Making the local-global connection

September 17, 2013 by Matt Polsky Comments

As my fellow “work-sharers” and I fulfill our weekly 3-hour stints at a community-supported farm, someone brings up the topic of sustainability. (This tends to happen during this type of social gardening.) While digging up garlic, I trialed: “Sustainability is the evolution of environmentalism.” Although this explanation seemed to satisfy my garlic partner, as I further considered the distinction between sustainability and environmentalism, I recognized both a key difference and a synergy between the movements.

A key distinction is that environmentalism came of age years before society conceived that business could be anything but the enemy to a clean planet. Sustainable business, on the other hand, is now a recognized field and, at its best, aims for exactly that. Sustainability has the potential to breathe new life into some core tenets of environmentalism, which are critical even though they seem to have been forgotten. There are no serious barriers to realizing that potential, other than that changing of a mindset - or actually bringing it back to where it once was. 

It is very possible to make the connection between early environmentalism and sustainability.  A benefit to doing so would be the possibility of redirecting some of the citizen energy applied at the local level (perhaps still latent and untapped) and aiming it globally.

The famous statement in the environmental field, “Think Globally; Act Locally” has inspired many positive actions, and is consistent with the “Subsidiarity Principle.” This public policy concept states the logical-sounding idea that policy actions should be restricted to that scale where the effect occurs. By this measure, local actions would address problems classified as local, and global actions would be taken by global players to deal with worldwide problems. However, both of these viewpoints can be limiting in their scope.  They can clash with the core “interdependence” theme of the original Earth Day, spurred as it was by that famous first picture of the Earth from space. The “We Are All Connected” banner on posters back then has become no less true.

Earth, wind or fire? How consumers are picking renewable winners

August 27, 2013 by Anna Clark Comments

Exploring Yellowstone National Park last week, we were awestruck by marvels such as Old Faithful, the Lower Falls and Sulphur Cauldron - phenomenal displays of nature’s power to generate energy. Hiking with the family, our conversation turned to the practicality of renewable energy applications for American consumers.

“Everyone who lives in a sunny climate should have solar panels on their roof,” my mother-in-law said. I agreed and asked what is still holding her back from having a solar array installed on her Texas hill country home.  “Expense,” she replied. “I don’t know much about the incentives available. There’s also the matter of the minerals the Chinese are extracting from the earth to make the panels.”

How I got religion on trees

July 25, 2013 by Ann Drumm Comments

Cities are heating up at double the rate of global climate change, with major implications for human health. Managing urban heat is just as important a response to climate change as reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and the benefits will be felt much sooner.  Cities should prioritize strategies that reduce both heat and GHG emissions, and trees are at the top of that priority list.

Those are some of the key messages in The City and the Coming Climate: Climate Change in the Places We Live (Cambridge University Press, 2012) by Brian Stone, Jr.  Stone is an Associate Professor in the City and Regional Planning Program of the Georgia Institute of Technology and an expert in the urban heat island effect: land-use changes that are producing higher temperatures in cities than in the surrounding countryside.

The dirt on regulating chemicals in the building industry

July 16, 2013 by Tony Robinson Comments

On July 11, 2013, the AIA Dallas Committee on the Environment, USGBC North Texas and the CSI Dallas chapter joined forces to host the North Texas Sustainable Showcase at the Dallas Arboretum. The event focused on healthy building materials for commercial and residential use. Architects, engineers, manufacturers, building managers, contractors and other professionals attended the presentations from a panel of national experts who shared various perspectives on chemicals in the building industry.

Necessary and sometimes benign, chemicals are in everything we touch, smell, inhale and ingest.  They exist naturally in the environment and human beings have discovered how to harvest them and create synthetic chemical compounds for a myriad of uses. We know there are thousands of natural chemical compounds that exist in the biosphere, still undiscovered. We also know that for human beings chemicals can have healing properties. But they can also be toxic or hazardous. Whether chemicals are toxic has to do with stability and concentration, how they migrate from one place to another and/or how they are emitted by industrial processes or solids. There is a common assumption, sometimes true, but more often shown to be false in the last 20 years, that when a chemical is used in a building product it is permanently “encapsulated”, and is therefore benign.  Yet, research has shown that numerous products “off-gas” after they are installed or create dusts that migrate into living spaces or air-conditioning systems. 

Unknown to us, chemical compounds are entering our bodies through the skin and the lungs and the effects may not be understood. Determining the toxicity of a chemical compound in a building product can be complex because the effects can take years to manifest and other variables can come into play. But one thing is certain: evidence is mounting from the science of toxicology that the effects can be very damaging on a short-term and a long-term basis. When studies find that there can be more than 300 synthetic chemicals in the cord blood of infants (many of them bio-accumulative), it is time to take action.

Scrap as inventory: Converting waste into assets

June 25, 2013 by Barbara Close Comments

Thinking of scrap as a product can bring a new level of professionalism to a plant manager’s sustainability quest. Plant managers know the value of the scrap they produce, and typically dedicate one or more service providers to keeping plants clear of waste. An efficient, well-run production team follows strict procedures for capturing, segregating, consolidating and queuing scrap. Yet, many of today’s plant managers following the best of best practices still tend to manage scrap materials as a waste stream.

Fortunately, the new breed of forward-looking plant managers have stopped regarding scrap as mere waste and begun considering its full market potential instead. This turnaround in thinking benefits the environment as well as the bottom line because it can raise the pricing floor compared to strict commodity trading. Converting the scrap disposal management task into a product management mission is necessary if scrap is to evolve in value to both its generator and its buyer.

Scrap has been considered waste with residual value since the dawn of industry, and its potential as its own legitimate product line is ripe for exploitation. In traditional manufacturing, the main product is usually managed and marketed by someone else who is even located someplace else.  On the other hand, the “waste-as-product” is produced and managed directly from the plant. Therefore, the plant manager that wants to “close the loop” must become a de facto product manager.

New era: Can profit-seeking approaches protect natural capital?

June 06, 2013 by Matt Polsky Comments

Mark Tercek of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has written a new book with Jonathan Adams, Nature's Fortune: How Business & Society Thrive by Investing in Nature.  A video interview of him at an Aspen Institute forum last month at Hunter College, “The Case for a Profit Motive in Conserving the Environment,” with New York Times science writer Andrew Revkin showed that his theme and approach have a lot going for them.  He covers more of the right bases than when I heard him years ago at Stern Business School, but he’s still too selective about which dots get connected.

Some of the other comments on this video on Revkin’s Dot Blog site to the contrary, Tercek’s main points are probably quite correct.  Going forward, conserving natural capital can be more cost-effective or profitable than traditional regulatory and adversarial approaches to environmental protection, and it may be helpful to see them as “investment opportunities” -- at least to a point.  For instance, protecting dunes versus building sea walls is better economically, and has collateral environmental gains.  And an environmental group like TNC can help business figure these out. 

Collaborating for conservation: Texans unite in the fight to save the shark

May 17, 2013 by Anna Clark Comments

Today is Endangered Species Day, and animal advocates around the nation are ratcheting up the fight to save their favorite species. Here in Texas, the battle is on to save the shark. According to the latest research, 100 million sharks are disappearing from our oceans each year, primarily driven by the lucrative trade in shark fins, the main ingredient in shark fin soup. Once a dish for emperors, shark fin soup is now served at banquets and in restaurants to satisfy the appetites of Asia’s upwardly mobile society. 

The Chinese consumers who are bent on showing off their new money through the consumption of this tasteless delicacy may not fully comprehend the consequences. As apex predators, sharks are the regulators of the sea.  Their presence is critical for maintaining a balanced ecology on which fisherman and tourists rely, as well as the two billion of the world’s poor who depend on the ocean for their main source of protein.

To counter this devastating trend that is driving some shark species toward extinction, states are passing legislation to ban the sale and consumption of shark fins. Already Hawaii, Washington, California, Oregon, Illinois, and Maryland have passed laws.  Three other bills from East Coast states now await their governors’ signatures to become laws. State by state, Americans are working diligently to close down the market for shark fins. Texans have a historic opportunity to join them.

What the First Annual Survey of New Jersey Business Sustainability tells us

May 08, 2013 by Matt Polsky Comments

By Matt Polsky and Pooja Aravkar

None of the world’s leading companies pursuing sustainability are U.S.-based, reports Oekom Research, a German company in its annual Corporate Responsibility Review. What could we do about this in New Jersey? Researchers from the Fairleigh Dickinson University (FDU) Institute for Sustainable Enterprise (ISE) can offer some ideas. The mission of ISE is to “bring people together to learn how to live and manage sustainably by solving problems and capitalizing on opportunities in ways that simultaneously enhance economic, social, and environmental vitality.” It is the intellectual hub of sustainable business thinking in New Jersey.

ISE’s 2010 report Developing and Implementing a Sustainable Growth Strategy for New Jersey provided several guidelines for developing a “Green Economy” – an economy that includes and extends beyond clean energy, potentially penetrating all business sectors to protect and restore the environment while creating economic growth. The report, which urges all sectors to practice corporate social responsibility and aim towards greater levels of sustainability, concludes that “New Jersey has a unique opportunity to play a leadership role.”

South Florida citizen groups lead on sea level rise

April 25, 2013 by Nancy Schneider Comments

Sea level rise is a hot topic in the Sunshine State. As hundreds of miles of beaches in Florida are threatened, organizations are springing up to save their local coastlines and local economies. Beaches and coastlines in Florida are tied into property values, taxes, ecosystems, business, tourism, and economy. For Florida residents, beaches are not only critical parts of the state’s natural and financial capital, they are also an integral part of their lifestyle.

Protect Our Beaches (POB), a West Palm Beach, Florida based non-profit group, is one organization that is leading the charge against beach erosion. The group held its first public meeting in Palm Beach County, Florida in early April 2013. This coalition to save local beaches from erosion due to storm surge and sea level rise is projecting a singular and powerful voice to the State and Federal governments.

Rising up to prepare for sea level rise

March 22, 2013 by Nancy Schneider Comments

Situated among the trees and mountains along the scenic Hudson River, Kingston, New York seems far away from the salty blue waves of the Atlantic.  Yet, just 100 miles inland from the World Trade Center, at the southern tip of Manhattan where New York meets the Atlantic, the Tidal Waterfront Flooding Task Force of the Kingston Conservation Advisory Council (CAC) has begun to plan a strategy to manage the inevitable effects of a rising sea. This volunteer advisory board, residents, community advocates, city officials, grassroots organizations, and State experts met with Catalysis Adaptation Partners to determine the impacts of storm surges and Sea Level Rise (SRL) on this historic town, the former capital of New York State.

The group first met with Mayor Shayne Gallo and the community at City Hall on December 6, 2012 to discuss the challenges the city faces from waterfront flooding and sea level rise in the Rondout, a historic downtown district.  After Hurricane Sandy, it became evident that it was time to proactively address flooding challenges, including those related to SLR.