October 31, 2014

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What Motivates Sustainability Efforts in the U.S.?

The third post in our series explores the reasons for progress being made on accelerating the transition to sustainability.

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In an exclusive series for CSRwire, John Dernbach, coauthor of Acting as If Tomorrow Matters, the third in a trilogy of books on sustainability in the U.S., summarizes the key findings of the book and offers a crash course in how to make a greater variety of sustainable decisions more attractive and how public opinion and leadership can be more effectively engaged to support sustainability. This is part three.

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Harrisburg, Pennsylvania — Years ago, when I moved here from the Midwest, friends described Pennsylvania to me as Philadelphia on the east, Pittsburgh on the west, and Mississippi (or Alabama) in the middle. I live and work in the middle — defined by the wide Susquehanna River valley and the state’s capitol. It is also tends to be politically conservative. 

Conservatives Want Sustainability, Too

When you see progress toward sustainability here, or in a “purple” state like Pennsylvania, you know that something important is occurring. And there is progress:

  • Spiral Path Farm, a 255-acre certified organic farm west of Harrisburg, delivers weekly boxes of freshly grown fruit and vegetables to designated homes in neighborhoods throughout the area, from which members can pick up their box. Boxes include spring lettuce, strawberries, tomatoes, peppers, acorn squash, and kale, depending on the season. In the two decades since it began, membership has grown from 22 to 2,250 members. 
  • St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, which is open to all students, is located in a renovated parking garage and is certified by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program. The congregation saw the green building effort as an expression of its faith and an opportunity to save money by reducing energy use. It was also the first church in the country to register a LEED project.
  • Armstrong World Industries, a multinational designer and manufacturer of floors and ceilings in nearby Lancaster, has set (and is on track to meet) goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, energy use, and water use. The company offers a wide variety of products made from recycled and recyclable material as well as wood grown in sustainable forests certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. 
  • At the state level, under the leadership of then-governor Ed Rendell, Pennsylvania used longstanding economic development programs to lure Gamesa, a Spanish wind turbine company, to locate its North American headquarters and a manufacturing facility in Pennsylvania. This effort created hundreds of jobs for former steel workers and others.
  • Thanks to a law adopted in 1988, millions of Pennsylvanians separate cans, bottles, newspapers and other recyclables, and place them at curbside, where they are picked up for recycling. Two million tons of material are now diverted from disposal and recycled every year, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and supporting 3,800 businesses and 52,000 jobs. 

To be sure, these examples do not represent a “new normal” of sustainability; they tend to beActing As If Tomorrow Matters: Sustainability exceptions to the norm. And in many ways, the United States is farther away from sustainability than we were two decades ago. 

But to accelerate the transition to sustainability, we need to learn what has worked in the U.S. and why. To do that, I asked 51 experts in a wide variety of sustainability fields (e.g., community sustainability, sustainability in higher education, green building) why we have made any progress at all toward sustainability. Then, together, we looked for patterns in their answers. The Pennsylvania stories used here are simply examples of the larger picture. 

We found three broad reasons for U.S. progress to date:

1. Growing Support In Spite Of Mixed Public Opinion

In no small part because of the economic recession that began in 2008, public responses to opinion polling tend to give more weight to growing the economy than protecting the environment. Still, people favor renewable energy and energy efficiency. They like saving money by reducing energy consumption.

All across the country, there is growing support for community-supported agriculture efforts like Spiral Path Farm and farmers markets:

“Folks are interested in buying wholesome foods, grown local and organic,” says Terra Brownback, whose family runs Spiral Path. “Some folks are concerned deeply about the earth and environment and want to patronize and help a family farm be sustainable and be good stewards of the earth. Many members tell us how much better they are eating since their box contains veggies and recipes they have never tried before.”

2. More-Sustainable Decisions Are Easier To Make And More Attractive

This is the other side of the coin from the first reason. Growing public support drives development of Spiral path farmmore sustainable alternatives to business as usual, and more sustainable alternatives are gaining greater support.

Consider the growth in certification programs, which translate the broad concept of sustainability into specific actions in specific contexts (such as green building and sustainable forestry). Organizations that are seeking a more sustainable path ranging from St. Stephens’s School to Armstrong World Industries — don’t need to figure it out from scratch. 

While many certification programs are private, some, like the U.S. Department of Agriculture organic food certification obtained by Spiral Path, are governmental. These programs also give companies and organizations a sustainability credential they can use to attract customers or students. 

A growing number of people and organizations are justifying more-sustainable decisions in religious or ethical terms. They see that growing greenhouse gas emissions, for example, hurt people on the other side of the world as well as future generations (including their children and grandchildren), and are thus taking steps to address climate change. In addition, high, rising, or unstable energy prices make energy efficiency and conservation more attractive.  

3. Lawmaking Is Not Limited To Environmental Regulation

Our air is healthier to breathe than it once was, and our rivers and streams are much cleaner than they were, because of environmental regulations that limit or prohibit pollution. Such laws are the lens through which most of us see environmental protection. They are also a big reason for the polarized Gamesadebate at the national level about environmental protection.

While that debate dominates much of the media’s environmental reporting, there is growing use of nonregulatory law to protect and restore the environment. Much of this law can be understood as fostering environmentally sustainable economic development. The federal government’s organic food certification program provides a legal framework in which the organic food industry can grow.  According to the Center for Food Safety, retail organic food sales have grown by a factor of 30 since 1990, when the law was adopted.

Pennsylvania’s 2003 Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards Act helped bring Gamesa to the state.  Because the act requires an increase in the amount of electricity generated from renewable sources, Gamesa knew there would be a local market for the wind turbines it produces. Similarly, Pennsylvania’s recycling law has helped build the state’s recycling industry as well as businesses that use recycled materials. 

These three basic patterns underline the admittedly limited progress that the U.S. has made and provide important clues on how to accelerate our transition to sustainability. To do that, however, we must also understand the obstacles. That's next so stay tuned.

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Read the rest of the series: Acting As If Tomorrow Matters: Accelerating the Transition to Sustainability

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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