What does it mean to be green? We struggle with that question as the judges for our Green Washington Awards (page 33) gather in our office each year to select the winners. Our criteria are relatively simple: 1) Do a company or nonprofit institution’s sustainability practices represent a model for others to emulate? 2) How comprehensive are those efforts? 3) What is the broader impact of a company’s efforts on the environment?
We ask if a company can be a model for others because we are looking for those businesses across the state that are innovating with ways to reduce their carbon footprints. Our region is particularly cutting edge when it comes to what the experts like to call “the built environment.” Architects and builders are constantly pushing the edge with green roofs, green walls and more efficient heating and cooling systems in an effort to reduce the huge energy consumption of office buildings. But there are also small firms tapping technology to boost clean energy production by, for example, helping to identify the best places on the planet to locate solar and wind farms.
Sometimes, the innovation comes from the way an organization promotes sustainability. One nonprofit organizes neighborhoods to help residents buy clean energy systems. Two companies identify and sell green products, making it easier for consumers to use products that are friendly to the environment. Yet another firm has made it a snap to rent cars for short-term use, a service that makes it easier to live and work in the city without owning a car.
Innovation is good, but in the long term, we also want companies to implement tried-and-true sustainability practices to reduce their environmental impact. So the best institutions have a comprehensive set of programs that include things like recycling and composting, reduced paper use, using LED lights and powering down computers at night.
One thing we struggle with every year is addressing a business’s contribution in the area of sustainability even if its social impact in sectors unrelated to the environment might be perceived by some as questionable. In 2011, a silver award in the retail category went to Walmart. At least one judge was upset at the idea of giving a green award to a company that paid its employees so poorly that many of them had to apply for food stamps to get by.
The judges chose to present the award to Walmart because one criterion for choosing the winners is overall impact. A small coffee shop that does everything possible to be green can serve as a great model for others and we should recognize it. But when a giant retailer, or for that matter a global soda bottler, makes a conscious effort to reduce energy use or cut water waste, the reduced impact on the environment is significant.
Our region has emerged as a model for clean energy and sustainable business practices. We have some of the nation’s greenest office buildings and hotels. But in the end, for sustainability to have a real impact, green practices have to migrate upward and outward until they are adopted by all companies, both big and small.