Archive for March, 2010


Can You Define Sustainability?

Growing up in the 90’s I never heard the word sustainability. Come to think of it, I had never heard of sustainability until my freshman year of college at Western Washington University. I was always familiar with conservation, recycling and pollution, but never used the term sustainability.

Key Sustainability Events

Environmentalism in the U.S. started in 1969 with the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) whose purpose was to “foster and promote the general welfare, to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony and fulfill the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.”

Beginning in April 2001, preparation for the World Summit for Sustainable Development (WSSD) to be held in Johannesburg, South Africa took place at the local, national, sub-regional, regional and global levels.

In March 2009 the Copenhagen Climate Council, an international team of leading climate scientists, issued a strongly worded statement: “The climate system is already moving beyond the patterns of natural variability within which our society and economy have developed and thrived. These parameters include global mean surface temperature, sea-level rise, ocean and ice sheet dynamics, ocean acidification, and extreme climatic events. There is a significant risk that many of the trends will accelerate, leading to an increasing risk of abrupt or irreversible climatic shifts.”

Before these key environmental events, sustainability was not in the vocabulary of mainstream America. It has only been recently that environmentalism has spread to mainstream America. But how many Americans actively value the environment? Do their actions reflect environmentalism?

Developing My Environmentalism

My love and respect for the environment was developed during family vacations to the Grand Canyon, Arches National Park, Mesa Verde, and numerous sailing adventures through the San Juan Islands in Washington. Early on I discovered that the environment was irreplaceable, yet magnificent. Back then I just saw the beauty, but the environment also provides many ecosystem services that cannot be recreated or reproduced by humans. Despite my family’s love of nature, I never new about sustainable living, the principles of new urbanism or climate change.

Even though environmental problems existed and affected my life, I never knew. As a teenager I never thought about CO2 emissions released from driving my car, or the amount of my garbage that ended up in a landfill. During my first year at college, I learned about the environmental problems that face our world today and potential solutions to these problems. Renewable energy, green building design and environmental economics were suddenly intriguing and I wanted to be part of the solution. I started taking courses in geology, oceanography, energy and resource economics. I recently graduated with a B.A. in Economics and a concentration in Environmental Studies. My goal is to work in the environmental field to contribute to solving environmental problems with innovative solutions.

But this is just my story. Many Americans do not highly value the environment. This is possibly the reason why I never heard about sustainability until I was an adult. We just don’t talk about sustainability enough. Why is environmentalism not a key American value?

Potential Problems with the Use of Sustainability

Do people know the meaning of sustainability? How many people can define sustainability?

Is there one true definition? Does this word, because of its many meanings lead to public ambivalence?

Does using the term sustainability harm environmentalism?

Solutions

  • Instead of approaching sustainability with a feel good method, it is more important to get attention by taking the opposite approach. Create pragmatic ideas to get the discussion started. Once people become passionate about a situation and understand the consequences, they will become active participants in the environmental discussion and the problem solving process. The most efficient way to plant environmentalism into mainstream America is to get the attention of the public by creating and maintaining an environmental discussion.
  • Anchor improving lifestyle with environmentalism. For change to happen, the focus can no longer be just about the environment but also needs to be about improving the lives of people. Sustainability should encompass the economy, environment and equity. Sustainability needs to include improving neighborhood connectivity and advocating healthy lifestyles. In order for people to care about the environment, there needs to be a strong link between the environment and how their life can improve in the process.

Comments and discussion are welcome. Hope you enjoyed the post!

Yesterday, while at Savannah Technical College, President Obama shared more details for the “HOMESTAR” program. The program is designed to boost investment in energy saving home improvements and create green jobs in the process.

Current unemployment in the construction sector is near 25% and this new program will increase demand for installation services and energy efficient products.

Key Elements to the HOMESTAR Program:

  • Direct rebates to consumers. Consumers will receive direct rebates from vendors when they invest in energy saving home improvements. These rebates will be given to consumers at the time of sale and will be reimbursed by the federal government. This part of the program will work much like “Cash for Clunkers” program.
  • $1,000 – $1,500 Silver Star Rebates. Investments in insulation, duct sealing, water heaters, HVAC units, windows, roofing and doors will be eligeble for 50% rebates, up to $1,000 – $1,500. These are minor upgrades, but will make a significant difference in energy consumption.
  • $3000 Gold Star Rebates. For more extensive upgrades, homeowners can receive a $3,000 rebate. To qualify, households would undergo an energy audit and achieve 20% energy savings. Energy savings over 20% would qualify for additional rebates.
  • Certification and Oversight. Contractors must be certified to perform energy efficient installations.
  • Financing Support. State and local governments will provide financing options for energy efficient investments. This will make investments in energy efficiency more affordable.

The White House states the program will create, “Tens of thousands of jobs while achieving substantial reductions in energy use – the equivalent of the entire output of three coal-fired power plants each year.”

On average, homeowners should expect to save $200 to $500 in energy savings per year.

A recent post on Fastcompany.com by Jamey Boiter asked the question, “Can brands launch sustainable campaigns without being accused of greenwashing?”

But, I would like to take this question one step further and introduce the public. How can the general public prevent greenwashing?

Recently, there has been an incredible amount of large corporations getting on the green bandwagon. But, is it greenwashing? Is it just marketing to boost profits or are companies really dedicated to sustainability?  What are companies’ incentives to ‘go green’? How should we, the public, hold greenwashing companies accountable? How can we discover greenwashing? How can we shape the decision making process for companies to avoid greenwashing?

Solutions:

1. Do your research. Make sure to check product chemicals and materials. Don’t just believe the labeling, read the ingredients list for all natural products and materials. Stick to brands that you know are eco-friendly.

2. Hold greenwashing companies accountable. Don’t buy from companies with history of greenwashing. Chances are if the truth is reflected in the sales, next time the company will not make the same mistake.

3. Be skeptical until proven environmentally safe. If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Think about the life cycle of the product. Is the product chemical free? Can it be easily recycled? Does it contain post-consumer materials?

4. Be an advocate. Once you have done your research and backed it up with sound science, educate others with your knowledge and wisdom.

Walmart has recently developed a worldwide sustainability index initiative. The objective is to increase supply chain transparency and provide customers with product information. According to Walmart, “With this initiative, we are helping create a more transparent supply chain, driving product innovation and ultimately providing our customers with information they need to assess products’ sustainability”

The initiative is broken down into three steps 1) Supplier assessment 2) Lifecycle analysis database and 3) A simple tool for customers. Over 100,000 global suppliers will be evaluated on their own companies’ sustainability. The key areas of the survey focus on energy, climate, material efficiency, natural resources, people and community. Walmart plans to collaborate with universities, suppliers and retailers to create a database of information on products’ lifecycles, from cradle to grave.

In addition to the sustainability index, Walmart has pledged to eliminate 20 million metric tons of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from their global supply chain by the end of 2015. This is equivalent to 150 percent of the company’s estimated global carbon footprint growth over the next 5 years.

The sustainability index initiative is one way for corporate companies to be sustainable and avoid greenwashing. Increasing the transparency of products to customers is the first step to check the sustainability of a company. The next step is to hold companies responsible if they do not meet expectations. In the post, Boiter suggests, “They [brand managers] must be students of their consumers to fully understand them.” If a company is debating whether to incorporate sustainability into their business plan, consumers must strongly signal their tastes and preferences for sustainable business practices. The sustainability index initiative is the first step to,” Create a new retail standard for the 21st century.”

What do you think about Walmart’s sustainability index? Should it be the new retail standard for the 21st century? How else can retail companies avoid greenwashing and be sustainable? Please share your thoughts.