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Government, Business, and the Environment: A Better Way Forward
March 13, 2012 -- Government and the environment: Put those two thoughts together and many conjure an anti-business attitude and the specter of over-regulation. Remember snail darters? Now the Illinois Cave amphipod requires protection; in Iowa there is a legal battle over regulation of storm water discharge.
These are examples of well-meaning environmental initiatives that can prove expensive to implement and are of questionable environmental vs. economic tradeoff.
Look beyond the stereotypic portrayal, however, and you find a new generation of government, business, and civil society leaders forming partnerships and launching programs that are both good for business and for the earth, fish, and wildlife.
One of us (Mirvis) met with a number of leaders in Atlanta last month to explore these new arrangements. An inside look at how we got there and what we talked about reveals the problems that arise from demagogy in the environmental arena and the positive potential for interests across the sectors to find common ground.
Going to Atlanta to Talk about Wisconsin
The prime mover for this gathering was Joe Starinchak, an Outreach Coordinator at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Joe has been contacting and connecting thought leaders and practitioners in business and environmental affairs for three years, sending us a steady diet of thought-provoking readings and reports, and urging us to meet face-to-face to talk over our interests and concerns.
A group at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources took the bait, invited us to come to Madison, and offered to show us their programs as a “test case” for multi-sector partnering. Well, that was the plan.
Instead, a new state governor took office, slashed budgets, challenged environmental programs, and stoked anti-government sentiment throughout the state. Needless to say, going to Wisconsin was scotched.
Then Ray Anderson, former chairman of Interface Carpets, a business that is well on its way to 100% sustainability in the heretofore dirty carpet making business, invited us to come on down to Atlanta, near his company HQ. The Wisconsin DNR guys agreed to join us via conference call and the meet was on in what we jokingly called “Madison South.”
Government’s New Role
There’s a lot to recommend in Wisconsin DNR’s “Green Tier” cooperative program whereby companies make commitments to systematically manage their environmental footprint and state government offers technical support and agrees to speed-up permitting and work collaboratively with business on emission issues and inspections.
The intent is for companies to go “beyond compliance” in their environmental management and for state government to step beyond its conventional “command and control” regulatory model. Mark McDermid, of the DNR’s Bureau of Cooperative Assistance, explained that this sets up a “performance based” relationship between business and government where the parties “learn together.”
Interestingly, his talk was replete with economic examples of how this process helps companies to better manage their capital flows in environmental investments. Meanwhile the business folks used eco-speak to describe the positive impact on state resource stocks.
The green tier program, still in its early stages, has made substantial improvements in mercury reduction and water improvement in Wisconsin. On the business side, green tier member 3M reports that it can bring new products on line within 3-5 days rather than the usual bureaucracy-driven 90 day permitting period.
Business Steps Up
Moving beyond Wisconsin’s story, we learned how Interface persuaded its home city of LaGrange, Georgia to cap its landfill, capture the methane, and pipe it to the Interface factory nine miles away. Calculations show that because methane is a much more powerful heat-trapper than conventional energy sources, when a company burns it, it reduces its carbon dioxide emissions by a factor of twenty-three.
This arrangement has proved to be a triple win: good for the city because it has excess methane to sell to other businesses; good for Interface because methane is cheaper than conventional energy sources; and good for the earth.
Another test case concerned “aquatic hitchhikers”– harmful plants, animals and other organisms that can “hitch a ride” on clothing, boats, and other items used in the water. These invasive species reduce game fish populations, foul pristine waters and ruin recreational equipment.
Patagonia, the California outdoor clothing company, has teamed up with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force to help raise public awareness about the threat—a partnership that is making a difference.
After the case studies, talk turned to how business, government, and civil society might work together to go beyond legal compliance and footprint reduction to the repair and restoration of natural systems. Here the social- and eco-entrepreneurs weighed in.
Barry Patterson described collaborations to restore waterways in the south; Storm Cunningham, of the Revitalization forum, put forth data on how environmental restoration creates jobs and upgrades living standards; Mary Ann Dickenson, reported on how the River Network that works with utilities to reduce water use; and Ken Mirvis shared stories on educating the public to reduce energy use.
While the facts and figures, stories and testimonials, and powerful personal examples proved instructive to all, the strongest take-aways from the meet in “Madison South” are these:
1) there is a shared interest across sectors in the health of the planet, profits, and people
2) partnership, rather than partisanship, is the better way forward