Sustainable Business Lessons from Green Pop Culture Icons

Mon, Aug 31, 2009

4. Leadership

If, like me, you were a television-obsessed kid in the early 90’s, you no doubt remember a cartoon called Captain Planet and the Planeteers. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, here’s a short synopsis: five teenagers from around the world work together to stop the evil forces of industrialization and pollution from destroying the Earth. Each teen has a ring that corresponds to one of the four classic elements – “Earth, Fire, Wind, and Water “- along with a fifth one called Heart (and if you’re singing the theme song to yourself right now, you’re not alone), which when placed together summon a mulleted blue superhero named Captain Planet. If this all sounds stupid and heavy-handed to you, it’s because it is and it certainly hasn’t aged well. But it was good-natured edutainment that taught me a lot of valuable lessons about our human duty to the planet and each other. If you have time, find an episode on YouTube or even VHS and experience the inimitable eco-cheese that reared an entire generation of guilty suburbanites.

My reason for taking you along this little detour into my personal cul-de-sac of misplaced nostalgia is to show you that inspiration for sustainability comes from all sorts of places. We often look to nature when thinking about product design and environmentalist ethos, but plenty of useful tips can be found on the other end of the civilization spectrum, namely in the black, clamorous, wretched miasma that is American pop culture. Don’t believe me? Take a look at these five modern pop culture icons and see if you can’t learn a thing or two from them.

Kermit the Frog: Remain positive in a crisis.

The face of the Muppets and their de facto leader, Kermit is famous for singing that old phrase that to which sustainable businesspeople are so accustomed: It’s not easy being green. But while the humble, felted hero has run into his share of problems at various points throughout history and literature – pirates, monsters, aliens, ghosts, jail, bankruptcy, circus accidents, show production mishaps, and mutated garbage – he always maintains a positive outlook and helpful demeanor. But perhaps the most important lesson we can all learn from Kermit is simply, “Don’t give into the pig.”

While the premier Muppet has an actual pig on his back at any given moment, all small businesses have a Miss Piggy in some form or another. Maybe it’s the difficulty of obtaining LEED certification, maybe it’s the constant media attention on the bad economy, or maybe it’s your own doubts about success, but whatever is holding you back can only control you if you let it. Learn to embrace your obstacles to overcome them. Just don’t let them trick you into marrying them.

Green Lantern: Find creative solutions to larger-than-life problems.

Whether it’s Hal Jordan, Alan Scott, Guy Gardner, John Stewart (no, not that one), or Kyle Rayner, the Green Lantern has always been a superhero defined by one quality: his creativity. Like the aforementioned Planeteers, Green Lantern’s power comes from a ring imbued with celestial energy, enabling him to give life to any form his mind imagines, powered only by his strength of will (talk about zero-footprint!) and limited only by the wearer’s inhibitions. Each of the Green Lanterns over the years had a relatively normal job – test pilot, architect, comic book artist, before bearing the responsibility to protect the universe, demonstrating that anyone and everyone holds the fate of our world in his or her hands. On a more practical level, Green Lantern teaches us to lose our egos when doing our part. Ask any member of the Green Lantern Corps, and he’ll tell you that it’s the costume and not who wears it that is what’s truly important. Just don’t expect them to fight the other Ego Ego the Living Planet because he belongs to Marvel, not DC.

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Treat employees with respect.

Essentially brought into existence by toxic pollution, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are one nasty, monstrous, pizza-covered example of what can go wrong when you mix mankind’s pollution with nature’s beauty, but there’s no refusing the unique appeal of these illegitimately-born crime-fighters. What’s most important about them, however, is the example they set for teamwork and good employee relations. From the hot-headed Raphael in middle management at your office to the nerdy Donatello working as IT Supervisor, each of us has our own set of talents and personality quirks. But instead of focusing on our differences, it’s imperative that we work together, not only within the company, but with all businesspeople, to fight the forces of Shredderer, climate change.

Green Day: Develop a brand early.

The mega-popular rock (some may argue “punk”) band aren’t exactly known for their sustainable touring practices or activism, but from a musical standpoint, their lesson to small business environmentalists is undeniably clear: keep it simple. Market your business the same way Green Day markets their lyrics with the same three power chords. In other words, build a brand – it doesn’t have to be creative as long as it’s memorable. Also, trust in your fan base. Green Day was basically a niche band for ten years before they really hit it big. If you can maintain a simple brand and supportive constituency, it’s only a matter of time before you click on a larger level, so pick a segment of the market and stick with it or wind up an American idiot.

Yoda: Teach others and let them teach you.

He lives in a swamp, meditates all day, hates using electricity, and at 800 years old, is probably a vegan. I challenge you to find a better or more respected example of a carbon-conscious life form in this or any other galaxy far, far away. And though he may be dead, Yoda’s influence lingers, which just goes to show that it’s not the scale of your efforts, but who you reach. Find masters and padawans in your field and help to train others as they train you. None of us, no matter how strong we are with the Force, can presume to understand how it works. No one knows the secrets to running a successful business, but we can all teach each other to close our eyes and have faith.

There are certainly more and better examples of green pop culture icons, but I thought I would take this opportunity to show you a geek’s perspective on the sustainability/pop culture link. Most importantly, never dismiss anything as a bad idea. If Captain Planet could get made and even influence a little kid enough to make him want to write for a website like this one when he grows up, why shouldn’t your business be able to succeed and even thrive?

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