I could be talking about the tulips and hyacinths, the tenderness of new leaves or any of the predictable joys of spring that, thankfully, show up every year about this time. But I'm not. Difficult though it is to turn my thoughts to other things, the green I'm talking about here is the increasingly emerging attention being paid to environmentalism. Just about everyone is jumping on this bandwagon in earnest and meaningful ways.
I've attended three conferences recently that are good examples. The first, Green by Design, was organized by a company that has embraced sustainability and, even in the midst of a horrible economic downturn, is expanding its commitment through outreach and education to the design community.
The company is Steelcase, already well known in the environmental world through its Designtex division and its line of Climatex® Lifecycle™ fabrics, arguably the first cradle-to-cradle product for the commercial design industry. Steelcase can also claim the only manufacturing plant in the U.S. to receive LEED™ certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. Its 600,000-square-foot wood furniture manufacturing facility was awarded LEED Silver Certification last year.
Steelcase has designed furniture such as the Leap Chair that is up to 98 percent recyclable; extended the life of its products through the Revest program that remanufactures and recycles furniture; restored 125 acres of natural prairie grassland in West Michigan, creating one of the largest native prairie ecosystems in the Midwest; reduced emissions of VOCs from its finishing operations; and lays claim to being the first in its industry to use all water-blown CFC-free foams in its seating products.
It has developed an Environmental Strategies Scale to help access a potential partner's environmental practices, asking such questions as: What is the company doing to produce less pollution? What is the company doing to use fewer natural resources and consume less energy? What is the company doing to develop business practices and technologies that restore and enhance the environment?
Its customers are being asked questions as well, most recently through a two-day symposium designed to bring together industry and environmental leaders. The program, Green by Design, was developed to provide participants with the tools to link sustainability to business through the expertise of Bill McDonough as the keynote speaker and three additional presenters: Stuart Hart, Jacquelyn Ottman and Ken Alston. Underwritten by a generous grant from the Wege Foundation, the symposium promised to provide methods for advancing change in the way that companies develop and market products by focusing on three different areas of eco-effectiveness: business infrastructure, green marketing and product development, and included some very ambitious goals. The most intriguing—revealing the real truth about environmental sustainability—is one that would surely get everyone's attention.
Examining eco-effectiveness from three different, yet connected, points of view is an intelligent approach. Just as we know that green design, in order to be successful, needs to be integrated, so must the environmental business model be holistic. The concepts presented at Green by Design were thorough and complex and I can't begin to do them justice here, but I'll attempt a brief summary. McDonough, in his keynote, and Ken Alston, his colleague at McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC), described their efforts to put into practice Cradle to Cradle, a new design paradigm for creating products whose materials are perpetually reused and kept forever from damaging our planet. Stuart Hart, a professor at the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School, posed the strategic question: Where will growth come from in the future? Hart delved into the important role of the world's emerging economies in providing the answers. Green marketing expert Jacquelyn Ottman showed how customers' needs can drive the development and market success of green product concepts. They all used case studies from real companies, such as DuPont, Kodak and Nike, to effectively illustrate their points.
Let's hope Steelcase, and others, will continue to present provocative programs such as this. Steelcase's president Jim Hackett, in his welcoming remarks, said that leadership is having a point of view. His company certainly has that as it has shown in so many ways.
Another recent event, Greenprints, is hardly new to the environmental scene, but is welcomed as an annual early spring ritual in Atlanta where it's held every year. Hosted by the Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority and Southface Energy Institute, the conference promotes sustainable homes, workplaces and communities. Each year—and I've been to three of them— they put together an outstanding program of keynote speakers, workshops and a tradeshow.
The opening event, the Visionary Dinner, is always a highlight, but this year it was more than memorable; it was a culinary triumph! With five courses accompanied by five wines, the dinner was a delicious demonstration of sustainable agriculture. Fetzer Vineyards, an environmentally conscious grower, producer and marketer of wines from Northern California, spearheaded a team of local chefs, organic farmers from Georgia, the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and the Hyatt Regency Hotel to produce a meal that will not soon be forgotten. How often can that be said about hotel banquet food!
In the midst of all this abundance, keynote speaker Lester Brown delivered a speech that focused, in part, on the scarcity of fresh water in many areas of the world. As the founder of the Worldwatch Institute and the Earth Policy Institute, both of which analyze global environmental issues, Brown's inspiring delivery cautioned that water scarcity is a growing problem, not only in third world countries, but in our own, threatening food production.
" In the United States," he explained, "the underground water table has dropped by more than 100 feet in parts of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas—three key grain-producing states. As a result, wells have gone dry on thousands of farms in the southern Great Plains." Brown's message resonated with the audience of Atlanta's business and environmental leaders about the economic vitality of the region relying on water as an issue of public importance.
A luncheon keynote by former Maryland Governor Parris Glendening addressed the growing problem of sprawl, a subject not often dealt with at many environmental conferences. Introduced as the most progressive environmental governor in the U.S., Glendening is now the president of the Smart Growth Leadership Institute of the Washington-based Smart Growth America coalition. Calling sprawl "the amoeba that ate Maryland," he believes that the issue can become part of the nation's political agenda by focusing on its most troubling quality of life end products, such as the growing incidence of asthma, water shortages and long commutes. Sprawl, he emphatically denounced, is not sustainable.
Another recent event that I attended and delivered a keynote was the Restoration & Renovation Exhibition and Conference in Baltimore. Produced by Restore Media, this event is designed for those who work in the commercial and residential historic restoration and renovation industries. In addition to my talk on designing buildings for a livable future, a green architecture and design track was included in the conference curriculum, recognizing that preservationists, along with designers, are the stewards responsible for creating and protecting our culture, communities and the viability of our planet.
Dozens of events, like those reviewed here, are happening all over the country and a list of some coming up can be found at www.greenatworkmag.com/ magazine/agenda.html. Get yourselves to those that are of particular interest to you. We all have a lot to learn and like the Field of Dreams, go and they will be there.
I began my talk in Baltimore with a quote from John Sawhill of The Nature Conservancy. "Our society will be defined not only by what we create, but by what we refuse to destroy." I like the profundity of that statement and its implications for the direction of our actions. Look around you and enjoy the delights of spring, but be mindful always of all that we have to lose.