Tuesday, October 13, 2009

IceStone CEO: "Buy American and Ask Questions" - An Interview with Miranda Magagnini

Today, I visited Miranda Magagnini, Co-CEO of one of New York's leading ethical companies, IceStone at its headquarters in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The Brooklyn site, which used to be owned by the U.S. Navy to produce the USS Missouri and other famous war ships, is now home to IceStone, which is waging its own battle for a better world by creating green alternatives to stone surfaces and counter tops. The company, which Miranda runs with Co-CEO Peter Strugatz, produces durable surfaces made of recycled glass and concrete. Their product is not only made from recycled materials but is also recyclable itself. The company has achieved an extraordinary level of certification, including LEED, Cradle to Cradle GOLD, and B Corporation.

Miranda was especially proud of their company's B Corporation Certification since big companies simply don't have the ability to be transparent enough to get B Corporation Certified. There are only 190 B Corporations, including Seventh Generation, Good Capital, and Greyston Bakery (listen to our interview with CEO Julius Walls, Jr. here). IceStone's logo is featured prominently on the B Corporation website. Miranda also showed me a stunning table made from their refined collection (pictured in photo from their website). She also had some cautionary advice for would-be ethical consumers.

"There is a lot of confusion about what 'eco' means. 'Green' has become something that is in the eye of the beholder. While deep green people ride their bicycles to work, others might feel fine just recycling their paper," she said. "People have to make compromises because that is what society demands. We all make decisions everyday. There are trade offs."

Beware of Green Washing

While Miranda was encouraged to see big companies trying to get their minds around sustainability issues and that they are seeing a real business case for the "leaning of products" (or green and lean), she reminded me that it is small businesses that do the innovating. She also warned that some companies are intentionally confusing consumers on green claims. They are "dumbing down" claims on being green. "How many tree frogs do we see on corporate communications? Does it mean anything?"

To avoid falling into these green washing traps, Miranda called on consumers to ask more questions and buy American. Why? Buying products made in the United States helps products that are subject to stricter standards; it employs Americans; it creates jobs; it reduces the U.S. dependence on foreign oil; and it is therefore good for society.

Despite the more stringent labor and environmental standards in the United States, this country has a long way to go in terms of recycling. We are way behind Europe. "And glass has become the orphan of recycling in the United States," she said. In Europe, 95 percent of glass is recycled and it is sorted so it can be used to create higher value products. IceStone uses post-industrial waste instead of consumer waste because the recycling systems are lacking in the United States. Big U.S. beer companies lobby against increasing the cash return value (container deposit legislation), which would make it worthwhile to sort and recycle glass. The big beer companies simply don't want to establish the recycling systems to facilitate the more advanced consumer waste recycling, she told me.

But overall, Miranda is upbeat. "I am pathologically optimistic," she told me. "I have to be as an entrepreneur."

She sees green products as a permanent presence in the market. "Green is not a trend. It is in people's vernacular. People want deeper value. Because money is tighter, people ask more questions." She sees consumers seeking "layers of value," meaning products must be high quality and the company that produces them must demonstrate that they share your values.

Meanwhile, consumers have a duty to ask questions and find out what is inside those products and what went into making them so they can make informed decisions, which can have a collective impact. It has become cheaper to import quartz from Madagascar or stone from China or Africa, where people routinely die in mines and environmental standards are low, than to source the stone from Vermont. "Every time you see mined or engineered stone," Miranda urged me, "think IceStone could be used there instead."

5 comments:

Christine Zarzicki said...

I definitely agree that it is time for all of us, as a global community, to start taking the environment more seriously. Making small changes, such as recycling, choosing a reusable water bottle as opposed to buying a new bottle everyday, or biking to work everyday will in fact make a difference. However, I believe that once you go beyond these superficial "easy" adjustments, staying true to your eco-principles becomes much more complicated. Buying American made products, using alternative sources of energy (solar, wind, etc.,) buying hybrid cars and trucks, and shopping at eco-friendly grocery stores while beneficial to our environment, are detrimental to our savings accounts! Unfortunately being "green" is brutally expensive. And while I realize that all new technologies cost more (whether a HDTV, an IPhone or new pharmaceuticals) it is hard to market environmental friendly innovations to the common consumer. While the advantages of such investments are tremendous (usually in the long run), the lack of tangibility and instant gratification dissuade individuals from wanting to spend the time and money. So my question to you is: How can we expect the everyday citizen to choose the eco-friendly sustainable product that costs a premium, when there is a Wal-Mart around the corner that sells the same thing, at half the price?

Christine Zarzicki said...

I definitely agree that it is time for all of us, as a global community, to start taking the environment more seriously. Making small changes, such as recycling, choosing a reusable water bottle as opposed to buying a new bottle everyday, or biking to work everyday will in fact make a difference. However, I believe that once you go beyond these superficial "easy" adjustments, staying true to your eco-principles becomes much more complicated. Buying American made products, using alternative sources of energy (solar, wind, etc.,) buying hybrid cars and trucks, and shopping at eco-friendly grocery stores while beneficial to our environment, are detrimental to our savings accounts! Unfortunately being "green" is brutally expensive. And while I realize that all new technologies cost more (whether a HDTV, an IPhone or new pharmaceuticals) it is hard to market environmental friendly innovations to the common consumer. While the advantages of such investments are tremendous (usually in the long run), the lack of tangibility and instant gratification dissuade individuals from wanting to spend the time and money. So my question to you is: How can we expect the everyday citizen to choose the eco-friendly sustainable product that costs a premium, when there is a Wal-Mart around the corner that sells the same thing, at half the price?

smatthews said...

I certainly agree with the author regarding the need for people across the globe to make more of a concerted effort to be conscious global citizens when purchasing products. That said, I am leery about the notion advanced in the post that "buying american...creates jobs...and is therefore good for society." As we have seen in the contentious debate on this topic over the past year, there are potentially major consequences to an overall adoption of such a strategy. While seemingly appearing as a panacea to lagging American manufacturing, implementation of a buy american policy by most Americans could have a negative impact on our economy. Not only would it decrease the amount of available funds that the average citizen would have at their disposal (funds which could have been used for major purchases or saved) but it also sends a message to the world that the US is leaning towards protectionism. At a critical point in our history, when we need exports to rise more than ever, this could have disastrous effects.

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