New Jersey’s Garden-Variety Environmentalism

New Jersey’s Garden-Variety Environmentalism

From an environmental perspective, New Jersey Gov. John Corzine's Economic Growth Strategy, announced in September, certainly has some good things in it, but it is still lacking key themes. It includes a link to an improved land use plan (making the environmental community happy), an unusually good renewable energy component, brownfields reuse. It mentions eco-tourism and green/environmentally sensitive buildings.

But, particularly, with an administration headed by former Goldman Sachs senior executives, it could be so much better in seeking simultaneous improvements to economic growth and environmental protection through promoting business involvement in green economic development.

Goldman Sachs' environmental policy recognizes: (a) they have a lot of impacts and see the need to strongly push environmental improvements in multiple ways; (b) they should use their leverage to get others to also; and (c) environmental technologies (including, but beyond renewable energy) should be invested in.

There are many possibilities, opportunities to learn, and existing writings on this topic. Why not take advantage of this type of thinking and consider what New Jersey State government and those who advise them could do to make New Jersey the state with the greenest economic base, with companies encouraged to adopt similar environmental goals, while building their businesses and creating jobs?

Green economic development includes: (a) companies with explicit environmental products and technologies like solar power; (b) companies not necessarily in the "environmental business," but learning to find (and credibly show) a sustainability-oriented competitive advantage in growing number of ways (e.g. through their internal operations such as their own purchases from suppliers, becoming active supporters of preserving biodiversity or reducing greenhouse gas emissions, helping communities in countries without access to clean drinking water); and (c) retailers and companies that deal with the end consumer in various ways: bankers and investment advisors, restaurants, plumbers, landscapers, hardware stores, travel agencies, supermarkets, appliance and furniture retailers, farmers, architects—even developers.

As important as renewable energy and good planning are, there is a need for progress on many other environmental fronts as well, such as water (including efficiency, restoration of waterways, green roofs, sustainable fisheries), nontoxic products, products with much more recycled content, indoor air quality—all areas where businesses with the right product or service could make a contribution.

And, of course, from the other end, green economic development needs the public, in our consumer hats and other roles, to favor these companies with our purchases, through word-of-mouth discussions, and even by a willingness to re-think and make distinctions in established positions (e.g. can we accept the environmental trade-offs from off-shore wind, or ethanol as a fuel, under certain conditions, given the growing and increasingly proven threat of global warming?). Even companies that stumble a few times getting started may deserve some learning space as they try to figure it out (assuming they’re really trying and not engaging in greenwash).

In New Jersey, leading-edge sustainable business speakers occasionally come to the state, but typically leave without leaving any trace on conventional economic or environmental thought. There are conferences and journals in the field; old reports and initiatives that could be dusted off and learned from; some existing initiatives that could be integrated into a comprehensive green economic strategy.

However, in the past two months, there have been state of the art lectures and conferences at three New Jersey universities (Fairleigh Dickinson, Montclair State, and Kean) with no presence by state economic development or environmental protection senior managers (or even staff)! FDU’s new Institute for Sustainable Enterprise, out of their Silberman Business School, is at the early stages of planning two initiatives: a Sustainable Challenge for New Jersey businesses (as well as for other sectors) and a sustainable business incubator. It would be nice if New Jersey State Government would lend a hand.

When I’ve mentioned these ideas to high level state government managers, they are always polite, but clearly no (compact fluorescent) light bulb goes on. You might think that hearing about a large carpet company that is aiming for zero-emissions by 2020, or an NJIT student looking for help to design a family-owned zero-emissions brewery—there currently is no good place to send her outside of Namibia—would inspire a vision for overall economic development and environmental protection.

From a businessperson’s perspective, for those in New Jersey, or that sell directly or indirectly to an in-state end consumer, it would be useful to know what New Jersey state government decides to do to promote green economic development: what incentives, educational and research programs, pilots, partnerships? Also, in the past, when New Jersey started a program, like the Toxics Release Inventory, other states picked up on it.

Other reasons to be interested are: (a) to take the opportunity to try to influence any forthcoming initiative in ways that play to a company’s competitive strength; (b) to gain experience in an area that will likely evolve to other states, the nation, and globally; and (c) for those hidden environmentalists in companies, to find ways to make disparate parts of their lives more compatible and add a social purpose to the pursuit of making a living.

Actually pushing environmental protection would be a visionary, state of the art state economic growth strategy! What a wasted opportunity if New Jersey doesn’t take advantage. But if it doesn’t, then it deserves to lose this opportunity to another state.

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Matthew Polsky is a Cranford, N.J.-based sustainability change-agent to business, including trade associations and a university institute; state and local government; environmental groups; and higher and K-12 education.