Wednesday, July 16, 2008

It's Not Easy Meaning Green

I'm preparing for an online seminar on Green Innovation practices that I'll be giving next month. In my research and presentation development, I've been doing a lot of reading, and talking to a lot of my clients. Some of the big unknowns I'm finding in the nascent green industrial complex are common metrics used to define what being 'green' actually means. There are, of course, frequently discussed issues of carbon emissions and toxification of shared natural resources, but how does this translate to measurable actions that individuals and business can take in their day-to-day operations and long-term strategic plans?

Of the growing number of green business and green innovation books on the market, many fall short on the subject of metrics, instead choosing to focus on matters of policy and society. When I ask my clients, "What does 'Green' Innovation mean to you? How do you measure the success of your 'Green' initiatives?", I get the same two responses no matter what the industry, or role of the person I'm asking. They laugh somewhat nervously for thirty seconds, then, quietly, with a twitchy yet steely-eyed glare tell me,

"It depends on who you ask. What do you think?".

I'm rapidly coming to the realization that being sufficiently green is this century's equivalent of the Y2K problem, but without a definitive goal or end date. During the last 7 years of the second millenium, the realization that many of our computers would have serious difficulties measuring time after the year 19100 created sufficient cause to study the problem, understand it, and take measured actions prior to the clearly defined event.

We have far less clarity in the current green realization. For example, while there is data to suggest that global warming is occuring, the understanding of contributions from man-made and natural mechanisms are at best, controversial. Unlike the rigid cutoff Y2K date that was impossible to ignore, one generation may not know that a tipping point was irrevocably crossed until the next generation looks back at empirical data. There is a fundamental conflict between short-term and long-term goals, and the generations who control what actions are taken.

So how can any green action speak to short or long-term success when we can't agree on what to work towards?

In principle, being mindful and considerate of other people and natural resources is never a bad idea. While the metrics of day to day living may not seem directly connected to such consideration, several green metrics I've repeatedly come across are close. From what I've observed at a number of clients and through my own reading, the following is a short list of metrics that align with green goals:

  • energy efficiency
  • kilowatt hours
  • water conservation
  • water quality / chemistry
  • air quality / chemistry
  • liquid and solid waste generation
  • recycled material usage
  • chemical volatility / organic compound content
  • direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions (carbon)

The first three metrics in the list are often considered the starting point for any green strategy. Energy and water usage can be locally controlled and easily measured and budgeted through direct observation (usually in the form of utility bills). Similarly, localized application of technologies and disciplines can have directly measurable usage impacts. Energy and water saving applications which fail can easily be replaced. Through research, trial and error, anyone can become more green in these two aspects.

Environmental quality is a bit trickier to manage. Local efforts to improve resource quality may come at the expense of an increased energy expenditure or degradation of other green metrics somewhere outside of the controllable supply chain. The same can be said for localized recycling, material substitutions and controlling greenhouse gas emissions. While local efforts to improve any of these metrics can make for a good green story, the consequential (and often negative) impacts are seldom easy to assess without considering distant energy and resource dependencies.

There is one 'green' not in my list that will factor into any and all actions taken by the most isolated of individuals to the largest conglomerates - cash flow. Changes take resources, time, and an economy that can sustain changes of necessity and opportunity. Executive actions may drive green headlines, but low-cost greening will drive the balance sheet.

When considering any green initiative, take into consideration how the metrics you plan to use in measuring your green success align in both local and distant impacts.

1 comment:

Frank said...


Frank Gustafson here. Your father was kind enough to share your blog site with me so I check in every so often.

Very interesting writings. Most likely, you have seen this before but if not, some very cool technology - high yield - low enviromental impact.