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Green’s Economic Opportunity

November 13, 2012 By Timothy Nolan, Guest Commentary

This is second of three-part series on sustainability. Read part 1.

Sustainability solutions require a complex and multi-faceted approach—which is sometimes difficult in a sound bite society. Achieving sustainability takes system-wide thinking to address challenges in an integrated way.  We must stop thinking about cutting energy consumption or waste reduction or ensuring clean water individuality, and start ensuring we do all of it and much more together.

Integrating solutions to these 21st century environmental problems takes 21st century reform strategies led by businesses, government, and other leading institutions.

“What has gotten us to this state, we’ve created many vertical organizations very good at looking at narrow interests in short term way. Organizations have become good at individual focus but can’t look beyond to broader events and impacts. Global issues are long-term. We’ve created certain habits and behavior that is a challenge to change. How do we create collaborative relationships to move us in new directions?” -- Peter Senge at Pegasus Conference 2004 and “The Fifth Discipline” 1990

One key is to reengineer our infrastructure for the 21st century, as the foundation to operate in a more interconnected and functionally optimized way. This will include to some degree, a radical restructuring of our food, energy, and water systems, and the fiscal, governance, transportation, telecommunications, waste management, and other systems that support them. This in essence is about evolving to a circular economy that is more efficient with materials flows, less contaminating to ecological systems and more restorative to the biosphere.

Such advanced and interconnected systems can be more resource productive and enhance reliability and security. Highly efficient and integrated infrastructure, and fostering adoption of cleaner technologies, will enable and insure long-term competitiveness by capturing value and preventing future costs. By providing integrated solutions, public resources can be optimized, and consumers benefit from products that reduce human health impacts, don’t deplete resources, enhance ecosystems, and defer costs for future generations. This will become inherent in wealth creation and economic prosperity.

The Opportunity for a Clean Green Sustainable Economy

Transformation to a clean, green more sustainable economy presents a new value proposition and is truly a paradigm shift. What many don’t yet factor in is how powerful the forces driving this transformation are, especially for younger generations. Mainstream dialogue has begun to address a new economy, one where quality of life and individual well being, rather than the pursuit of material wealth, are primary values. Maintaining a healthy and attractive environment moves to the forefront as a way of doing business and achieving community sustainability. This economy will be based on knowledge, sharing value, and high levels of resource productivity to maximize economic, human, and natural capital.

“The solution lies in the principle of shared value, which involves creating economic value in a way that also creates value for society by addressing its needs and challenges." Harvard Business Review Jan-Feb 2011

Clean, green, and sustainability issues are complex, evolving, and integral to all industry sectors and the infrastructure supporting these industries. To accommodate transformation businesses large or small and communities, will have to learn to operate in this new reality. Conventional thinking is beginning to shift from the premise, that higher environmental performance impedes competitiveness, to the promise that it will be fundamental to success. Pursuing and capturing superior triple bottom line performance will become the “new normal” for large and small businesses and all levels of government.

Eco-Innovations can create business growth and improve competitiveness. Global demand for environmental technologies, goods, materials and services is expanding rapidly. Diffusion of superior performing technologies and products will result in environmental, economic, and social benefits. Many businesses are initiating innovative sustainability strategies, far more advanced than government regulations.

“We needed to provide a whole host of products and more fully recognize that the whole sustainability movement was not going away, that it was a Megatrend.” --CEO of Minnesota based Tennant Company, Star Tribune Oct 30, 2011

A clean green sustainable economy is not only about a new way of doing business that enhances the environment, but also opportunities for business growth, job creation, and sustainable economic development. Economic development will result from what will be exponential growth in demand for solutions to environmental challenges.

Interpreting the body of green jobs research, evidence indicates significant and diverse job growth and demonstrates important job quality and stability attributes. Though there are different interpretations of what green jobs are, a substantive body of findings indicate they are; diverse and found in a wide variety of industries and occupations, notably in construction and manufacturing, found predominantly in private firms, balanced between the metro and non-metro, and represent a higher proportion of new jobs than total jobs. These jobs offer quality employment based on high levels of; required education and advanced specialty skill, average wage rates, permanency, and health care benefits. This evidence refutes green jobs skeptics, and validates the argument that the clean green economy is on its way and here to stay.

Tomorrow's conclusion of this series will address specific steps for moving forward in a clean, green economy.

Timothy Nolan is Principal Planner of Sustainable Industrial Development at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. He's spent more than 25 years at the forefront of Minnesota’s efforts to implement progressive public and private sector sustainable development initiatives. 

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