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Sustainability: Nina Winham – The greening of the conversation

by | Mar 18, 2011 | Archives

I had the recent good fortune to attend an event for Royal Roads University alumni as they explored the topic “Opportunities in the Green Economy.” Five panellists spoke and shared the questions they’re grappling with as they ponder the green path forward.

The speakers were themselves a microcosm of the new economy. At least two run companies offering products that were likely not envisioned, or at least were not remotely commercially viable, even a dozen years ago. The others all sit in new niches within existing industries, pushing their counterparts toward green.
The speakers included Paul Shorthouse, director of special projects with Globe Foundation, which exists to promote the business case for sustainable development; Robert Falls, co-founder of ERA Carbon Offsets, which develops forest-based carbon-offset projects; Tony Formby, CEO of SunCentral, developing lighting systems that transfer sunlight inside buildings to reduce electric light (see story, page 12); Mike Walkinshaw, CFO of green venture capital firm Chrysalix; and Munu Hicken-Gaberria, CEO of LFT Group, a local manufacturer of environmentally friendly cleaning supplies with low-impact packaging.
Frank talk
It was a good conversation. Given that B.C.’s green economy is projected to boom to as much as $27 billion by 2020 and supply 225,000 direct and indirect green jobs, there are all sorts of reasons to pounce on the opportunities that are emerging – and these companies are doing just that. Consider, for example, that electric lighting accounts for 17.5% of global electricity use, representing 2,200 terawatt hours per year, or more electricity than is produced by all the nuclear power plants in the world combined – a fact tossed out by Formby. With demand for electric lighting projected to grow 80% by 2030 based on current trends, you can see why delivering free sunlight into dark office towers is getting a lot of attention over at SunCentral.
The conversation touched on major investors’ increasing concern about:
  • carbon risk (“Pension funds are sick of getting whacked with unforeseen risk,” said Walkinshaw. “They’re looking at a 30-year horizon, and carbon risk is by far the biggest unforeseen risk they have”);
  • appropriate pricing for carbon;
  • how to easily define sustainability for those not yet clued in (“Enough for all, forever” was an elegant phrase from Shorthouse); and
  • how to grow demand for green products and services.

Finally, the point was made that what we are talking about here is the greening of the economy overall, not a separate “green economy” offering alternative products and services. That is, no matter what sector you’re in, it makes good business sense to reduce waste, increase efficiency, and improve. Given how fast others are moving on those fronts, it’s really not an option.

Greening business patterns
What I found interesting about this business panel was not just the specific topics and expertise they shared. What’s not to like about planting trees (I mean, carbon sinks), “sunlighting” your office or using standard glass milk bottles to shake up the laundry sector? It was that, between the lines, I saw a greening of the economic dialogue, a glimmer of a different idea of doing business.
For example, one panellist lamented that his MP is paying no attention to carbon and climate change and urged members of the audience to phone their MPs to push for action on carbon control. Sure, maybe that would propel his business interests, but that really wasn’t his point.
Another example: despite all operating in an economic system that purports “growth” to be its highest goal, the speakers all agreed with an audience member that reducing consumption is critical – not always the most welcome comment among folks who make money by selling things.
Considering whether we will freeze in the dark before human appetites for energy change or we innovate our way to a solution, Formby framed his question for the group with the words, “Here is what I ponder, as a parent.”
Stewards for the future
Perhaps I’m just imagining it, but conversations such as these (and I’ve been attending them for 14 years) increasingly carry a sense of mission beyond opportunities and investment. Sure, maybe there may have been similar world-improving comments 30 years ago as investors and innovators pondered the advent of the computer age, but I’m willing to bet it wasn’t quite so personal. Climate change and resource depletion was on everyone’s mind at this meeting; business was the tool being applied to find solutions.
Of course we want to seize the opportunities opening up as the global economy shifts – B.C. can, and should, take a leadership role. But the green economy is about something more.
The green economy, I think, is where we talk frankly about our roles as parents, as stewards of the resources that future generations will need, as creators of value, not goods. It’s one where we bluntly challenge ourselves about how much is enough, measure our success on more than one criteria, and run our companies like we really care about people and the planet. Business has a lot to offer as a driver of innovation and a disciplined way to lead capital to solutions. But it can’t do those things stuck in the conversations of the past.
Here’s to more businesspeople-as-parents, more CEOs as citizens. The green economy will certainly be profitable – and it’s shaping up to be much more rewarding, too.
Nina Winham ( nina@newclimate.caThis e-mail address is being protected from spambots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it ) is principal of New Climate Strategies, specializing in helping clients build value through a shift to sustainability.

This article from Business in Vancouver March 15-21, 2011; issue 1116

(www.biv.com) has been publishing in-depth local business news, analysis and commentary since 1989. The newspaper also produces a weekly ranked list of the biggest companies and players in a wide range of B.C. industries and commercial sectors, monthly features and industry-focused sections that arm its subscribers with a complete package of local business intelligence each week. www.biv.com




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March 2011