By David Pendered
A nascent movement in the sustainability arena flexed its young wings in Atlanta last week.
The movement involves the merging of issues including renewable energy, green buildings, and consumer products free of toxic chemicals. Apple CEO Tim Cook epitomizes the new concept for one advocate who spoke at a panel discussion sponsored by Southeast Green.
Cook drew headlines for this Feb. 28 remark to shareholders who criticized Apple’s green investment strategy: “If you want me to do things only for ROI [return on investment] reasons, you should get out of this stock.”
Panelist Judith Webb said Cook’s comment on his commitment to Apple’s triple bottom line – to include social and environmental concerns in addition to profit or loss – conveys a lot about the evolving state of sustainability. Webb is an Atlanta-area resident who serves as a senior vice president of the U.S. Green Building Council, which developed the LEED rating system.
“This is the new normal – everything is connected,” Webb said, elaborating with an example that shows how fast the concept of sustainability is spreading among young people.
“When we get somebody to invest in a STEM program [science, technology, engineering, math] with a group of kids, the students already are thinking as sustainability natives,” Webb said. “That’s just how they are.”
Southface Executive Director Dennis Creech said a similar convergence of sustainability premises emerged last week during the Greenprints conference, which brings together researchers and practioners in the field of green buildings and communities.
“People don’t’ realize there’s a transformation going on across the country,” Creech said. “There still are more silos than you would want … the research community tends to be siloed, design professionals are just starting to come on board with green in efficiency for energy and water and recycled materials.
“Now we’re trying to get them to work more closely with the health professionals to bring together the research, health, design and materials sides,” Creech said. “We want it all. And there’s no reason we can’t have it.”
Transparency is one of the threads that connects the blending issues of sustainability. Often, it’s the lack of transparency that’s shared.
Heather White, another panelist at the Southeast Green event, said corporations and their advocates – particularly the American Chemistry Council – fight hard to prevent consumers from knowing the building blocks of materials they use every day. White serves as director of the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based, non-profit, environmental advocacy organization.
“On every level, they have tried to keep consumers from knowing what is in the products they use,” White said.
“BPA is a perfect example,” White said. “It’s being replaced with BPS, which may be as potent as BPA when it comes to interfering with the hormone system. Because this information is secret, we, or university researchers, don’t have the capacity to be back-stoppers for the public.”
Concerning renewal energy, Carrie Cullen Hitt said at the Southeast Green event the deck is stacked in favor of the existing utilities largely because the status quo has existed for so long. Both the utlilities and their regulators are not equipped to discuss energy sources arriving from new sources – again, representing a situation of silos – according to Cullen Hitt, senior vice president of state affairs for Solar Energy Industries Association, a national trade organization for the solar industry.
“The utilities as we think of them today, their business model was built 100 years ago,” Cullen Hitt said. “New technologies, new customer demands … threaten that model and the regulatory framework that’s structured around it. It will change. It will take a long time, but it is changing.”
Creech, at Southface, said transparency is a concept that consumers will demand as part of the marketplace. Transparency will be part of the “cradle to cradle” movement, which traces its roots to a 2002 premise that all manufactured goods will eventually be recycled.
“We believe the marketplace is a great force for change,” Creech said. “As every lover of capitalism knows, the way for the market to work is to have a free flow of information. The question is how to create a free flow of information.”
Which brings the issue back to the comment from Cook to Apple shareholders. Among other CEOs who jumped on the bandwagon of the triple bottom line was Virgin CEO Richard Branson, who has supported alternative sources of energy.
“More businesses should be following Apple’s stance in encouraging more investment in sustainability,” Branson said. “While Tim told sustainability sceptics to ‘get out of our stock’, I would urge climate change deniers to get out of our way.”