The sustainability movement confronts its 'lean in' moment

equity, policy, inclusion, Van Jones, environmental justice
Kathryn Cooper/GreenBiz
Civil rights attorney and author Van Jones in conversation at VERGE 17 with Joel Makower, chairman and executive editor of GreenBiz Group.

If your sustainability team doesn't include someone with regulatory or policy experience — or who is aware of the spectrum of socioeconomic issues dividing many communities — it's time to start lobbying for change.

For too long, corporate sustainability strategists have avoided the political and policy fray, either by overt omission or by unconscious oversight. That absence has allowed fossil fuels interests to paint environmental protection priorities as elitist, job-killing agendas that aren't reflective of mainstream beliefs across the United States. That perception has become even more deep-rooted since the November election.

The truth is far more nuanced, but the takeaway is the same: The march of progress on sustainable business practices — especially toward adopting clean, renewable energy — will slow to a crawl if businesses don't wake up to the needs of a more diverse community and include their voices.

"It's a tale of two movements," said Van Jones, civil rights attorney, CNN commentator and author, during a keynote conversation at VERGE 17 in Santa Clara, California.

"One of things that I think you guys have an opportunity to do something about is that we still have this almost  it's an embarrassment that I just have to talk about  but we almost have a racially segregated environmental movement. We have mainstream environmentalism, which are the organizations that we all know, that we all love we all support, they have $100 million budgets and their constituencies are overwhelmingly white and affluent. And then we have what we call environmental justice, and these groups are almost entirely people of color and they have a half-million dollar budget."

That division is almost universally overlooked in the corporate world, Jones contended. Until it is addressed, it will sap the sustainability movement's energy and credibility.

"The idea that you could have a green economy that is strong enough to lift people out of poverty, that you could deal with social equality and environmental destruction at the same time, with the same solution, to me that's as profound an idea in the 21st century, as 'all are created equal' in the 1700s or 'I have a dream' in the 1900s," he said. "It's that powerful an idea."

The jobs numbers are already trending in the clean economy's favor. Jobs related to solar installations — considered to be among the highest-paying "blue collar" jobs — grew 17 times faster than in other sectors, with about 260,000 employed in the field by the end of 2016, according to data from the International Renewable Energy Agency. More than 1.9 million people are involved in some aspect of energy efficiency, according to figures from the Department of Energy.

One organization focused on connecting the dots between the clean economy and new employment is the BlueGreen Alliance, which united labor groups and environment NGOs including the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation and the Natural Resources Defense Council. And it has taken a critical view of the White House's hostile stance toward addressing climate change and decision to abandon the Paris Agreement.

“Mr. Trump campaigned on a pledge to revitalize American manufacturing," wrote BlueGreen Alliance Executive Director Kim Glas, when the president announced his intentions earlier this year. "But by withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, the president is ceding jobs to other countries and shirking from the responsibility to address this historic crisis. We urge the Trump administration to reconsider, recommit to the Paris Agreement and leave nothing on the table when it comes to creating good jobs for the American people.”

As Apple's chief sustainability officer — and public affairs strategist — Lisa Jackson told VERGE attendees in the closing session:  "You do not have to choose between a clean environment and a growing economy, and you can't have one without the other." 

The messy truth, and unintended consequences

But while the jobs message is relatively positive, the sustainability movement's record when it comes to reflecting diversity isn't easy to defend. In an essay published by GreenBiz in late August, Interface sustainability manager Jarami Bond summed up the situation — and its unintended consequences — with these words: "As a black man in the field of corporate sustainability, I refer to myself as a 'super-minority.'"

The side effect of failing to include diverse perspectives — from a gender, ethnic and socio-economic point of view — is that well-intended initiatives and programs could have unintended consequences.

That's especially true right now in energy. While many corporate energy buyers are understandably excited about the various financing options, programs and tax incentives at their disposable to acquire solar and wind power that matches their electricity loads, it's far more difficult to get individual consumers who find it difficult to pay their power bills each month excited about energy efficiency or clean power. 

The poorest 20 percent of the U.S. population pays 10 percent or more of their entire household income on energy, at least in part because they haven't been able to invest in efficiency measures such as power-sipping appliances.

"It comes down to the question of how can economies be fully realized, how can economies be fully competitive, if everyone is not positioned to participate in them, if everyone is not given an opportunity to roll up their sleeves and be involved in this exciting transition that we're experiencing — from an extractive economy to a renewable energy economy," noted Nathaniel Smith, chief equity officer at the Partnership for Southern Equity, in a VERGE 17 keynote discussion dedicated to this topic.

"I want to ask you all to think a little bit differently about what we mean when we say, from the margins to the mainstream," added Michelle Moore, former sustainability chief under the Obama administration and CEO of Groundswell, a non-profit focused on community power programs.

"Don't think about technology adoption and the market mainstreaming of solutions. I want you all to think about the good that come, from putting people — all people, all of our neighbors, who are often marginalized or who are treated as an afterthought — at the center of the systems and solutions that we are creating."

One example comes from the Ouachita Electric Cooperative in rural Camden, Arkansas. The utility created a tariff financing system that enabled the coop to invest in new efficiency measures in members' homes such as new heating and air-conditioning systems and insulation, without requiring money upfront but rather by handling it as a fixed monthly cost over 12 years.

"I think the really unique thing about the tariff is that it allowed us to move into rental homes and to apartment buildings," observed Mark Cayce, CEO and general manager of Ouachita. "When we were doing just loans, those populations were really left out. Because when we were doing loans, we needed some sort of commitment from a property owner so a lot of people in the rental housing market and apartment dwellers were not able to do this."

Time to speak up

Adopting innovative new policies internally, however, will require the sustainability community to become more involved in the dialogue around local, state and federal policies that could advance — or impede — progress. This is starting to happen. In early September, five big companies — Walmart, Amazon, Microsoft, Lockheed Martin and Salesforce — became part of a new policy group dedicated to advancing the cause of "advanced energy" by advocating policy evolution, particularly at the state level.

"It does matter to me that clean tech is at the table in Washington, I hope you won't give up on Washington, even though right now environmental protection, and clean technology and climate leadership, are not exactly in favor," said U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.)  in a VERGE 17 session dedicated to this issue. "Whether you are engaged or not, what you need to know is that other people are, and they're going to make decisions that will affect you."

Huffman offered the example of federal wind production incentives, which spurred investments in wind farms across the Midwest, as an arena where the business community has played an explicit role in driving policy. "But there were moments in the last decade where it almost ground to a halt, and tens of thousands of jobs were lost," Huffman said.

Google is among the companies that most actively involves itself in policy matters: It spent $5.4 million in the second quarter alone, according to filings. Michael Terrell, head of energy market development for the tech giant, said his team advocates its interest in clean energy at the state, regional and local levels. "It does take engagement at all of those levels to really affect change," he said.

For example, Google was at the heart of an effort in North Carolina to craft the renewable energy tariff program that has allowed several large buyers to invest in projects in that state. It was also involved in a similar program in Georgia. "These are markets that weren't traditionally friendly to clean energy," Terrell noted. Internationally, the company is working in Taiwan and various markets in Europe.

The reality, however, is that most companies spend far less than Google to engage on policy matters. Jon Powers, co-founder of investment firm CleanCapital, suggested that more companies involved in the clean economy need to rethink that stance even if they have limited resources. "Policy touches everything you do, and if you don't understand it, and at least try to follow it, it's going to significantly affect your market," he said.

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