Turning the ship around: Dallas at the helm

April 22, 2012 by Anna Clark

There is justifiable concern today over greenwashing – the intentional or misguided practice of using vague sustainability claims to market to consumers.   However, in our rush to expose the imperfect, we risk neglecting the good.  As industry heavyweights and policy wonks sort out new standards, Dallas is getting into action.  The Lone Star State may is one of America’s biggest energy consumers, but we’re also one of its biggest producers of renewable energy. This paradox makes our region extremely relevant in the sustainability discussion.

For several years, the City of Dallas has led the sustainability push in the region, becoming one of the first two cities in the U.S. to adopt an all-building green ordinance, as well as by purchasing 40% of its power from wind energy.  Our commercial sector is also keeping pace with municipal efforts. Half Price Books was the first to install an electric vehicle charging station in its parking lot, and TXU just unveiled two new chargers at Dallas City Hall. Such companies are giving our community greater comfort with the transition to electrification and other 21st century technologies.

As with other large-scale cultural challenges, workable solutions aren’t hatched in a lab; they must be tested at the source, then refined and scaled accordingly. Rather than fight the culture of consumption, Dallas can use its financial prowess to support sustainable innovation. As the nation's fourth-largest metropolitan area and home base to approximately twenty Fortune 500s, D/FW comprises a huge market with the capacity to commercialize clean technologies.  Burgeoning incubators such as Adbongo and EARTH-NT are making sure that entrepreneurs will have the brain trust they need to achieve market acceptance.

For our citizens, Earth Day Dallas - in its debut last year second in size only to New York City’s event – is putting our region on the green map.  No surprises, there. Everything has always been bigger in Texas.  What many still don’t know is that D/FW’s academic sector is as robust as our commercial sector in terms of pioneering solutions. Southern Methodist University and the University of Texas at Arlington have both launched graduate programs in sustainability. Equally important, schools such as Cedar Valley College are springing sustainability from the ivory tower and preparing people to work in the new economy.

Meanwhile, groups such as the Dallas Institute’s Environmental Forum and the Texas Green Chamber are actively connecting city leaders and businesspeople to educate and equip us with a voice.  As more of us take advantage of these opportunities, we’ll create the groundswell needed to bring about large-scale transformation.

Some experts think America can’t commit to a sustainable future without experiencing disaster first - but they don’t know the can-do spirit of Dallas.

We Don’t Need a Tragedy to Turn the Ship Around

In the 100th anniversary month of the ultimate man vs. nature story, we still wonder how the Titanic happened.  How could such a feat of engineering disappear within a few short hours?   How could the White Star Line not have provided enough lifeboats?  Why didn’t more survivors row back to rescue those left freezing in the water?

We don’t appear to make rational decisions in the midst of an immediate crisis any more than we do in the midst of an environmental one.   Ignorance, fear, and greed still define the human condition today as it did 100 years ago.  However, beyond the tragic are equally riveting exemplars of the heroic, from Second Officer Charles Lightoller to the unsinkable Molly Brown. Titanic enthusiasts know that these sensational stories overshadow many more untold stories of heroism amongst the less known.  This is how sustainability works.  Many people are working in the trenches, unceremoniously starting victory gardens, buying local, shopping for organic, or skipping the shopping and sharing with neighbors instead.

As with mitigating any disaster, those intent on surviving should take security precautions.  In a world of finite resources and volatile energy, security means plugging the links, both physical and financial, in our facilities first.  Dallas multi-nationals such as my client JCPenney have saved tens of millions this way.  According to McKinsey, investing in energy efficiency could save the United States $1.2 trillion through 2020, with over half the savings filling the coffers of our commercial and industrial sectors.

From this more secure position, companies can weave conservation throughout operations, recycling everything from water to hangers.   Once a company is beyond compliance in resource efficiency, generating revenue from green product development is a reasonable next step.  The end product of common-sense sustainability is brand recognition and customer loyalty, natural by-products of doing the right thing.

As with many disasters, human error is as much to blame as equipment failure.  In the case of the Titanic, awareness of dangerous icebergs was not enough to chip through the hubris that led to its demise; only a collision with the real thing could do that.   The antidote to disaster, whether it’s the Titanic or the Deepwater Horizon, is acquiring knowledge and exercising responsibility.

Sustainability still constitutes a new frontier for companies and consumers alike. Many of us are navigating these waters without clear coordinates; in doing so, we make mistakes.  In a consumer-based economy, genuine transformation can’t happen without educated buyers, so we will all need to stay informed in order to successfully navigate in the new economy.  Considering the community support to educate the public, I believe we’ll get there.

Thomas Edison once said, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”  Here in Dallas, we are not afraid of rolling up our sleeves to lead in green.  It’s my Earth Day wish that the rest of the country finally knows it.

About the Author - Anna Clark

Anna Clark is the author of 'Green, American Style' and the president of EarthPeople. She lives in one of the first Platinum LEED-certified residences in Dallas.

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