The ‘Loneliness’ of the Pro-Business Environmentalist

The ‘Loneliness’ of the Pro-Business Environmentalist

"There's little applause nowadays for those who describe themselves as 'pro-business and pro-environment,'" writes Anne Applebaum in her commentary on EPA Administrator Christine Whitman's political plight (“The EPA's Lonely Moderate”; Washington Post, 1/22/03). But Whitman has lots of company. In fact, the country is teeming with "pro-business, pro-environment" activities. If you want proof, take a quick survey of GreenBiz.com.

I'm as plugged into this phenomenon as much as anyone, but the variety and scope of these activities continually dazzles me. I just met, for example, with a representative of the National Biodiesel Board. (Biodiesel is fuel for trucks and buses made from soybeans and other vegetable oils and fats.) This board is backed by a coalition of 275 organizations, agencies, and businesses. Are biodiesel advocates lonely? Not likely.

Biodiesel is only one of countless new technological and commercial approaches to environmental protection. Because most innovations stem from small, not big, firms, these businesses typically represent new, entrepreneurial businesses. Here are three examples:
  • NaturaLawn of America (Frederick, Maryland) the nation’s first organic-based lawn care franchise service, has 53 franchise locations in 23 states serving 45,000 customers and generating over $20 million in annual revenues.
  • Bay Windpower (Grand Rapids, Michigan) is working to increase Michigan's renewable energy use to 5% by 2003 by developing utility-scale wind turbine generators to serve the growing demand for competitively priced green power.
  • EvCo Research (Atlanta, Georgia) produces coatings for the paper and packaging industries that use polyester compounds derived from recycled soft drink bottles. Cardboard boxes with these coatings are fully recyclable and replace non-recyclable wax boxes.
(These businesses are Green Gazelles, a project of the Center for Small Business and the Environment. To see other examples, go to the program’s Web site.)

Collectively, all these activities are creating new business opportunities and new employment. They are expanding the market for innovative products and services almost everywhere. (See Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins, which contains hundreds more examples.) In contrast to the political brand of environmentalism, which focuses on elections, litigation, legislation, and government regulations, this brand of environmentalism is focussed on the marketplace. It's pro-business environmentalism.

Applebaum is right, however, in observing that all this gets little applause in Washington, D.C. There, as she notes, "the environmental debate has become ludicrously, almost hysterically, polarized." In this hothouse climate, defenders of polluting industries score politically by charging that environmental protection harms economic growth and, in particular, that it destroys jobs and small businesses.

Pro-business environmentalism blunts this accusation. So let's politicize the case we're making. Let's force politicians in both parties to pay attention to the economic growth and new employment that pro-business environmentalism is creating.

Potentially, there's a big pay-off at the ballot box. According to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “new economy voters” -- workers and executives in the technology sector -- made up about one-third of the electorate in the last Presidential election. These voters are fiscal conservatives who tend to be pro-business, pro-choice, liberal to moderate on social issues, and deeply pro-environment. And they are also suspicious of big government.

Neither party has yet succeeded in claiming the allegiance of this bloc. In the last election, these voters cast their ballots almost evenly between George Bush and Al Gore. Environmentalists need to cement the allegiance of these voters to the cause, not to one or the other political party, and to do so in a way that compels both parties to pay attention and vie for the votes.

For this to happen, pro-business environmentalists must call greater attention to this exploding phenomenon. So let's stage an event that showcases all this pro-business environmentalism on one day and in a national context. Let's make it possible for the public, the press and the politicians to see this phenomenon as a whole. Then, its massive significance will emerge.

Nationwide, there's a ton of good examples, including:
  • The Business Environmental Leadership Council of the Pew Center Climate Program, which works with thirty-eight major companies, including Alcoa, Boeing, Dupont, IBM, Maytag, Sunoco and Whirlpool, to respond to climate change with measures that are cost effective, equitable, and that allow for economic growth based on free market principles.
  • The Nature Conservancy's work with ranchers and farmers, to protect vital lands and waters in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon and South Dakota
  • Environmental Entrepreneurs, an effort to bring venture-capital thinking to environmental projects that operates in conjunction with the Natural Resources Defense Council
  • The Alliance for Environmental Innovation, sponsored by Environmental Defense, which works with private companies such as McDonalds, UPS, and FedEx to define new best practices, green the supply chain, and motivate other companies in the same industry sector to make environmental improvements.
Equally important are the many regional and local organizations working to integrate economic development with environmental quality -- groups such as Bridging the Gap in Kansas City, Clean Air-Cool Planet in New Hampshire, the Delta Institute in Chicago, and the Sonoran Institute in Phoenix.

Pro-business environmentalists have already laid the groundwork for this scenario. For example, February 10-15 is Green Week in Atlanta, an annual event that promotes sustainable homes, workplaces and communities. This year the event includes 30 workshops on transportation design, clean energy generation and high performance building systems; an alternative fuel vehicle fair; a tradeshow displaying the latest environmental products, materials and services; and a tour of commercial and residential green buildings in the area.

Imagine a full day, nationwide, celebrating this brand of activism from coast to coast. Back in 1970 both houses of Congress adjourned so that members could attend Earth Day events in their districts and home states. If all the country's pro-business environmental initiatives really flexed our muscles, perhaps we could repeat this feat.

Here's why I think this event might be spirited, appealing and powerful. Last October, I spoke at the Net Impact conference held at Georgetown University. Net Impact (formerly Students for Responsible Business) attracted over 1,000 MBA candidates to this meeting. More than 250 of them packed a room to hear a panel I was on titled “Environmental Entrepreneurship.”

These bright, energetic young people have determined to make their living by starting new businesses that solve environmental problems. Naturally, I urged them on. Their determination, I said, offers them the chance to make money, to do good, and to have fun, all rolled into one. Even in this crazy world, that's a recipe for a rewarding life.

I wasn't the least bit lonely that day. And, yes, I was applauded -- enthusiastically!

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Byron Kennard is executive director of the Center for Small Business and the Environment.