Lisa Jackson's sustainability vision

Two Steps Forward

Lisa Jackson's sustainability vision

The United States Environmental Protection Agency wants to help your company become sustainable.

If that sentence seems curious or quixotic, consider this: Over the past few months, agency executives have had some 500 conversations with companies, nonprofits, community leaders, and others — a series of “listening sessions” — on how the EPA might “improve decision making and further incorporate principles of sustainability into its ongoing work.”

It’s an intriguing, bold and, perhaps, audacious move for an agency chartered 42 years ago to set and enforce standards to ensure environmental protection and public health. As Barack Obama begins his second term, and EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson wraps up the final weeks of her tenure, the notion of whether and how the EPA can embed sustainability into its work will be an intriguing story to watch.

Some background is in order. In 2010, Jackson asked the National Research Council’s Science and Technology for Sustainability Program, part of the National Academy of Science, to provide a framework for integrating sustainability “as a key driver of the agency’s activities.” The resulting 160-page report (download here), delivered in May 2011 and referred to as the “Green Book,” provides recommendations for a sustainability approach that incorporates and goes beyond how the agency has assessed and managed the risks posed by pollutants — the basis of environmental policy since the 1980s.

As the National Academy put it:

Although risk-based methods have led to many successes and remain important tools … they are not adequate to address many of the complex problems that put current and future generations at risk, such as depletion of natural resources, climate change, and loss of biodiversity. Moreover, sophisticated tools are increasingly available to address cross-cutting, complex, and challenging issues that go beyond risk management.

The report recommended that EPA formally adopt as its sustainability paradigm the widely used "three pillars" approach — that is, considering the environmental, social and economic impacts of an agency action or decision.

Last week, two blocks from the White House and less than 48 hours before President Obama took his oath of office, Jackson convened a roundtable of companies for a conversation about the business implications of an EPA focus on sustainability, as well as a more general discussion of what role the EPA should play in supporting the private sector’s sustainability initiatives. Among the 15 companies at the table were executives from Dell, Dow, Dupont, Ford, Intel, International Paper, Johns Manville, LG Electronics, Lockheed Martin, Siemens, Unilever, Weyerhaeuser, and Xerox. I was asked to serve as moderator for the event.

In the run-up to that meeting, I also met with Jackson during her recent visit to California. We discussed her sustainability vision, as well as her thoughts on how the agency could better support the private sector in the years to come. (The full transcript of that conversation, edited for clarity, can be found here.)

“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,” Jackson told me. “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.”

Suffice to say, getting unstuck from that loop has been the goal of several of Jackson's predecessors, partial evidence of which can be found in more than 100 EPA voluntary programs for business, from the well-known (Energy Star, WaterSense, SmartWay) to the obscure (BurnWise, Ruminant Livestock Efficiency Program, Clean School Bus). Beyond that, most EPA administrators have tried to find common ground with companies seeking to go beyond compliance in their environmental programs and performance. There have been few signs of success.

With good reason: At its heart, EPA is a regulatory body, mandated by Congress to implement and enforce a succession of environmental laws dealing with air and water quality, toxic emissions, waste disposal, pesticide registration, and other things. And that duality — the agency’s enforcement mandate as well as its desire to play nice with proactive companies — has long presented a challenging balancing act for the EPA.

Jackson believes the time has come to go further than previous efforts, hence the “Green Book” report, the listening sessions, and last week's roundtable. And while it may seem a curious time for her to introduce this — just weeks before she departs the administration for her next, as-yet-unknown adventure — she seems to truly believe that this is where the EPA needs to go. “Sustainability has to be a cornerstone of our work, whether that’s internal in the organization or working with organizations like yours that are already on the cutting edge,” she told the executives at last week's roundtable.

She also seems to understand the challenge her agency faces: “How do you take a concept like sustainability, which wasn’t as much talked about when some of these laws were passed, and ensure that you don’t break the laws, but you actually make real progress? And how do you make sure that it’s consistent with our mandates but also what’s needed in this day and age?”

Another open question is what, exactly, Jackson and her team mean by “sustainability.”

“When NAS did their study on sustainability and EPA, they didn’t bother to define it,” she explained when I asked her about that. “And they did that for a really good reason. They felt that the process of trying to narrow into a definition might, in and of itself, exclude people from the table. Everyone hears in that word something that resonates. So we kept that very broad concept.” EPA’s definition of the word doesn’t specifically incorporate social dimensions — “We are not the Social Inclusion Protection Agency,” Jackson stresses — though the agency already plays a role in public health and environmental justice issues, and has more than a passing interest in job creation.

Whatever the definition, Jackson sees an opportunity for a conversation about sustainability to foster a more collaborative approach with business. For instance, she says, “We hear from companies who say, ‘I would do more of X, but your regulations on Y inhibit that.’ Or, ‘I can invest in making this process more efficient or that process more efficient, but I don’t have the capital to do both at the same time.’ We need to be able to hear that and make sure that we’re not inadvertently causing more pollution in one media or another, or causing those kinds of trade-offs that inhibit innovation. I think there’s plenty of room for that. I think technology has gotten us to the point where we’re not talking about, you know, ‘Allow me to pollute so I can employ 100 more people.’ It’s more, ‘Help me understand that I can make a series of investments and feel some level of certainty.’”

I suggested to Jackson that some business leaders are going to hear about an EPA push to promote sustainability, and to reward companies for leadership, and say, “We’ve seen this movie before.” I even offered up two “feature films” as cases in point. One is Performance Track, which was an effort to recognize and acknowledge companies that were excelling, and reward them through incentives, regulatory relief and fast-track permitting. The other was Climate Leaders, which recognized companies for leadership in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Both of those programs came and went, despite their seeming popularity among companies.

“In an age of political volatility,” I asked Jackson, “how do companies know that this is not going to be, pardon me, but a flavor-of-the-month — something that they’re going to invest in, get excited about, want to be a part of, and then see it go away?”

“Performance Track is a great example of a government program that people talk about now in retrospect a lot better than they talked about it when it was happening,” Jackson responded. “What people said about Performance Track was more in line with that it takes forever to get regulatory relief. ‘We’ve given you everything you’ve asked for and you can’t seem to get it through your lawyers.’ And there was a really good reason for that, because the laws were not set up that way at all. They were never set up to say, ‘You know, Joel, if you do these three things we’ll forget the fact that you can’t do No. 4.’ We don’t actually have that flexibility.

“What we do have is the ability to recognize the things you are doing, that for many companies can buy them some ability to deal with the times when things aren’t always going that well. It’s really that simple. I think we have to be willing to try things, and people also have to be willing to admit when things aren’t working.”

As for Climate Leaders, “We were rewarding people for reporting things that are now required, and so you can’t have a leader’s program when the regs finally caught up with the leaders; they had been out in front, but now it’s the law of the land.”

So, I asked Jackson, how should we think about Jackson’s sustainability vision? Will it be a new program that companies sign on to, or something less visible undergirding how the agency approaches its overall mission?

“I don’t think it’s been that defined yet,” she replied. “If you look at the ‘Green Book,’ what the National Academy recommended was that we look at how we do our own risk assessments internally to make sure that we’re thinking about sustainability principles — that we look at our regulatory processes internally to make sure we’re not inhibiting sustainability. So, we have that kind of work to do internally. I would be loathe, too, if I were in the private sector to sign up for something. I don’t think we need a brand new, big-old program; I think what we need to do is make sure that the communication is robust and that we’re learning from each other.”

I asked Jackson: “When you and I get together in January 2017, at the end of President Obama’s second term, and you look back at this thing that you spawned as you were heading out the door, what’s the story that you want to be able to tell?”

“The country is prepared to take some pretty big leaps forward in my mind, in everything from energy efficiency to reducing toxics,” said Jackson. “But we still are a little bit ‘stuck on stupid’ — that’s my father’s phrase — which is, we still have the same argument in that we assume you can’t make that progress without paying a heavy toll in terms of economic growth. And I’ve just never believed that. All it takes is a willingness to look at the problem and say, ‘I want them both,’ and come up with a solution that optimizes both. So I would hope that it was the time when forward-thinking businesses who see that already — who don’t see the need to say either/or — said, ‘We found an ear in the EPA in a way that helped us feel like we did have support, and had a voice and a seat at the table.’ I don’t know where it will go. It will be for the next administrator and probably his or her legacy will be determined by how much of it they formalize and how they do that.

“But I’ll tell you, I don’t actually think it can go away because there’s so much excitement inside the agency about it. The biggest concern we have to make sure is that everyone doesn’t run off with a thousand points of sustainability, and all of a sudden there’s all these programs, and to the outside world it just looks like a nice bunch of little things instead of a bigger change.”

Ah, yes: change. That’s the über mission Barack Obama long ago promised. As he begins his second term, it will be fascinating — and nontrivial — to see if he and his next EPA administrator can effect the kinds of changes it will take to better align environmental protection with sustainability leadership.

Photocollage by GreenBiz Group