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The Business Case for a Cleaner, Greener, More Sustainable Economy

February 07, 2013 By Timothy Nolan, Guest Commentary

The following commentary is the latest installment of Minnesota 2020's ongoing series featuring long-time state environmental planner Timothy Nolan, which describes how Minnesota should design and engage in a strategic, comprehensive, and integrated approach to advance the clean, green, sustainable regional economy. Click here for a more detailed explanation of the terms and concepts used in this series.

Our “New Economy” is based on knowledge, and relies on technology adoption, flexibility, speed, quality, networks and mass distributed collaboration. How can we apply our knowledge to a new way of doing business in a range of products and services?

Players in this "New Economy" value quality-of-life and prefer to work and live in communities that provide diverse amenities, not the least of which are economic opportunity in the form of quality jobs, and a healthy and attractive environment.

The Green Economy (referred to in different terms as green economy, clean economy, clean energy economy, sustainable economy) builds on this foundation, going beyond to integrate ecological values as fundamental to long-term prosperity. It is based on resource productivity and optimizes economic, human, and natural capital to avoid degradation and depletion of natural assets. If ecosystem services are degraded then economic value is lost. In a sense, ecological integrity is forefront rather than just the short-term quest for economic profits often associated with non-sustainable resource depletion and ecological degradation. Protecting the environment as natural assets is seen as being in the long-term interest of businesses and communities who hope to grow and ultimately be sustainable.

The Green Economy is not just about jobs, but rather the whole system of commerce, made up of the legal, economic, political, social, cultural and technological systems, that constitute the conditions for doing business. These systems affect all the business prospects of an economy. In a true Green Economy:

  • Quality-of-life and standard of living are based less on over consumption and more on balancing ecological stewardship with economic prosperity.
  • Human systems that support commerce move away from diminishing and degrading the environment to optimizing natural resources and restoring ecosystems that support societies.
  • Puts high value on attributes that achieve superior environmental performance, as a new way of delivering value.
  • It is not just about clean energy or jobs, but involves materials, energy, and water resources use, to produce and distribute goods and services, in ways that are far less intensive and much more optimized.

To get there will require a progression from an environmental management approach built on remediation, pollution control and waste management—through the more current strategies of resource recovery, pollution prevention, and energy efficiency—toward a 21st century reformation, where the economy optimizes sustainable management of resources, internalizes the full costs and measures of ecological health, and provides for more balanced prosperity.

To accommodate transformation, prevent future costs, and capture the opportunities, businesses (of all sizes) and communities will have to adapt policies, processes, and practices that are significantly less resource intensive and ecologically damaging. Disruptive innovation is necessary to accelerate adoption of these new systems. Protecting the environment as natural assets is seen as being in the long-term interest of businesses and communities who hope to grow and ultimately be sustainable.

“A society maximizes its wealth by maximizing the use of available resources in the most efficient proportions... A society that maximizes current wealth also maximizes the capital assets available for future generations,” according to a 2002 statement for the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.

A shift is occurring from traditional technologies used for pollution control and remediation to next generation clean-green-sustainable technologies. This includes industrial processes that are much more close-looped that optimize energy, water, and materials in ways that create less emissions and waste. This results in less pollution and need for regulation. Growing emphasis on environmental sustainability is driving the development of entirely new technology platforms, products and services. It will be essential for the green workforce of the future to obtain specialized knowledge, skills, and competencies.

These trends and others set the foundation for a strong business case toward real adoption of clean, green, and sustainable approaches, as essential to business and community prosperity. A 21st century Clean Green Economy is not only about a new way of doing business that enhances the environment, but presents opportunities for business growth, job creation, and sustainable economic development.


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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