by Richard T. Stuebi
In today’s world, it’s easy to claim being “green”. You can recycle, you can drive a Prius, you can have solar panels on your house, you can install CFLs in every light socket, but…in actuality, how green really are you?
This question was the focus of a recent posting on Yahoo! by Lori Bongiorno entitled “Signs of a Green Hypocrite”, in which Ms. Bongiorno illustrates several hypothetical examples of someone seeming to be doing the right thing…only to swamp the environmental benefit by some other ill-advised action.
Of course, green hypocracy is not limited to individuals. As indicated by a recent survey by Gibbs & Soell, a relatively small minority of Americans believes that the majority of businesses are committed to sustainability. Clearly, the concern about “greenwashing” is widespread.
It’s not that hard to understand why. First of all, the measuring stick for green-ness is not universally defined. To the extent it’s vaguely understood (e.g., greenhouse gas emissions), one’s performance on the metric is not comprehensively measured by any independent and auditworthy reporting body. So, claims about one’s green activities are just that — claims.
As we all know, talk is damn cheap. It’s actions that really count. And, in the case of global environmental concerns, it’s the accumulation of actions that really counts. There won’t be a significant accumulation of environmentally-friendly actions as long as they’re wholly voluntary and cost more than the alternative.
On a slightly different but related point, Joseph Stanislaw — an independent advisor to Deloitte — has been making the case via a recently-released white paper “Clean Over Green” that the energy debates (and perhaps the whole cleantech movement) has been distorted by the use of the term “green” rather than “clean”. In Stanislaw’s view, only a small set of technologies (e.g., wind, solar) get the semantic benefit of being known as “green”, whereas other forms of energy that don’t quite qualify (e.g., natural gas, nuclear) still can make major environmental improvements — yet get discounted in the court of public opinion.
The confusion, hypocracy, and cynicism about “green” and “sustainability” would be washed away if all economic actors in society face a meaningful price associated with their environmental footprint. In such a world, each party can either reduce their footprint — and profit from it — or can maintain (or even expand) their footprint and pay the price. In such a world, claims wouldn’t matter much, but real performance sure would.
Alas, lacking such a robust and all-encompassing system to internalize environmentally-friendly action into numbers that everyone understands and cares about — dollars — the cleantech world will remain subject to a lot of hype and promotion, and wariness will be warranted.
Richard T. Stuebi is a founding principal of NorTech Energy Enterprise, the advanced energy initiative at NorTech, where he is on loan from The Cleveland Foundation as its Fellow of Energy and Environmental Advancement. He is also a Managing Director in charge of cleantech investment activities at Early Stage Partners, a Cleveland-based venture capital firm.