Archive for April, 2010

Earth Day 2010: Celebrating 40 Years of Baby Steps

April 22, 2010

Today is the 40th anniversary of Earth Day – a  time to reflect on the progress that has been made in the environmental movement thus far, and an opportunity to assess the long and likely bumpy road ahead.  

Earth Day is important. It shines a light on the grave environmental issues confronting the planet and rouses people to reconsider their daily routines. Awareness is the first step toward action, so devoting a special “day” to the environment ensures that most people are exposed to some form of sustainability message and are encouraged to take a small step toward reducing their own ecological footprint.

The increased level of interest and excitement is heartening, but it’s also deceptive and fleeting, as it usually fails to catalyze significant, long-term change.

It’s safe to say that if we traveled back in time to 1970, the founders of Earth Day would not be pleased by the progress we’ve made in 40 years.  While Earth Day itself has continued to grow in popularity, those short spurts of participation have not spurred the large-scale, global collaboration necessary for building real solutions to complex environmental problems.

The inherent problem with Earth Day is that it leaves people with a sense of achievement – the ability to check sustainability off their internal “to-do” list and move on with their regular life.

Across the nation (and globe)  today, individuals and organizations are participating in Earth Day celebrations – some that yield meaningful or measurable environmental benefits, and some that are decidedly token or transactional.

A small concrete action, like planting a tree or carting a coffee mug to Starbucks, allows people to feel like they’re doing their part. However, that temporary elation can wear off and leave a residual feeling of futility – like taking a vitamin when you fear you may have cancer.

Many of us fear that our environmental crises are too daunting and pervasive to confront. And it’s true – while incremental changes can add up over time, it’s simply not enough. Yes, let’s all change our light bulbs to compact fluorescents. Then let’s eliminate plastic bags… But then what?

Can we muster the collective will to graduate past “low-hanging fruit” to actions that require a more significant investment or behavioral change? Can we stomach some temporary discomfort in order to really change our habits?

As a sustainability consultant, I see the same struggle happening in the marketplace.  Earth Month is the busiest time of year for a green consultant or eco-entrepreneur. Companies plan lunch-time seminars or volunteer opportunities to demonstrate that they, too, care about the Earth and are willing to devote time and resources to “doing their part.”

Most celebrate the improvements they’ve made in the preceding year. Many distribute branded water bottles or reusable shopping bags. Everyone feels a little better about where they work. But the novelty quickly wears off and then it’s back to business as usual.

There are exceptions to this rule. A handful of businesses have cultivated a progressive or innovative approach to sustainability. Walmart is just one high-profile example of a company that has made a significant investment in reducing the environmental footprint of its own internal operations and supply chain.

However, most businesses have tended to taken a more conservative approach. Many small- to mid-sized companies know they should probably do something, but don’t know where to start, or are waiting until the market improves. Most large companies have made some incremental changes but struggle to make the business case for actions that do not have an immediate or measurable payback.

Making the business case for action can be incredibly difficult, especially in the current climate of economic and legislative uncertainty. The anticlimactic end to Copenhagen and absence of bipartisan political support for meaningful environmental legislation has made regulatory compliance an unlikely business driver in the short-term.  

Similarly, the long-term risk of supply chain instability and resource scarcity can be difficult to quantify in annual business planning and, as a result, usually fails to factor into corporate decision making.  Shoestring budgets and impending layoffs can make all but the most rudimentary conservation efforts seem unpalatable.

The good news is that the few companies that have made more significant investments in sustainability have started to see those efforts pay off. As an example, many building improvements or operational changes result in immediate cost savings, improved efficiency and happier employees.

Some market leaders have also begun to use sustainability as a tool to inspire innovation, and have succeeded in marketing environmentally preferable products or services. There is increasing evidence that a green brand can be a powerful tool for strengthening relationships with current and prospective customers, employees, and investors.

Those small victories can help shift the corporate environmental mindset from sacrifice to opportunity, and demonstrate that environmentally responsible actions can actually add value to a company’s bottom line – in both the short-term and long-term.

Ultimately, green innovation means doing things better, using fewer resources, and considering the upstream and downstream impacts of your decisions.

That is not to say that all sustainability measures are immediately profitable, comfortable or easy. In addition to considering the long-term effects of our actions as individuals and organizations, we must acknowledge that some sacrifice and discomfort will be involved with changing the way we function at work and at home.

A few leading companies, nonprofits and activists cannot shoulder the entire burden of our environmental crisis. We all need to take action and invest in our future. This Earth Day, let’s shift our mindset from incremental to monumental.

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From Farm to Front Door: Local Food Made Easy

April 21, 2010

What could be better than farm-fresh, mouth-watering produce delivered directly to your doorstep?

Community Supported Agriculture provides a direct link between local farmers and consumers, cutting out the cost, waste and pollution associated with the “middleman.”

CSA Memberships are growing in popularity every year, and it’s easy to see why! CSAs offer weekly delivery of sustainably grown fruits and vegetables during the June−October growing season. Some CSAs also offer unique options like honey, herbs, flowers, eggs, wool, meat or even firewood.

CSA members pay a subscription fee at the beginning of the season to help mitigate the risks associated with operating a small farm.

Here are some factors to consider when selecting a CSA:

  • Location
  • Pick-up or delivery site and time
  • Length of season 
  • Number of deliveries
  • Opportunities for farm visits or other involvement

To learn more about CSA opportunities near you, visit: http://www.landstewardshipproject.org/csa.html.
 

Running Up a Better Return on Your Lifecycle Investment

April 5, 2010

The following is an excerpt from my recent article on greenbiz.com.

You probably wouldn’t run a marathon without training for it first, right? Safe to say you’d try jogging a few times before embarking on the full 26.2-mile run?

Completing a full lifecycle assessment (LCA) is a bit like running a marathon. It’s a lengthy, resource-intensive process, and it’s best to be armed with a strong understanding of what you’re getting into before begin.

Lifecycle work is still foreign to most people, and to make matters more complicated, the industry is constantly evolving. Although full LCAs are becoming more commonplace in corporate America, many companies — particularly small- to mid-sized manufacturers — are still wrestling with how and where to start.

One strategy for overcoming those initial obstacles is to employ an incremental, phased approach to lifecycle work. Targeting a smaller component of the product lifecycle can help companies predict the level of effort required for a full LCA and can still yield real value for a business, so long as the objectives and boundaries of the assessment are clearly articulated at the project outset.

LCA objectives will be different for every company, so start by asking some strategic questions…

To read my entire article visit:

http://www.greenbiz.com/blog/2010/04/01/running-better-return-your-lifecycle-investment