Will ‘Green Economy’ Kill the Green Economy?

Is the pursuit of a "green economy" a semantic issue, or a deeper lingering problem with green? It was with particular interest that I took in a Board of Trade presentation on the state of British Columbia’s green economy. After all, Vancouver is vying for the Greenest City In The World title. Green business is a big deal out here.

What would it mean if Vancouver was chasing the “Most Innovative City” title rather than the “Greenest City” title?

Is the pursuit of a “green economy” a semantic issue, or a deeper lingering problem with green?

It was with particular interest that I took in a Board of Trade presentation on the state of British Columbia’s green economy. After all, Vancouver is vying for the Greenest City In The World title. Green business is a big deal out here.

The presentation, by Paul Shorthouse of the Globe Foundation, was a convincing and positive one. There was plenty of evidence we were moving in the right direction.

But my fellow board members were less than resounding in their endorsement. Time after time, the presentation got bogged down in debate.

The biggest bone of contention turned out to be language. There was no shared perception of what “green economy” even meant – or should mean.

I spoke with Shorthouse after his presentation, and it turns out our reaction wasn’t unique. “Green” is a loaded word. Tie it to “economy,” and you have the makings of a perfect storm.

There’s the spectre that green business sacrifices return on the altar of values. Even if you get past this, you’re stuck with the conundrum of how to weight green inputs and outputs. As Shorthouse said,  “Is it green infrastructure if it creates lower emissions, but requires high resource use for construction? Is it green energy if it means burning waste for power?”

Green has become a political hornet’s nest in our province. Even bike lanes are a powder keg. And this is the left coast we’re talking about.

Shorthouse believes it comes down to green by choice vs. green by necessity. “We haven’t seen enough shock to force us to fast track change. Vancouver isn’t faced with nuclear reactors melting down after a tsunami. Instead, we’re trying to push forward without a stick, and only a very distant carrot. People don’t like that.”

The brand is broken

As a creative director with a passion for green innovation, I’ve seen brand after brand, company after company, institution after institution, struggle with the thorniness of “green.”

I believe it all comes down to how to brand sustainability – if you brand it at all.

From my own experience, I believe the brand of sustainability is broken. If we’re to build a green future, it won’t be by waving the green flag.

So what if, instead of talking about Vancouver’s green economy, we just spoke of our innovation economy?

As Ram Nidumolu, CK Prahalad, and MR Rangaswami pointed out in their Harvard Business Review article, Why Sustainability Is Now The Key Driver Of Innovation, “The key to progress, particularly in times of economic crisis, is innovation.” And winning in an economy of dwindling resources and punitive environmental regulation means creating green innovation.

Green innovation is already rampant in business. Eco-efficiency, supply chain transparency, and green IT all lead to products, services, and business models that can thrive in our new world.

Take away the green moniker and the innovations remain. In fact, progressive companies like Nike seldom trot out the G word – they prefer to brand themselves performance and technology innovators.

Donald Trump and Richard Branson agree

John Marshall Roberts is a psychologist who (among other things) helps companies win by creating communication aligned with the worldviews of stakeholders.

His take on calling something green vs. calling it innovation? Innovation wins hands down.

Roberts believes that “innovation isn’t laden with complex concepts or politics. It’s a term cleansed of ideological ‘heaviness.’”

It’s also a word that traditional capitalists like Donald Trump (labelled “opportunistic thinkers” by Roberts) and forward-thinking, environmentally engaged entrepreneurs like Richard Branson (referred to as “systemic thinkers” by Roberts) understand and support. 

“Of course, not all innovation is going to be sustainable. But in our world, it’s going to be harder and harder to find good innovation that isn’t environmentally better than the competition.”

Consumers have an easier time with the word as well. Innovation directly correlates with “new,” a concept consumers never tire of.

In short, business leaders and consumers largely believe innovation is good. There are no factions that see innovation as flaky or uncompetitive. And they have little trouble accepting sustainability as one of the tenets of this innovation.


Vancouver, The Most Innovative City In The World

Imagine if Vancouver had set its sights on becoming the Innovation Capital Of The World, instead of the Greenest City In The World. Chances are we would still be implementing great green innovations. We’d simply be positioning them differently.

We’d also be focusing more attention on building up other cornerstones of innovation, such as more abundant venture capital.

The end result? The air, water and earth would be cleaner. And business would breathe much easier.

Green economy lessons to learn

Yes, green makes business sense. But to succeed, it needs support.

Unfortunately, the brand of green doesn’t get that universal support. It creates factions, not followers.

So consider this as you drive your company’s green agenda forward:

Think outside the jar
How would an outsider perceive your green initiative? If it isn’t clearly tied to the bottom line, or offers an improvement that consumers will appreciate, don’t expect support.

Your green makes me see red
Say you’re cutting packaging for your product. Will labelling that improvement green only make consumer groups angry because you’re still using plastic in your wrapper? Truth is, your improvement is only slightly less environmentally offensive. Don’t wrap yourself in a green flag unless your claim is unassailable.

Don’t let pride be your guide
Yes, it’s wonderful to say you’re making the world a better place. But you don’t need to tell the world, just your engineers. Nike is creating incredible products with green “baked” in. But they’re standing on the technology podium, not the environmental one. Challenge your engineers to use green as a criteria for improvements. Challenge your marketers to think deeper than green when they promote those improvements.