FORTUNE — Fortune’s annual
Brainstorm Green conference
brings together individuals who strive to build a sustainable future across various industries. In this weekly feature, we shine a spotlight on an attendee to offer their personal insight on business, environmentalism, and entrepreneurship.
Elizabeth Turnbull Henry, senior manager for energy and environment at adidas Group (ADDDF), runs many of the company’s energy and carbon initiatives from Canton, Mass. We asked her about what companies she admires, the best advice she ever received, and her take on the “green” industry. Read on to learn more about Henry’s outlook on sustainability in addition to her remarkable (and solar-powered) living situation throughout grad school.
1. What energy projects or technologies are you most excited about?
I am very optimistic about the future of LED lighting technology. Costs are steadily falling, and quality continues to climb. We recently retrofit our adidas, Reebok and Rockport outlet stores in the U.S. with retail-grade LEDs. The light quality is marvelous, the economics were compelling, and store managers are delighted at the prospect of never having to change another bulb.
I am also keen on the rapidly evolving market for smart buildings and wireless controls. Sensor costs are plummeting, and building analytics firms abound. It is becoming easier to leverage data for environmental gains. This will be good for us all.
2. What energy projects or technologies are most overrated?
I worry about the long-term sustainability of corn-based ethanol and the U.S. political commitment to it. While there is certainly a place for the fuel (and some other ethanol feedstocks are quite compelling), we must be mindful that its production has real environmental downsides and worrisome impacts on world food prices.
I am also pained by the blind enthusiasm that some lavish on residential compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), despite the mercury and often poor light quality. With luck, LEDs will soon become affordable enough to eclipse CFLs in our homes.
3. What other companies do you admire? Why?
For most firms, “sustainability” begins like this: A small, self-contained function with little power begins to tackle a) environmental compliance b) cost control, or c) green marketing. From there, sustainability either withers, or takes root and grows.
Today, I see leading companies’ sustainability efforts are increasingly deep and decentralized. People with sustainability responsibilities are imbedded across functions and business units. This evolution has a subtle norming effect. At adidas Group, sustainability perspectives are increasingly at the table for routine business decisions. Here are some firms that are exciting to watch:
Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) has a great energy efficiency investment fund. Their work has been a key model for adidas Group’s greenENERGY Fund.
Method. I saw Adam Lowry, the CEO of Method (the cleaning products company) present at the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference in April. Method now produces a bottle that is 50% ocean plastic, 50% post-consumer recycled plastic. The bottle is an elegant shape and does a great job educating consumers about the problems of ocean trash — an issue that is invisible to most of us.
Big 4 Accounting Firms are rising to the challenge of tracking and auditing environmental impacts and data. As they mature, standards for transparency and methodology improve. Year by year, environmental accounting and reporting is becoming more rigorous, professional, and mainstream. I never foresaw that accountants would help change the world, but they are.
4. What is the best advice you ever received?
If you care about the environment, make sure your studies include economics and business. Commerce is an incredibly powerful force, driving most decisions about resource allocation and consumption. Understand the forces, and you can harness them to better the world. Remain ignorant, and you may spend a lot of time feeling angry, confused, and marginalized.
5. What would you do if you weren’t working at your current job?
Energy efficiency is a powerful way to deliver CO2 reduction, cost savings and NPV. If not at adidas Group, I would hope to be investing in and developing energy efficiency and carbon reduction projects elsewhere.
6. What is your greatest achievement?
When I was accepted to Yale for graduate school [to get an MBA/MEM in business and environment], I decided to build myself a ‘tiny house’ on wheels to live in for my three years in New Haven. I spent the summer of 2008 designing and building the space (right) with family and friends, and towed my little solar-powered creation to Connecticut in August. I was working as the sustainability lead for a construction company at the time, and learning a lot about green building, sustainable materials, and systems design. The house was a synthesis of everything I was learning, and also represented an embodiment of a few of my core beliefs [that] scale is key to sustainability, having too much can be as complicated and uncomfortable as having too little, and design matters.
It is deeply satisfying to build one’s shelter with one’s hands. I think it is as essential a pleasure as growing one’s own food. That said, I am not sure which was more important to me: in building it — or inhabiting it for three years. The springs and falls were lovely: sleeping with the windows open and feeling the pleasure of a place that was deeply economical and used space elegantly. The winters were harder: Solar power was in short supply, and showering involved a trudge through the snow to an adjacent house. I think that anyone who has ever lived on a houseboat can relate. But the house kept me rooted in my values and deepened my interest in sustainability and the built environment.
7. What is one characteristic that every leader should possess?
Humility. The leaders I admire most understand their limitations and weaknesses. They build teams of individuals that are their complements — not their clones — and frequently ask for feedback.
8. What was the last book you read?
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.
9. What was your first job?
I spent four college summers leading outdoor adventure travel programs for the Overland Travel Company. Highlights were biking across the U.S., and then from Paris to Rome with 12 high school students!
10. If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
I would be 10,000 feet tall, bearing a giant CO2 sponge and a mammoth mop bucket. My power would be to walk around like a gargantuan female Mr. Clean and squeegee the atmosphere, bringing us back into a safe range for atmospheric carbon.