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Is sustainability possible without slowing down?

Do we Americans work too much or otherwise stay too busy to live sustainably? The question has been running through my mind since Saturday, when I joined about 50 other Portlanders in sampling a new discussion course on food by the Northwest Earth Institute. (I am a member of the NWEI board.)

I led a group of 10 people in discussing two articles from the course. One question from the readings, “Does slowing down in terms of food — shopping, preparation or eating — appeal to you?”, drew unsurprising consensus. Although some “hated” going to the grocery store and some “hated” cooking, the idea of slowing down around food appealed to everyone.

That is, until the follow-on question came: “What would be the trade-offs for you personally?” This was a group of well-educated adults whose intense work lives and family responsibilities seemingly allowed no room to slow down. Who has the time or the energy to shop, cook and eat in a manner that always makes a priority of sustaining the environment, our families and us?

We were talking about food, but the same could easily be said of any number of consumption, work and lifestyle choices we face everyday. Sustainable living requires conscious choices. When we’re overly busy or stressed we go on autopilot or revert to what’s convenient instead of what’s healthiest for all concerned.

One of the group members told me that slowing down would mean leaving her corporate job where she was held captive by the “golden handcuffs” — even though she had to work 60 hours a week to keep those handcuffs on. Millions of Americans find themselves in the same predicament. And when push comes to shove, most of us decide to keep our demanding jobs and the financial security they provide rather than choose a mode of living that leaves more time for the basic joys of life, such as preparing and sharing a meal with family or friends.

So what will it take for more Americans to choose to slow down? Or is the story we tell ourselves — that we can’t afford to slow down — true for most of us? And if the latter is the case, what does that say about the prospects for a sustainable future?


Picking up where Nau left off

Sunday’s Oregonian attempts to explain what sustainable businesses might learn from the closure of apparel maker Nau early this month. The paper draws a conclusion similar to my immediate reaction when I heard the news: that Nau’s ambition got the best of it.

The Oregonian’s assessment is too brief to be of significant value to existing or would-be green entrepreneurs. For instance, the paper responds to one of its own questions, “Is a sustainable business unsustainable?”:

Nau wasn’t around long enough to tell. And certainly, organic food companies have profited as demand increases. And renewable energy ventures — biofuel, solar power — still attract investors’ bets. “There are a lot of sustainable plays that are more capital efficient and less risky,” said David Kirkpatrick, founder of SJF Ventures, a Durham, N.C.-based firm that invests in green companies.

I’m sure the paper felt compelled to ask this question because many who heard the news of Nau are probably asking it. It would be sad indeed if people concluded from Nau’s experience that operating a business with social, environmental and profit motivations equally in mind cannot be sustained long-term. Unfortunately, the paper’s response to its question doesn’t really get at the answer.

How about we flip the question: Is an unsustainable business sustainable? Or ask it from a macro view: Can our economy continue to run indefinitely on the backs of companies whose only measurement of success is financial return?

Throughout our history as a country that’s the way business has operated. And the American economy has flourished as a result. But for how much longer can this go on? Especially as China, India and other countries look to duplicate our success.

I hope people don’t see Nau’s failed attempt at “challenging the nature of capitalism” as evidence our economic system does not need serious repair. Yes, the company’s ambition exceeded its reach. But the folks at Nau knew there’s nothing sustainable about business as usual. And we all need to pick up where they left off.


Ambition, not patience, the operative word at Nau

I only knew my hometown sustainable clothier Nau by what I read and saw in the media. Sadly, they closed their doors so fast I didn’t have a chance to buy any of their clothes. I suspect they would have been right up my alley.

Even though I didn’t really know Nau, something about them seems very familiar: venture capital. Or more precisely, reliance on venture capital. I spent more than 20 years in high tech. Venture capital is the lifeblood of most tech startups.

Venture capital, however, is not patient capital. Most VCs are seeking to make their money back plus a handsome profit within three to five years, usually by selling to a larger company or going public. Nau had reportedly raised $34 million since its founding in 2005. Its inability to close another round of financing led the company to shut down last week.

Nau was in many ways the perfect candidate for venture capital. They had name-brand management, an incredible commitment to innovation and ambition as outsized as any venture capitalist. The media took notice. Fast Company reported in June 2007, “The business plan projects $11 million in revenue this year (2007), growing to $260 million and 150 stores by 2010.” Nau CEO Chris Van Dyke told the magazine:

“We’re challenging the nature of capitalism. We started with a clean whiteboard. We believed every single operational element in our business was an opportunity to turn traditional business notions inside out, integrating environmental, social, and economic factors. Nau represents a new form of activism: business activism.”

In the end, none of that was enough as Nau could not survive in the suddenly tight-fisted capital market. Its plan to grow to $260 million in revenue by 2010 clearly required a constant stream of capital.

Having seen this story line play out over and over in high tech (especially in the dotcom era), I’m hardly surprised by Nau’s fate. I only wish the universe would have rewarded Nau for its commitment to doing the right thing for Earth and its inhabitants.

Some day soon, I hope to be reading case studies of what the Nau founders could have been done differently. Maybe these study authors will answer the question uppermost in my mind: Should Nau have hitched its wagon to the race horse team of VCs or reined in its ambition to change the world overnight and settled into a trotting pace that could be sustained indefinitely?

Even more than financial capital, patience is in short supply in business. I understand the world needs big, audacious ideas like Nau’s to meet the urgent social and environmental needs of our time. But it seems to me there’s a lot to be said for thinking big — and starting small.


Painful choices along the path of sustainability

Imagine for a moment you’re an executive for a fertilizer company. And let’s say you have a genuine commitment to the triple bottom line: people, planet, profit. Worldwide demand for fertilizer is off the charts, so that’s good for your company’s finances (profits). You sell a terrific product that dramatically increases crop yields, making a meaningful contribution to the world’s food supply (people) and to increased biofuel production (planet).

End of story, right? Well, not exactly. A New York Times article on the worldwide fertilizer shortage gets at some of the potentially agonizing tradeoffs in following a commitment to sustainability.

First, the good (taken from the article):

“Putting fertilizer on the ground on a one-acre plot can, in typical cases, raise an extra ton of output,” said Jeffrey D. Sachs, the Columbia University economist who has focused on eradicating poverty. “That’s the difference between life and death.”

And now the bad:

Environmental groups fear increased use, particularly of nitrogen fertilizer made using fossil fuels. Because plants do not absorb all the nitrogen, much of it leaches into streams and groundwater. That runoff has long been recognized as a major pollution problem, and it is growing. A barometer of the pollution is the rising number of dead zones where rivers meet the sea. In the Gulf of Mexico, for instance, nitrogen runoff from fields in the Corn Belt washes downstream and feeds plant life in the gulf. The algae blooms suck oxygen from the water, killing other marine life. More than 400 dead zones have been identified, from the coasts of China to the Chesapeake Bay, and the primary reason is agricultural runoff, said Robert J. Diaz, a professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

You’re the fertilizer executive. With one hand you’re helping to eradicate poverty, plus you’re creating good jobs in your company because your product is in such high demand. With the other, you’re helping to destroy marine life and adding to greenhouse gas emissions because of the fossil fuels required to make a usable form of nitrogen.

My in-laws and their ancestors have been farming in Oregon since the 1850s. I remember my mother-in-law saying awhile back that it wasn’t until chemical fertilizers came along in the 1950s and 60s that they were able to move out of pure survival mode. For them, it meant the difference between a family farm that remains in operation today and one that would have long ago been plowed under.

I believer her, and I still wish the runoff from agriculture wouldn’t find its way into the murky Willamette River running through my hometown of Portland.

I understand why the financial bottom line rules in business. Who really wants to confront the choice of feeding the poor or destroying ecosystems?


Another attack on Wal-Mart’s green claims

Earlier this month, I asked the question, “Is a green Wal-Mart good enough?” Author and big-box retail critic Stacy Mitchell certainly doesn’t think so. In a post for Beacon Broadside last Friday, Mitchell says, “The best case scenario for Wal-Mart’s sustainability initiative is to make a highly polluting operation somewhat less so.”

She dismisses most greenwashing efforts as “clumsy and transparent,” but acknowledges that Wal-Mart is different. The company, she says, “has developed a far more sophisticated, and ultimately much more dangerous, approach to manipulating environmental sentiment for its own expansion and profit.”

Thanks to Jessica at Beacon Broadside for the heads up.


Greenwashing companies aren’t the only villains

Nothing like Earth Day to focus attention on greenwashing.

The Center for Media and Democracy, no fan of the PR industry, is a good example. Its authors define greenwashing as “the unjustified appropriation of environmental virtue by a company, an industry, a government, a politician or even a non-government organization to create a pro-environmental image, sell a product or a policy, or to try and rehabilitate their standing with the public and decision makers after being embroiled in controversy.” A bit wordy, but sounds about right.

An East Coast PR executive cites a study by TerraChoice, an environmental marketing firm, that found 99 percent of the 1,753 claims of green consumer products they recently reviewed were “guilty of greenwashing.”

As prevalent and disturbing as greenwashing is, many in the media and environmental groups may be too focused on the actions of those who want us to believe they are doing some good for the Earth, when they’re really not. I’m equally disturbed by the vast numbers of businesses that make no effort or claim to be green. Some of those guilty of greenwashing are at least trying to improve their practices. Wal-Mart, for example.

I can’t cite statistics, but I would wager that most businesses have still done little or nothing to become more Earth friendly. Instead of spending inordinate time fact-checking green claims, we should be urging, cajoling or, if necessary, shaming offending businesses into cleaning up their acts. Not to defend greenwashing, but companies that make green claims open themselves up to public scrutiny. That’s more than can be said for the green-avoiding majority who are happy no one’s asking them the hard questions.