Kal Penn on the intersection of climate, clean energy and business

NRF 2023: With a nod to segmented consumer audiences, the actor, writer and producer says it’s key to foster agreement
Peter Johnston
NRF Contributor
January 24, 2023

The final keynote speaker of NRF 2023: Retail’s Big Show was actor, writer and producer Kal Penn, whose topic was “Climate action required: A business imperative.” Penn is a graduate of UCLA with a double major in film and sociology.

This doubleness, he noted, has been an ongoing characteristic of his career; in April 2009, he joined the Obama administration as an Associate Director in the White House Office of Public Engagement, which necessitated that his TV character, Lawrence Kutner, be written out of the series House.

As part of his invitation to speak at Big Show, he said, he was asked “to talk about the intersection of climate, clean energy and business in a way that connects the audience to the ways that policymakers, consumers and the business sector can tackle these issues together.”

NRF 2023

Did you miss us in NYC? Take a look at our NRF 2023: Retail's Big Show event recap.

The first step is finding and fostering agreement about the importance of climate preservation among people who disagree strongly on other issues. While he was at the Obama White House, for example, Penn was assigned the job of hosting a youth summit on climate, and given about 140 seats to fill.

“We could have filled all 140 seats with young progressive climate advocates, but we didn’t just want to invite people who already agreed with us,” he said. “So, we divided the invitations by thirds. A third of them were young progressive climate advocates. The second third was made up of young evangelical Christian conservatives, who probably disagreed with 99% of President Obama’s proposals — but the 1% of agreement was climate, and they approached that issue from a faith-based perspective.

The remaining third were young entrepreneurs — young CEOs and business owners. We didn’t know what their political beliefs were, and it didn’t matter. What they were focused on was coming up with new products that would make the world a better place.”

Penn said it was both encouraging and refreshing — in a world riven by bitter disagreements — to have the chance to convene these three different groups to discuss their shared goals. “And it was inspiring to me to see these groups come up with a clear set of solutions and things that they wanted to do to move forward.”

Penn’s remarks set the stage for the remainder of the session, a conversation between Penn and Scot Case, NRF vice president for corporate social responsibility and sustainability, about the roles retailers can play when it comes to climate issues.

“It was inspiring to me to see these groups come up with a clear set of solutions and things that they wanted to do to move forward.”

Kal Penn, Actor, Writer and Producer

“You were talking about segmenting the audience,” Case pointed out. “This is something retailers deal with constantly because we’re trying to sell the same stuff to all kinds of different people. How do you do that?”

“I think it depends on the type of story you’re telling,” Penn said. “Most consumers would rather buy something that does something good.”

It’s not the case that consumers have to choose between something that’s good for the planet or something that’s effective. It’s possible to have both — and retailers can be straightforward about it, he pointed out: “Hey, here’s a product that we maybe didn’t design with environmental stability in mind, but oh, by the way, it does that.”

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