Strategy for sustainability
In Crystal Johnson’s world, environmental stewardship and diversity add up to sustainable business


Photograph by Ian Justice,

Hair and makeup by Kathleen Schiffmann
Team Artist Representative

Styling by Maciel Urena

Shopping for groceries at a Whole Foods store in Boston a few years ago, Crystal Johnson noticed a table of high-end organic chocolate samples. A representative of the small company was inviting shoppers to taste the chocolate and take a survey.

Johnson, founder and principal of Integrative Sustainability & Environmental Solutions (ISES), passed by the table a few times and noticed she was not actively recruited the way other shoppers were. The woman at the table was seemingly unaware that this African American shopper — an environmental professional, natural product enthusiast and chocolate-lover — might buy an organic chocolate bar just as eagerly as the white consumers typically courted by eco-friendly companies.

Johnson saw a teachable moment.

She was in the midst of organizing her first Sustainable Economy Conference, presented in Boston in May 2010. On the agenda was “Engaging Multicultural Consumers,” a panel discussion addressing how “green” businesses could expand their markets by looking beyond their assumed customer profile.

Sipping iced tea at Jamaica Plain’s City Feed cafe recently, she recounts her reaction.

“I decided to be direct,” she says. “I approached the table and said, ‘I just want to let you know, I’ve been a green consumer since eighth grade and an environmental specialist for 20 years. Yet you did not target me as your clientele. I’m about to do a conference on this very topic.’

“I told her that in Massachusetts, in an urban area, a company potentially loses 40 percent of its profit by ignoring people of color.”

It was no doubt said gently, as Johnson has an amiable, diplomatic manner. The woman froze briefly, and then asked if she would fill out the survey. “And I did,” Johnson says, “because her company needs to know we are interested in quality organic products — and I will spend almost $4 on a piece of chocolate.’ ”

The chocolate incident encapsulates many of the issues that drive Johnson. As an environmental expert by training and a concerned citizen and parent, she supports businesses whose practices benefit the earth. As an African American woman, the only person of color in her college environmental science classes, she wants recognition for her beliefs and actions even when they defy stereotypes.

Now, through the conferences she presents and in her full-time job as managing director of the National Institute for a Sustainable Economy (NISE!), Johnson strives to meld the concepts of economy, environment and diversity into a unified goal of “sustainability.” And the way to accomplish this, she believes, is to engage the business community.


At a basic level, she helps businesses see new ways to reduce their environmental impact and to not fear this change. They can strive for “light green” or “dark green,” she says, from cutting back on paper use to “examining the life cycle of the product, and asking, how can you make the whole process cleaner?”

And then comes her unique twist: placing diversity on the same table. She urges companies to seek genuine diversity in their employees, suppliers and customers.

“Within sustainability is diversity,” she explains. “They really go hand in hand. If companies look at how to have an effective diversity program and a sustainable practice, it can serve the company, increase their bottom line, make them more competitive, and contribute to the regional economy.”

Johnson fell in love with nature as a child in the 1970s, growing up in Framingham, Wellesley and Brookline. Annual Arbor Day tree-planting events at school made an impression on her. She loved visiting Garden in the Woods, the wildflower garden and native plant sanctuary in Framingham.

For her and her friends, exploring the outdoors was part of day-to-day play. Knowing local plants such as pink lady’s slipper, a rare kind of orchid, was a given.

“We would run through the woods playing tag, and always call out, ‘Jump over the lady’s slippers!’ ” she says.

This early environmental education led Johnson to pursue Conservation of Resources Studies and Natural Resources Management at the University of California-Berkeley, earning bachelor’s degrees in both areas in 1991.

Crystal Johnson speaks with Edward Dugger III at NISE! headquarters. (Sandra Larson photo)
She had no particular career in mind. She credits her schoolteacher mother and industrial designer father with allowing her to simply study what she loved. They advised at certain points, though. Her mother convinced her to try for an energy analyst job with the City of Berkeley, but she was not at all sure energy was her passion.

“I went because my mother said ‘You have to go to this interview!’ ” she recalls, laughing. “Halfway through the interview, I realized I loved what they were offering. And it really launched me on a career path.”

From that first job, she progressed to environmental planning jobs in private industry and government in Hawaii, Massachusetts and New York. A seven-year tenure at the New York City Department of Environmental Protection added water and wastewater management skills to her resume. At an engineering firm in Hudson, New York she was a planner and a “green marketing liaison,” developing marketing documents for new green technology.

She returned to Massachusetts in 2009 to be near family and raise her young son, Aspen, in the place that has always been home to her.

“I landed in Boston, and thought, what will I do?” she says. “I didn’t want to go back to an environmental planning job. I had a lot of experience on the public and private sides, bringing people together in problem-solving, and I really wanted to combine all that in something with a greater purpose.”

Forming ISES, her own consulting business, was a start.

As she was scouting for opportunities in Boston, she decided to organize a conference around themes of environmental sustainability and business.

“There were phenomenal forums and symposiums happening out there,” Johnson explains, “but they were attracting only their peers. I didn’t want just environmental experts; I wanted to bring all the players together.”

The 2010 conference, co-presented with delaCruz Communications, included panels on clean technology innovations, green venture capital, and green jobs along with engaging multicultural consumers. Governor Deval Patrick was the keynote speaker. Dozens of business, government and nonprofit leaders participated on panels. About 90 people attended.

Her 2011 Sustainable Economy Conference last May drew nearly 300 attendees. This one focused on the rewards businesses can reap by pursuing a unified path of environmental sustainability, social responsibility and diversity.

Michelle Waters-Ekanem, director of diversity at Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, participated on the “Diversity and Sustainability” panel at the conference.

“I think Crystal is addressing diversity in a way that’s new, in how it relates to sustainability,” says Waters-Ekanem. “They are very seldom linked. People think diversity is a one-shot deal; her approach is making sure your agency thinks of it holistically.”

She says the audience for the panel was small but receptive. “The environmental field is a predominantly white male field. In terms of people of color, it’s been difficult. Recruitment, retention — it takes a lot of outreach,” Waters-Ekanem notes. “I think [this idea] will grow. I applaud her effort, putting that on the table.”

On a steamy day in July, Johnson answers the door at NISE! headquarters. She and founder Edward Dugger III work in an airy, art-filled restored carriage house in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood.

Wearing a tailored charcoal skirt and jacket over a titanium-hued shell, with a nicely matched gold necklace, Johnson looks amazingly cool and polished amid the summer heat. In this setting, she looks more like a chic art gallery owner than an environmental specialist.

She did plenty of hands-on fieldwork early in her career, she says. She bushwhacked through Hawaiian swamps to delineate wetlands, wearing high rubber boots and long sleeves for protection against branches and bugs. Now she’s happy to dress well, whether making phone calls or out meeting potential clients.

On this day her agenda includes a strategic planning meeting with Dugger and an evening forum on energy in emerging markets at Hult International Business School, where she will moderate a panel discussion.

Part of NISE!’s focus is reducing energy use in homes and public housing developments using the “Slim Energy System” Dugger developed. This energy monitoring and management system helped win the company an Energy Efficiency Service Innovation grant from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center in 2010. But Dugger and Johnson are also exploring a wide array of consulting, training and renewable energy avenues for the still-young company.

Dennis Hardison -

In their meeting, they hammer out the details for an upcoming “21st Century Economy Business Summit” on October 26 and a series of monthly business forums slated to start in November.

Johnson was introduced to Dugger when she was planning her first conference and he was launching NISE!. A few months later he called to offer her a job.

“When I met Crystal,” Dugger recalls, “I said, ‘She is the one; she is the one I want to work with me and make this happen.’ I didn’t look at anybody else, because of her background, in terms of 20 years of environmental experience. It just made a lot of sense.”

During the meeting, Johnson sips water from a tall cobalt-blue glass vessel shaped like a fine olive oil bottle. Nothing disposable here; it’s an example of beauty and sustainability combined.

In her conferences, too, she seeks a sustainable aesthetic. At the 2011 conference, she was aided in this by local business Chive Sustainable Event Design & Catering. “We brought in bamboo and vases, reclaimed and recycled containers,” explains Chive co-owner Julia Frost. “It was a natural fit because of Crystal’s desire to gather people to talk about sustainable economy.”

Frost, like others, mentions Johnson’s air of calm, even on the day of the event. At their initial meeting, the conversation turned to yoga and meditation and striving for balance. “We all agreed,” Frost recalls, “if you’re not balancing your life, leaving time for your family and friends and yourself, you essentially aren’t living sustainably.”

Johnson’s calmness may be rooted in her meditation practice, which she began at 17. Later, while living in New York City, she taught weekly meditation sessions and led yoga retreats for women. She no longer teaches, but keeps meditation in her life, whether for two minutes per day or 20.

“It’s about taking that time to bring clarity, focus and some kind of balance,” she says, “so that whatever the day brings you, you can deal with it.”

Johnson feels environmental awareness has reached a critical level where change can happen. Among other indications, she cites the fact that colleges now offer courses on environmental justice, and MBA programs routinely address sustainability.

She also sees impressive dedication among the pre-college set. “I took my son to an event at an organic farm a few months ago,” she says, “and I heard some young people talking about what’s happening with lead products in China, and the fur trade, and so on. It was good to see they are forming groups and raising money and awareness. I just thought, ‘There’s so much hope now!’ I’m excited to see what’s going to happen with the next generation of environmental stewards.”

In the meantime, in addition to her work with NISE!, she is planning her third Sustainable Economy Conference for spring 2012. She feels momentum building and is happy to be riding the wave.

“Our work is relevant, needed, and we have an audience and a platform,” she says. “People in government and businesses and environmental groups are all aware of the same things and trying to figure out how to move forward. It’s a great place to be at this time in history.”