solutions for the by-product that is generated in the supply chain of these materials. Of course, the end product for all is packaging.
I suppose this is a preamble to the columns that you will read from me in 2013. They will focus on solutions and problems that we all encounter, whether they are environmental or economic.

A great example of the solution/problem dichotomy is the ongoing argument I have with a friend, not a colleague, who lives in Wisconsin, one of the four “greenest of green” states (California, Oregon, Minnesota and Wisconsin). He doesn’t look at by-product diversion as an environmental responsibility.  Instead, he looks at the economic impact.  Which is the cheapest solution – throw or divert? He is not concerned about environmentally responsible alternatives.  He is concerned about cost. I honestly think if my friend listened to Brubeck’s chord tonality he couldn’t miss the message. Take Five drives one to energetic participation in schemes that have economic and environmental balance. Harmony. I suppose it’s a stretch, but I tend to think that one’s views and focus on music make the person more harmonized with the environment, even at the expense of the bottom line.

All of this leads me to my introductory message for this year: measurement. Everything we do today, personally and professionally, is being measured. When we talk about sustainability we use the oft repeated definition, “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This definition is succinctly accurate and fully valid.  It is measurement of one sort or another. The definition is not at all specific in terms of what it means for an entity, whether an individual or a corporation or a country. In fact, it is this lack of specificity that allows companies to develop their own personalized (Brubeckish) definition of what sustainability means to them. And, this is okay.

Really, if we think beyond ourselves, our company and geography, it only makes sense to have individual definitions of sustainability. We currently have a global population of 7 billion people. Many, if not all, have specific needs that require different focus points. Indeed, there is no simple way to quantitatively state, to measure, what is sustainable or not. Poor practices may be sustainable if the entity is only engaged in a small way. Many organizations are simply focused on moving in the direction of sustainability. However, the moving means making positive, meaningful change to reduce and negate the impact of their lives, their operations and products and services. When you get right down to it, most sustainable improvements are really a matter of making changes that reduce and void negative environmental impacts.  And this, too, is okay. It’s the fact that the entity is making an effort to improve. It isn’t how much they improve, but rather the effort to improve that is most important. Measurement is infinite. The entity sets the beginning and the end. Are you with me?!

That’s why metrics, measurement, really matters. Over the years, some companies in very diverse industries were quick to claim they were sustainable, whether they were preserving forests or offering dignity to their workers. Today, that’s not good enough. Today you have to prove it. Today we have tools that allow companies to measure their progress on environmental and social issues. (TLMI’s LIFE is a good example of an environmental management system that requires measurement). While measurement is only part of the story it does take “greenwashing” out of the picture. Measurement paints a story that is accurate and describes the direction in which a company is headed. As Leon Kaye notes in comments in Make a Different Day, measurement reduces “self-promoting rhetoric that frustrates stakeholders and invites only more criticism instead of much needed collaboration, necessary to revenge environmental degradation, social injustices and corruption.” It is far easier to bend the truth than it is to manipulate the numbers.

Unilever, the international food and consumer products company, has integrated sustainability into its business model and branding. Unilever has pushed for a “global focus on food waste, established a foundation to assist one billion people on health and wellness challenges and weaned the company away from irresponsibly sourced palm oil.” Most importantly, they have backed up their “sustainable living plan” with metrics. They are transparent and share missed targets with successes.

UPS is another company that is open about its sustainability performance. This is not easy for a company that makes its living on trucks, airplanes and the impact its operations have on the world’s environment. Nevertheless, UPS is totally transparent when discussing greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption and waste. No one wants to admit they had a higher percentage of penalties within their total environmental inspections. However, UPS is forthcoming about this data point and others when the company falls short. At the same time they admit they have challenges, they are also proud that they have created a safer workplace. Therein lies the strength of the UPS metrics:  steady improvement on the key performance indicators appropriate to the company’s core business.

It seems to me that the message is clear from the above three examples. First, transparency is absolutely imperative. Second, perfection is probably never possible. And third and most important is the effort to demonstrate externally (public and shareholders) and internally (employees) that we are making a commitment to do our best.

From Brubeck to measurement to harmony. I’ll be using measurement as we wing through 2013 with a belief that we can and must improve our impact in our supply chain. That’s how I see it from here on earth.

Another Letter from the Earth.

Calvin Frost is chairman of Channeled Resources Group, headquartered in Chicago, the parent company of Maratech International and GMC Coating. His email address is