There is an unofficial index in The Economist which they call the “R-word index.” It tracks the number of times the word “Recession” appears in the press. It is on the increase, and no wonder, with unemployment in the U.S. still hovering at around 9-10% (depending upon whose numbers one follows), and with growth flat and the Fed promising not to raise interest rates until mid-2013. Meanwhile, the Eurozone has continued to falter over what to do about the drag that the so-called “PIIGS” (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain) continue to wreak on the Euro and what to do about it. Japan is not faring much better. In fact, most developed nations have had a very rough time of it over the past few years, and it looks as if the trend may continue.
What does this all mean for those interested in the debate on “greening” the economy? For some, it may be that this is simply one aspect of the economy and that what is most important is to jump-start the basic economy first, and then tackle issues such as how to integrate environmentally sustainable strategies. But a recent joint report by the World Economic Forum and the Boston Consulting Group may have some additional insights to offer.
So where is the green economy? It’s in the so-called third world! Putting aside overblown rhetoric about “New Sustainability Champions,” the report highlights sixteen companies in developing nations that deploy environmentally-conscientious business practices which, incidentally, have ensured their economic success. So, the green economy seems to be emerging in the developing world more significantly than in the developed world. Much of this is out of market necessity.
It begins with one major fact. Most of the world’s population resides in developing nations. And it is no surprise that, at least in this report, some of the most interesting innovations are occurring in those nations and their economies. Because while they collectively have a larger population, many of these individual nations do not have access to great amounts of wealth or start-up money.
What makes these different companies successful is that first, they are multi-taskers. In other words, they realize that in order to be successful, they cannot simply focus on a single product or service. This is due to factors from unreliable infrastructure and supply chains to limited resources that include water and arable land. And yet, given the willingness of these businesses to incorporate different elements not normally combined (working with packaging suppliers on a new, sugar-based, “green” plastic, for example) or teaming with NGO’s and lobbyists, has resulted in businesses that are multi-dimensional and able to weather economic vicissitudes better, all the while promoting a business model that integrates environmental strategies.
There are two broad characteristics shared by the sixteen companies highlighted which are relevant to our current discussion. First, they do not rely on costly R+D, most of which comes to naught anyway. Instead, they adapt strategies based on existing, tested, technologies, from production to delivery. That involves identifying what resources they do and do not have. The lesson to large firms sited in developed nations: don’t waste money on pie-in-the-sky visions, don’t take the resources you have for granted and in fact, harness them lightly rather than assuming there is an endless supply for those who can afford it.
The applicability to those in architecture is especially clear. Instead of creating designs that require lots of expensive technology, take advantage of low-cost opportunities first. Our massive, technologically-advanced economies already produce sustainable opportunities that can be taken advantage of in architectural design. For example, look to the waste produced in other industries and how it can be incorporated into architectural strategies. Opportunities for establishing a foundation upon which to build a new “green” economy may already be present in the waste and environmental inefficiency of the “old” economy.
The second characteristic is that each of these companies completely integrate sustainable strategies into the vision of their business, in its operations, and into their company’s culture. All three components, according to the report, are necessary for success. The company must therefore reinforce its commitment not simply by integrating sustainable operations into its services and production, but it must reward its employees (not mere workers) for engaging in and promoting such practices. Then there is the involvement with policy-makers, influencing them that these approaches are vital to national, as well as economic livelihood. The green economy is not simply about the production of so-called green products and their consumption. It is, first and foremost, a culture based on principles and ethics that transform behaviors. Unless the old paradigm of production and consumption is broken, the potentials of a green economy will never take hold.
Architecture firms can again take notes. First, there are those firms that use the “additive” approach to environmental strategies, for example advertising the number of LEED-certified professionals on their teams, but then not actually incorporating strategies into their designs. Rather than doing this, there is much ground to be gained by implementing passive sustainable design strategies. And then there is the idea of getting involved in something beyond the small world of architecture: in politics, policy, and community to implement green techniques and strategies for the benefit of a broader context.
The green economy will be led by those who understand it and right now that seems to be the developing world more than the advanced nations. Architects can learn from their example by grasping the opportunities right in front of them, the ones that exist in the fundamentals of good environmental design and good economic sense.
Photovoltaics offer great opportunities for the future, but to jump start the green economy in the present the stress could be placed on how existing design and building strategies could be adapted to incorporate greener approaches. In other words, tweaking what is economically within reach in a depressed economy has the potential to push the green economy to the next level.
Sherin Wing is an independent scholar. She received her Ph.D. in the Humanities from UCLA. She has published articles on issues and subjects ranging from the economy and architecture to social and cultural history. She is also a frequent contributor to Metropolis, Architect Magazine and other publications.
Sherin Wing, Ph.D., is a social historian who writes on architecture, urbanism, racism, the economy, and epistemology (how we know what we know by researching and examining the agendas inherent in our sources of information) to name a few issues and topics. She is dedicated to exploring issues in ...