During a panel discussion held March 1st at the Joinery, a group of small business owners, startup executives and a developer grappled with the entrepreneurial challenges and opportunities of sustainability: how to define the term, obstacles to implementation and the need to catalyze a bold new era of clean, green leadership in Oregon.
Swirling about the lively, thought-provoking discussion were the specters of two disparate public sector crises: revelations about air pollution hot spots and the Super Tuesday election returns, which streamed in over the course of the evening.
CEO Jon Blumenauer offered up a simple, compelling definition of sustainability: “Enough, for all, forever.”
Noel Johnson, a vice president with commercial real estate developer Killian Pacific, was equally economical. Johnson dismissed the value of third party certifications — e.g., the LEED green building rating system and B-Corp, a hallowed designation in Portland — in driving environmentally-friendly practices forward.
Instead, Johnson said, the key to sustainability is access to information and “critical thinking.”
Here are a few other highlights from the event:
Panelist B. Scott Taylor, the CEO of Green Endeavor, a green industrial cleaning company, talked about the struggles he faces getting customers, investors and government agencies to adopt and support alternatives to toxic chemicals. “The biggest obstacle we face is resistance to change,” he said.
Taylor, whose brash demeanor suggests a Donald Trump of the sustainability set, said Portland is coasting on past successes: bike lanes, urban growth boundaries, composting. “We coast on our brand, but the truth is we are not really doing anything,” he said.
Johnson agreed. "Portland has a great brand and we drink our own KoolAid. We aren't taking risks. Let's change the system."
Elizabeth Whalen, vice president of sustainability and marketing at CalAg, a startup that uses rice straw in building materials, echoed those assertions. CalAg "is a disruptive innovation in a deeply entrenched industry." she said. "In a deeply entrenched industry, change can be hard.”
Whalen, a former director of corporate sustainability at Columbia Forest Products, led that company's efforts to introduce formaldehyde-free products into the marketplace. She also worked in support of a successful California regulation to limit formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products.
The California rule, considered among the toughest in the world, shaped her career and entrepreneurial journey, Whalen said.
Government can spur green innovation by leveling the playing field and sending a consistent message to the market, said Blumenauer. For example: renewable and fossil fuel energy sources should be subsidized equally — or not at all.
Rebutting Johnson, Blumenauer said third party sustainability certifications and new business models like B-Corp are invaluable in recruiting and retaining employees dedicated to social equity and environmental performance.
"Certification gives us an internal benchmark and sends a signal to customers that we are serious about what we do," Blumenauer said.
Taylor said the air pollution problems linked to local glass manufacturers pointed to a breakdown in the regulatory and compliance system and that market based incentives would help fuel change in the way companies use chemicals.
After the panel, Taylor noted that funding organizations like Oregon Best support expensive technological innovations but not lower cost efforts aimed at getting companies to use safer, more environmentally-friendly products.
Until the system changes, the Bullseye Glass arsenic and cadmium scandal is a cautionary tale about about the precarious position of otherwise well-respected companies. "Bullseye is Chipotle right now," said Taylor.
Water and green chemistry will drive a new wave of green businesses, panelists said.
Oregon Business and Built Oregon co-hosted the panel with the Joinery. Full disclosure: I moderated the discussion.