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This guest post is by my friend and colleague Matt Polsky.

Matt Polsky is a sustainability change agent, a Montclair State University professor and a Senior Fellow at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Institute for Sustainable Enterprise.

What I find immensely valuable about this post is Matt’s list of sustainable development successes and failures in our state.

The initiatives that are going well deserve our support.

The failures deserve our attention because most of them were great programs that failed because they weren’t in the right place at the right time–politically, economically, or because of a lack of vision.

I believe that all the hard work that brought them into being once can be re-vitalized once we’re in greener political, economic, and social pastures.

One specific example is the report Matt mentions that offers guidance and recommendations for a sustainable business-oriented economy.

It got shelved. And it can be un-shelved.

We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. And we won’t be starting from scratch.

* * * * * *

A Look at Sustainable Development in New Jersey: How Have We Done & What Are the Opportunities–If We Want Them?

Part 1

By: Matt Polsky

“Achieving sustainable development is the overriding challenge of the 21st century,” according to the United Nations General Assembly President, Vuk  Jeremic, although to this day most have never heard of it or know little about it.  Here in New Jersey, we have had a blotchy past with it, with some success stories, but with many I’d have to say blown opportunities.

This may be due to a widely shared and thoroughly bi-partisan attitude: “There’s nothing new under the sun.”  This mindset precludes curiosity among policy-makers to learn about emerging global threats, as well as new ways to address them, such as green economic development.

It could be that the stream of always-ready-to-take-the-stage, attention-absorbing controversies such as “Bridge-gate;” the perceived need for continual updates to changing political horseraces; as well as some serious events like 9/11, the financial melt-down, and Sandy–by their nature, drown out more subtle and nuanced topics.

Or it could be that the growing number of citizens actually interested in and involved with sustainability have just given up on government and public policy as a means to get there, and prefer to work things out in quieter corners.

I offer this three-parter hoping we (government included) have it within ourselves to be able to break through the “we don’t know what we don’t know” mental trap,  are willing to tackle some serious longer term global and other difficult issues (and some no longer so long term) to which we’re not as immune as we might like to think, and take advantage of some of the beneficial properties offered by sustainability.

If we could at least suspend those cynical outlooks, find a little time to be reflective, and are willing to remember that most of us probably once enjoyed learning new things and being challenged, we just might find some useful directions for the future.

Benefits of a Sustainability Approach
Sustainability offers insights from newer fields with which we might not be familiar, including hybrids of traditional fields we tend to miss, such as social entrepreneurship; and the deepening convergence between the economic and environmental sides of what might seem the oxymoronic sustainable business sector.  We could take better advantage of promising ideas from around the world, and certainly could be more creative in encouraging and looking for new approaches in places where we might not think to find them.  But these are only available to us if we are willing to go outside our collective comfort zones.

This Series
Most of the rest of this piece describes the often one-step forward-one-step backwards pattern of our state’s historical involvement with sustainable development.

Part 2 will describe the emerging sustainable business field, a major part of and development within sustainability, with an increasing number of companies now ready to hear more than the constrained message: “I’m willing to do something sustainable but only if it saves me money.”  This supports this field’s larger potential, which could be taken advantage of and made the theme of our overall state economic development strategy.  But, as things stand, it won’t be.

The series will end in Part 3 with a discussion of the soon-to-to be publicly launched NJDEP Sustainable Business Initiative.  This Initiative, while improved from its early conception through stakeholder participation and a considerable willingness of agency staffers to listen, could be expanded further and made the centerpiece upon which to build this integrated environmental/economic strategy.

The Checkered New Jersey Past
A history lesson shows both the successes and self-inflicted failures of sustainability efforts in New Jersey.

The failures list is, unfortunately, more heavily weighted, and shows the sheer number of opportunities and initiatives we simply gave away.

At the risk of appearing negative, as I could get hit by a bus tomorrow it is important to generate this historical record for those becoming interested in sustainability, and possibly as a way to capture “lessons learned,” in order to accelerate the learning curves of any future do-overs.

For instance, I was recently asked by a Rutgers student for the lessons from a failed eco-industrial park project in Trenton several years ago. This is the idea, pioneered in Denmark, of a near-Zero pollution-generating cluster of co-located businesses, that link each participant’s waste with another’s raw material needs, in order to save at both ends.  While it was a little bitter to reflect on a “failure,” I was happy to be able to inform students how they might avoid some unanticipated and annoying problems should they wish to try again.  Perhaps even historical “failures” don’t have to stay that way.

Sustainability Successes
Probably the largest sustainability success story in New Jersey has been the involvement now of 410 municipalities in becoming certified by Sustainable Jersey, including emerging and now emerged stars such as Montclair, Woodbridge, Highland Park, and Morristown.

I was initially more skeptic than proponent, but they won me over by:

*their development of an increasing range of activities from which towns could choose in their pursuit of certification;

*the use of tiers to distinguish a minimum level of sustainability actions from the strivers;

*its unarguable immense popularity; and

*their reach-out to teach and learn from another country, Taiwan, demonstrating the feasibility of overcoming a common limitation of a sustainable communities mindset that only the local municipality is relevant to sustainability.

More recently, they displayed a willingness to go into the unknown and try to figure out what “Gold-level” certification would mean in practice.  That is, what would a truly sustainable municipality look like-a very difficult if necessary stretch if we truly take sustainability seriously.

There certainly have been some other successes, such as:

*the Dodge Foundation’s support of Sustainable Jersey;

*the longevity of, and green buildings manuals produced by, the New Jersey Higher Education Partnership for Sustainability, and some of its member college’s relatively new educational offerings;

*the cutting edge lectures on sustainable business ideas at my institution, Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Institute for Sustainable Enterprise (ISE), and the occasional conferences by Ramapo College;

*the more localized efforts, such as Transition Jersey’s lectures in Newton;

*the growing number of farmer’s markets throughout the state;

*the interfaith group, GreenFaith’s, efforts to bring sustainability to houses of worship;

*the re-missioning of  Duke Gardens to become a showcase of sustainable practice;

*the efforts of some K-12 educators, architects and planners and their organizations to add their orientations to the field; and

*the better-known overall solar power performance of the state.

Sustainability Failures
The self-inflicted tragedies include:

*The demise of the pioneering Office of Sustainable Business within state government, which had begun to help very green businesses and develop policies to support them.

*A past NJDEP Administrative Order, and then a Governor’s Executive Order to make the agency’s, and then the State’s policies, consistent with sustainability.

*These led to a series of recommendations generated by staff and some outside stakeholders, and subsequently accepted by senior management, first within NJDEP, and then by all state agencies, for new or revised sustainability policies and actions.  These were published, but subsequently ignored by succeeding NJDEP Commissioners and Governors, respectively.  The press missed the story, and neither the Legislature or the environmental community showed any interest in their traditional roles of ensuring government accountability.

*The establishment of a Sustainable State Institute at Rutgers to guide state-wide sustainability thinking and issue updates of the state’s performance on a range of sustainability indicators, which Rutgers, for some reason, ended a few years later

*A White Paper and Report by ISE for state government which provided guidance and recommendations for a sustainable business-oriented economy, which have been ignored.

*My own Institute’s discontinuance of a new graduate Certificate program for managing sustainably lauded by the pioneering (as well as final) class.

*The near-ending of thinking about how New Jersey could be both a model for, as well as learn from worthy international sustainability actions, such as Netherlands-style covenants between government and businesses, which involved long term very ambitious environmental goal-setting, to which both  would mutually commit.

*Environmental/business partnerships, such as the Green and Gold Task Force, to try to cooperatively address some regulatory issues.

*State actions to mitigate climate change, itself with a looping start-stop-start-now stop historic pattern.

*Repeated efforts over the years to alert Legislators of both parties, including some of the environmental leading lights, succeeding Governors’ Offices and NJDEP Commissioners of the possibilities have been ignored-to this day. Most have not even responded.

*This lack of interest is unfortunately shared by the media (with very few exceptions, such as the “GrassRoots” section of The Daily Record), possibly not seeing any of this as newsworthy.

*Even the environmental community has not been overly interested in integrating green economy ideas into their work, or perhaps continues to see it as impossible. They have not, by and large, undertook the ambitious partnerships with businesses seen elsewhere, including working with companies to understand and value the latter’s economic dependence on healthy ecosystems, thus missing out on opening an entirely new front in protecting the environment.

I’m surely missing some in both the successes and failures columns.

In the next Part I will look at “something new under the sun” possibilities for a green economy, and discuss some opportunities that could still be seized-if that’s what someday we choose to do.

Regaining real leadership won’t be easy, will require rare vision, and won’t be feasible at all with fleeting attention spans.

As a coastal state, New Jersey is going to feel the impacts of climate change sooner than a lot of other places. This is especially true when it comes to sea level rise and flooding. (Both links highly recommended.)

Even though our Governor doesn’t talk much about how climate change will impact New Jersey, a lot of other people are. (Including the DEP: Read the June 2013 climate change impacts report.)

With that in mind, I wanted to share five really great NJ climate change resources that are under the radar, but shouldn’t be.

There are people all over our state who are working hard so that New Jersey will be stronger than the next storm. (And everything that climate change is going to dish up in coming decades.)

1. World-Class Scientists: The Rutgers Climate Institute

 

2. Support for Sustainable Businesses: NJDEP’s Sustainable Business Initiative (SBI) and FDU’s Institute for Sustainable Enterprise (ISE)

  • —The SBI’s next meeting is Feb. 4 from 1-3:30pm in Trenton.It will feature Jeana Wirtenberg, author of the new book Building a Culture for Sustainability-People, Planet, and Profits in a New Green Economy.  She’ll discuss lessons learned from nine successful NJ-based global companies.Contact Athena Sarafides at athena.sarafides@dep.state.nj.us to RSVP and more information.
  • —Don’t miss ISE’s March 4 breakfast seminar features sustainability heavyweight John Ehrenfeld, author of Flourishing. RSVP and more information.

 

3. Strong Legislation: NJ’s 2007 Global Warming Response Act

A lot of people don’t know that NJ has a strong climate change law with GHG emissions targets already on the books. Well, we do.

 

4. Robust Collaborations and Partnerships: New Jersey Climate Adaptation Alliance

The alliance was formed in 2011 by a diverse group of concerned stakeholders who want to make sure that NJ is prepared for coming climate change impacts.

 

5. World-Class Speakers: North Jersey Public Policy Network

Come to the Feb. 20 event with Geoffrey Feinberg from Yale University’s Project on Climate Change Communication and Climate Nexus.

It’s called America’s Future: Communicating with our Neighbors on Climate Change.  Don’t miss this chance to hear and ask questions of one of the country’s best-informed researchers on why climate change is so incredibly hard to talk about. RSVP today.

If you don’t ask, the answer’s always no.

But when you do, sometimes, it’s a surprising yes.

That’s what I thought when I read the results from the First Annual Survey of New Jersey Business Sustainability survey. A group of state researchers  asked New Jersey business owners about their Sustainability practices.

The survey also asked, by keying in on motivations, whether business owners give a darn and more importantly, why.

The answer: yes. And more surprisingly, not for self-interested reasons.

The survey’s key finding is that NJ business owners are incorporating Sustainability practices into their business because it’s the right thing to do.

Via the wonderful earthpeopleco.com, authored by Matt Polsky:

What the First Annual Survey of New Jersey Business Sustainability Tells Us

The two strongest reported sustainability motives were a belief that it is the right thing to do and potential cost savings, with over 85% reporting at least a moderate amount of, and over 61% a great extent of influence. Other strong sustainability motives for which over 75% of respondents reported at least a moderate extent of influence included satisfying customers’ interests, potential to improve image and reputation, fostering a healthy society, and satisfying regulatory demands.

Doing well by doing good isn’t something new

It’s our heritage as Americans. As New Jerseyans.

We pull our weight, and then some. Always have, always will.

Trenton Makes, The World Takes.

So when it comes to doing the right thing in business, I’m not surprised that the state’s business owners have the bigger picture in mind.

With better information about what business leaders are doing today, and why, we have a baseline from which to launch meaningful, relevant education, support and resource programs.

All we had to do was ask.

I had the absolute pleasure of attending a breakfast seminar this morning hosted by the Institute for Sustainable Enterprise at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, NJ. Attendees represented the entire Sustainability space from big industry, academia, and research to innovative small businesses.

Helen Crowley, Conservation & Ecosystem Services Specialist for mega-conglomerate PPR (owner of Puma and Gucci brands, among others) presented a fascinating lecture called “The Convergence of Business and Biodiversity Conservation.” Link to presentation slides.

In a nutshell, if major corporations have all the money, and are responsible for significant ecological and environmental degradation, then it’s in everyone’s best interests for conservation supporters to work with them instead of in opposition. Crowley argued that this convergence of resources, research and responsibilities breaks new ground towards solving global environmental challenges.

In a truly lucky stroke for attendees, Crowley came to the breakfast after spending the last three days in NYC at a global Sustainability Summit hosted by consulting firm KPMG. She shared a link for the summit’s keynote report, Expect the Unexpected: Building Business Value in a Changing World.

This report offers thought-provoking analysis on 10 sustainability “megaforces” facing businesses in the next 20 years and the emergence of environmental cost accounting. (Required reading! Download it now!)

Moreover, it will be a foundation document for the upcoming June 2012 Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainability.

Crowley raised enormously important questions about balancing human consumption with ecological preservation. What happens when an entire supply chain’s true environmental costs are measured and accounted for? How do you even do that? Is profit still possible? How can the conservation arena best create metrics to accurately calculate the value of ecological services? Who is responsible for the full positive and negative impact of  goods and services on a global scale?

In her work at sport apparel brand Puma, Crowley is starting to dig into those questions. She offered her company’s first Environmental P&L statement  as an example of how companies are moving in the right direction. Since this era of global impact transparency is just picking up steam, Crowley had few hard results to share with the group. She did, however, point towards solutions centered on innovative and improved processes, products, materials and sourcing.

I’m inspired by the emergence of integrated reporting–whereby quarterly guidance goes away in favor of longer-term projections and sustainable investments garner more weight. (See Reuter’s coverage of Vice President Al Gore’s Feb. 16 call for sustainable capitalism.)

As Drucker so famously said, “What gets measured, gets managed.” I’m all in for conversations that give companies strategic information they didn’t have before to improve people’s lives, the planet’s health, and business profits.