It’s a common assumption that sustainable design costs big money, which is why so many business and government leaders have been reluctant to embrace the fundamental changes necessary to protect our ecosystems. Most people think of sustainability as cod liver oil: hard to swallow, but ultimately good for us.

It’s a common assumption that sustainable design costs big money, which is why so many business and government leaders have been reluctant to embrace the fundamental changes necessary to protect our ecosystems. Most people think of sustainability as cod liver oil: hard to swallow, but ultimately good for us.

In an increasingly competitive global economy, corporations are especially sensitive to near-term profits which, in turn, require sharp focus on controlling costs. In this context, a natural reluctance to put sustainable design principles to work in everyday practice should come as no surprise. After all, if a business fails because it’s noncompetitive, there will be nothing to sustain.

Savvy business leaders, however, are beginning to see this issue in a whole new light – as a way of adding value to their enterprises. Peter J. Miscovich of Deloitte Consulting says flatly that “Green [design] is also about improving the bottom line… corporations will drive sustainable practices into the mainstream, yielding tremendous environmental and social benefits while generating increased corporate profits and shareholder value.” Companies which adopt sustainable design policies benefit not only their employees, but everyone else in the supply chain – suppliers, customers, and the public at large. Many firms are coming to realize that a healthy workplace contributes to higher worker productivity, greater staff retention, and lower overhead through reduced energy cost. Whole new industries are being created on these premises. The positive message is that green is good… not only for the planet but also for the bottom line.

When any new product or service first appears in the market, the initial cost tends to be high, but as production increases, economies of scale kick in, dramatically lowering cost. Information technology is a prime example – today’s computers are much more powerful, incredibly faster, and dramatically cheaper than when the first machines were introduced. The sustainable design industry is subject to the very same laws of economics. Case in point: when solar cells were first invented (as a power source for satellites), the cost per watt was about $200. Today, it’s about $2.70 – a price reduction of more than 98 percent in only a few decades. Some industry experts believe that within ten years, the cost of generating solar power will be as cheap as or cheaper than coal-fired power plants.

According to The Economist, the clean energy business is “the next big thing” for investors. Invested capital in this nascent industry is up from $500 million in 2004 to nearly $2 billion in 2006 – a four-fold increase in only two years, and analysts are projecting annual growth rates of 20-30 percent for the next decade. If true, this means that there will be plenty of money available to develop and deploy effective, environmentally-friendly technologies. By 2010, California’s goal is to generate at least 20 percent of its power from renewable sources. Maine’s standard is even higher, at 30 percent – a goal that has already been achieved due to a natural abundance of hydroelectric capacity.

Businesses of every scale are taking advantage of trends toward implementing green design in everyday operations. In London, the Taj Hotel has cut energy consumption by more than 22 percent, reduced natural gas use by more than 32 percent, and lowered water costs by 25 percent – all since 2005. The hotel also recycles coat hangers, paper, cardboard, glass, and food containers. While increasing their customer base by 24 percent during the same period, Bank of America reduced paper usage by 32 percent between 2000 and 2005. Even Wal-mart is getting into the act. CEO Lee Scott has promised to reduce energy use by 30 percent and cut waste by 25 percent in the near term with the ultimate goal of utilizing 100 percent renewable energy, creating zero waste, and becoming the world’s largest retailer of organic products.

When big business embraces green design, it’s not an accident. The Wall Street Journal has even begun to embrace the trend; a recent op-ed article stated that “Today, no company can afford to ignore the challenges posed by pollution control, natural resource management and energy consumption. There is money to be made in solving society’s environmental problems. Corporate leaders need to look at their operations through a green lens and fold environmental thinking into their core business strategy…”

All of this bodes well for our planet. Problem solving is a natural human instinct, and history tells us that as a species we’re remarkably adept. Linking creativity, technology, and the profit motive will lead to new sources of clean energy, such as hydrogen fuel cells. Better recycling and waste management will make more efficient use of what we already produce. Design professionals are in a unique position to lead the effort, as more than 40 percent of our energy and natural resources are devoted to creating and maintaining the built environment each year. Big business is beginning to understand that sustainable design contributes directly to a more satisfied, productive workforce; better community relations; and a stronger bottom line all at the same time. And, you can take that to the bank.

Sources:
Wall Street Journal, December 29, 2006
The Economist, November 18, 2006
Hemispheres Magazine, December 2006