Joel Makower in conversation with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson

Recently, during the waning weeks of President Obama’s first term, I sat with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to discuss her vision for embedding sustainability into the agency’s mission and programs. Following is that conversation, edited for clarity.

Joel Makower: How did this vision to embed sustainability into the EPA’s mission come to be?

Lisa Jackson: One of the things I wanted to do before I left is to take the Green Book report that the National Academy of Sciences did further. And quite frankly, we spent a lot of time having lots of conversations before we just pushed it out on people on where we thought we should go. I think they’ve had hundreds of sessions. Now we think we’re ready to start to say, “We don’t want to speak as EPA and say, ‘Here’s what sustainability needs to be and here’s what it should be.’”

Why not bring in companies who in their other lives are doing a lot of the things that we would be – would praise them for? They’re conserving energy or conserving water or cutting down on toxics or finding a way to change a process such that they prevent pollution in the first place. All good stuff. And how do we as EPA make sure it doesn’t feel regulatory, but start to bring together voices that might help us understand how we might be able to push that forward?

One of the conundrums of our time right now is, [critics] say we have an elected government that doesn’t always reflect the will of the people. Well, I feel like we have a business policy and an energy policy and a water use policy that sometimes don't reflect what’s best for businesses, but [companies] don’t know how to engage, and we start having the same old conversations. It’s like we’re stuck in a loop.

Makower: What would be most valuable to you to hear from companies? What do you want to know from them?

Jackson: What we would like people to say is, what role EPA should be playing in helping them. It’s almost like we’re stuck on what is sustainability and how do I know if it’s real, and who gets to certify it, and who gets to say? And I start to feel as though that’s a waste of time. So I think if we could just get past that. EPA can’t give up its sort of watchdog role, but at the same time, a lot of times what we hear from businesses is, “If I could just get some recognition so I could take it to my CEO, or my board.” Or, if I’m a CEO, to say, “We are being recognized for what we’re doing and it does matter to our customers.”

Makower: So you want to hear from companies about what would make this vision compelling to them?

Jackson: It’s actually a little bit more basic than that. I’d love to hear them give some ringing endorsements to the idea that this is actually good for us, that this is not some crazy idea coming out of the United Nations Agenda 21. These are things that they think is smart business. If they did that, those kind of quotes can last a long time in Congressional hearings, because we’re going to get some amount of pushback on this.

Makower: Congress will say it’s a power grab by your agency.

Jackson: Well, that’s what they’ll say. And I don’t want it to be that. I’m more worried that it will be seen as some agenda to redistribute wealth. We get accused of lots of things.

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