Standardizing Sustainability Metrics to Spur Public Action

Marianne Horinko

Authored by: Marianne L. Horinko, President, THG

December 2011

Being “green” has become not only trendy, but mainstream in our society. Retailers tout their earth-friendly products; carmakers applaud high mileage vehicles; celebrities showcase their nurseries and eco-friendly abodes. Earth Day has become a staple in the cultural lexicon. The days of granola-eating tree-huggers are in the rear view mirror of our collective vision.

The challenge for consumers is defining exactly what “green” means in everyday lives. No federal law or regulation prescribes a well-defined term for “green.” Some governmental agencies set forth guidelines for specific parts of sustainability – EPA has the Energy Star and WaterSense programs; the Department of Agriculture has the Sustainable Farms program for organic foods, for example. In other cases, industry groups, academics, and non-profits have filled in the blanks – LEED, Sustainable Forestry, Green Guides, Green Seal, to name a few.

However, this plethora of information might leave consumers in the lurch. Does green mean energy savings? Lower fuel costs? Less greenhouse gas? Or, does it mean fewer toxic chemicals, reduced waste, and water efficiency? Do we have sufficient information to guarantee the health of our families and communities?

An obvious remedy for this problem would be national consensus on what “green” actions ordinary citizens can implement to help save the planet. However, coming to such consensus will not be easy. There is no mandate for Congress to act, nor is there clear jurisdiction, since we are talking about consumer products, neighborhoods, transportation, and watersheds. In addition, any national effort would take years to enact, while technology evolves at a rapid pace.

Our society is in need of an adaptive and inclusive solution. A three-pronged approach could achieve the consensus on how we the people may become “green” in a sensible way:

  1. Scientific basis. Any solution must be grounded in peer-reviewed science. Academia, with the assistance and oversight of industry, non-profits, and regular citizens, can publish and gain consensus on how to separate the wheat from the chaff on claims of environmental friendliness (and the criteria). Further, we might use this issue as a stepping-stone to leverage innovation and scientific endeavor. The United States has always been blessed with a wealth of research and inventive technologies; by establishing a beachhead in sustainability, we can further our children’s education in the sciences and medicine such that we drive worldwide progress towards a healthier planet.

  2. Fairness. As new guidelines are developed, a standardized process should be implemented for regular review and comment on the criteria. This process will inevitably be controversial, and clearly a one-size fits all solution will not be the answer. Further, the criteria will be sufficiently value-laden that individuals may wish to focus on particular aspects of sustainability. However, like most public discourse, an airing of the issues can only improve the output.

  3. Media. Here, consumer and health groups play an important role, along with industry members seeking to establish a marketplace role for healthy and sustainable products. The more we are educated and involved as a society in making smart decisions, the better quality of life we will enjoy.

In this digital age, social media has become the societal marketing tool. No doubt Facebook, Twitter, and their progeny will play a major role in helping to “trend” environmental progress – specifically, in actions that individuals can take to improve their neighborhoods and cities. However, traditional media will continue to be a significant amplifier for these individual trends. By driving awareness, both social and traditional media can help advance and deploy sustainability tools in a much more rapid and hands-on manner than old school, legislative and/or regulatory techniques. These ideas will ultimately ripple through the business and governmental establishment.

The Path Forward

In this time of recession and retrenchment, being “green” has an important advantage to many citizens and employers – it is efficient. Our grandparents were right when they said, “waste not; want not.” As global businesses scan issues such as water scarcity, energy costs, and improper disposal liability, a prudent and fiscally sound environmental management strategy makes enormous sense. Similarly, individual homeowners and municipalities will understand the bottom-line implications of energy and water conservation, reduced waste, and smart consumer choices. These decisions simply help all of our pocketbooks.

Driving awareness of nature and our natural resources also builds upon the traditionally American traits of curiosity and adventure. Much as the pioneers sought to map out the great West, and Thomas Jefferson to catalog the seeds and species of North America, our children will learn to preserve and protect the great natural formations that created this country and allow us still, recession notwithstanding, to enjoy tremendous bounty.

Finally, a collective willingness to preserve and protect the fundamental gifts that made this country great can only play to our strengths as a nation of “givers.” Ultimately, we all benefit from our founders’ vision of a nation that is devoted to the general welfare. By protecting our precious natural assets and teaching our children the value of resource conservation, we share with future generations our commitment to a healthier and more beautiful planet.