Breaking up the Green Party for a Revolution

Katherine O'Dea

If you follow the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, you know he has a couple of consistent themes. Among them are education, innovation, and entrepreneurship, each of which he often discusses from a sustainability perspective or with a sustainability focus. When I read Friedman, I find myself nodding in general agreement with his sustainability views, frequently interrupting my husband’s breakfast reading to share a Friedman ideation that I found particularly poignant.

Here’s one, which Friedman delivered in his keynote address at the US Green Building Council’s 2011 Greenbuild International Conference and Expo. He begins, “I always love it when people tell me we’re having a green revolution. Really, us? Having a green revolution? Have you ever been to a revolution where no one gets hurt?” He goes on to point out that in our green revolution, “Each and every one’s a winner. General Motors is a winner. BP’s a winner. We’re all winners… That’s not a revolution, friends,” he notes, “that’s a party. We’ve been having a green party, but that has nothing to do with a revolution.”

I wasn’t there to hear Friedman deliver his message, but even reading his words delivered a jolt that made me reassess just how much progress we’re making in the sustainability movement.

With all the energy and effort that leadership companies and sustainability NGOs and practitioners—myself included—have been exerting since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and earlier, have we just been playing on the periphery of real sustainability? We might be asking the hard questions but we’re still going for the easy answers, or the easy wins. Sure, we’ve seen product redesigns, a whole lot of recycled content being added to products and packaging, material innovations like biopolymers, and lots of efficiency measures introduced into industrial processes and operations. We’ve even seen some companies set bold sustainability goals and ambitions—even if they don’t know yet how they are going to achieve them. Great stuff, but is this really a revolution?

As fate would have it, the day after I read Friedman’s Greenbuild remarks and started thinking about how much fundamental change we all have really driven in the world, I attended a Vision 2050 Solutions Lab co-hosted by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, Retail Industry Leadership Association, US EPA, and GreenBlue. Vision 2050, the result of a scenario planning project the World Business Council for Sustainable Development completed in 2010, lays out a pathway for business and industry that will lead to a global population of some 9 billion people living well, within the resource limits of the planet by 2050.

Talk about an end goal that’s going to take a green revolution! Yet as a representative of one prominent company admitted during a breakout discussion at the Solutions Lab, “We don’t even ask the “sustainable production/consumption” question.” In other words, we ask how can we make this widget with a smaller environmental footprint, but we don’t ask whether we should even make this widget. For me, that put Friedman’s provocative words into context.

We’ve been having a 20-year eco-efficiency party and companies have been realizing many economic wins. Yes, we should be celebrating that. But now, with the need for a Vision 2050 looming, we also need to be asking if it’s enough. I found myself wondering whether any companies have taken the bold step to ask:
• Should there be limits to growth?
• Should we really be making the stuff that we make?
• Is our fundamental business model unsustainable?

Happily, a best example of that kind of bold action came to mind as I learned more about Patagonia’s Common Threads Initiative. During fashion week, Patagonia Founder and Owner Yvon Chouinard announced the initiative with the following statements: “This program first asks customers to not buy something if they don’t need it. If they do need it, we ask that they buy what will last a long time—and to repair what breaks, reuse or resell whatever they don’t wear any more. And, finally, recycle whatever’s truly worn out. We are the first company to ask customers to take a formal pledge and be partners in the effort to reduce consumption and keep products out of the landfill or incinerator.”

Can Patagonia start a real green revolution? While Patagonia may have more flexibility as a private company, could their success inspire even publicly held companies to join this revolution? Is it time for “experiential capitalism,” an idea I introduced in an earlier post? A time when companies sell experiences and not just products? What do you think it going to take?

7 Responses to Breaking up the Green Party for a Revolution

  1. Brent Eubanks says:

    “I always love it when people tell me we’re having a green revolution. … We’re all winners… That’s not a revolution, friends,” he notes, “that’s a party. We’ve been having a green party, but that has nothing to do with a revolution.”

    Absolutely correct. Speaking for my own industry, HVAC, there have been tremendous changes in the last decade, but they have been largely evolutionary, guided by and for the established industry players and interests. LEED has pushed the industry in the right direction, but even the best LEED Platinum building is very, very far from actual sustainability. We lack, in the words of Van Jones, a vision consummate with the scale of the challenge.

    There are inklings of a more serious and actually revolutionary approach to the problem. The Living Building Challenge is not a perfect system by any means, but it does capture the essential attributes of what a sustainable building (and by extension a sustainable civilization) would look like. But it’s a fairly minor player at this point, and for a reason: Meeting its standards is a serious inconvenience to a value set that is basically focused on “business as usual” and profit maximization. And some kinds of buildings (e.g. office highrises) simply cannot meet the standard with our current level of knowledge, commitment, and technology.

    I listed those elements in that order quite intentionally – new green technology gets all the focus, but it’s the LEAST important component of the changes that must occur. Our infrastructure is a physical reflection of our cultural and social values. Currently as a society we value convenience, comfort and profit over all other concerns. Building a sustainable civilization will require infrastructure that reflects different values and different priorities, and no amount of new technology will change that reality.

  2. Great perspective Brent, in terms of whether we are having a green revolution or green party in the building space. Over the last decade, there has been a tremendous focus on our built environment and lot’s of companies have no doubt had a green party when they achieved their LEED certification. But I haven’t seen any revolutionary changes creeping into the main stream of our built environment and that reflects, as you so aptly put it, our cultural and social values. Van Jones is someone who really questions those values and seeks new ideals. How excited I was when President Obama attempted to bring him and his vision to the national scene. How sad I became when mainstream politics crushed the potential. Was that not a poignant example of the lack of knowledge and commitment required to move from a green party to a green revolution mentality?

  3. Fabulous post, Katherine. Friedman’s message gave me the same jolt. While I appreciate the ‘green revolution’s’ desire to be inclusive, it’s also going to prevent us from asking the tough questions that lead to sweeping change.

    I also love your thoughts about experiential capitalism, though I don’t know what type of cosmic shift it will take to move American values away from materialism. Perhaps a massive campaign to rebrand American culture? Can we get AIGA in on that?

    • Hi Jennifer,

      Love your idea of getting AIGA involved. Anything resembling “experiential capitalism” is going to require a collaboration of many organizations and groups that have never worked together before. It will also require a joining of forces among the few NGOs that work on sustainable production and those that work on sustainable consumption. Few organizations focus on both sides of that equation. Getting a design association like AIGA and a marketing association like the American Marketing Association on board would create another critical pathway to a more sustainable, experience-based economic growth and development model.

  4. Dorothy Olivier says:

    When we are ready, for example, to think about using less cement and not calling it “sustainable” because it has fly ash content in it (fly ash is a by-product of coal fired power plants which often burn tires as a “sustainable” practice) – then we may be cutting to the chase of progressive sustainable practices. And it seems we should be renovating our existing home stock with so many vacant homes for sale, instead of building new.

  5. Karlin says:

    While it is true that your good work to create sustainable packaging has had some successes, a quick look around will tell you that not much has changed.

    I guess I just feel a strong urge to say “don’t pat yourselves on the back just yet”…

    We live in a wastefull society – energy efficiency is around 3%, our global production of goods is made to be consumed quickly and fail in short order, and most of it ends up in a landfill/full.

    Renewable energy, reusable packaging, and cars that actually charge the grid are all possible, but we have almost missed the boat for implementing changes that will save us from the backlash of our wastefull ways.

  6. Thanks for your comments, Karlin. I’m sorry that you got the impression that I was trying to “pat ourselves on the back” for our work in packaging. Not sure how that came across, but to be sure, we are the first to say that even in spite of our efforts there are no examples of sustainable packaging in the market today. There is MORE sustainable packaging – but no packaging meets all the criteria. That’s why we continue to work on this issue. I also like to be more optimistic and suggest that we have NOT yet “missed the boat for implementing changes that will save us from the backlash of our wasteful ways.” Undoubtedly, it remains a considerable challenge, but I am encouraged by many way-out-of-the-box thinkers who are suggesting wholesale change in our economic model, similar to my thoughts on “experimental capitalism.” Thoughts and actions toward that kind of change need to be fostered.

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