Originally posted in Madison Originals Magazine, written by Erin Abler
Not so long ago, there was a widely held sentiment that environmental interests had little to do with profitable business. That perception created an unbalanced dynamic over the years: business owners and industry heads resisted measures that they considered costly and unnecessary, while environmental advocates bristled at the thought of communicating with corporations.
“Traditionally this was a big green push that consisted of new laws and legislation, kind of forcing them to change,” says John Imes, Executive Director of Wisconsin Environmental Initiative (WEI).
But as the concept of sustainable business has grown, attitudes toward green practices, especially in certain sectors, have taken a turn.
“Farmers, municipalities, and many organizations are making those investments without prompting,” John says. “They’re doing business differently—they’re not being told to make those changes.”
John has seen this shift take place through years of effort. Before cofounding WEI in 1995, he was Environmental Manager for Quad/Graphics, a major company in the state, and now the largest privately held printer in the world. Quad/Graphics created thousands of new jobs in the ’80s and ’90s, and managing this rapid growth raised the company’s awareness of its overall impact. Before most corporations had even considered environmental initiatives, Quad/Graphics was starting to make an investment to reduce its corporate footprint.
“A lot of environmentally oriented clients were seeking us out because of our progressive programs,” John remembers. “I was invited to speak at an MEI (Minnesota Environmental Initiative) event focused on magazine recycling.”
When he found that MEI was established to bring business, government, and non-profit groups together, John’s interest was piqued.
Meeting with MEI members through a regional networking environment, he spent some time in the Twin Cities, got to know some of the board members, and was impressed with what he found.
“I started thinking about what that would look like here,” he says.
The idea held: with a number of like-minded colleagues, John soon helped to launch Wisconsin Environmental Initiative. Modeled on its Minnesotan predecessor, it didn’t take long for WEI to come into its own.
Building on early partnerships, WEI developed Green Built Home, the first green building program east of the Mississippi, and the first in the Midwest. By reviewing and certifying home building and remodeling projects, Green Built Home provides checklists and guidelines for building according to sustainable building and energy standards.
Begun 10 years ago, the initiative has since become nationally recognized as a model program. WEI works in partnership with the Madison Area Builders Association and other participating associations to make Green Built Home a reality—a fact that reflects a balanced perspective on involvement. In its initial planning stages, WEI purposely avoided getting involved in market decisions such as the home size that buyers choose.
“We wanted them to develop a checklist—something that would show meaningful environmental improvements while achieving that on a market basis,” says John.
It wasn’t always an easy sale.
“When I first sat down with the builders, there was some push-back there. Eventually I said, ‘Look, we’re either driving the bus down the road or we’re chasing the bus.’ Within time, they developed their own Green Built committee; they were finding a way to internalize that into their culture. We realized that the building association would find ways to reflect on the program and mission in ways that you and I may not have thought of,” John says.
“We’ve been kind of a catalyst to get typically business-oriented trade organizations to consider this, and to do it in a way that’s balanced. We want people to do this in a voluntary way, and not be part of a control process to achieve those aspirations. If you can institutionalize this approach within a trade association, it’s more likely to work in the long run because they know their customers best. We’re not going to get to our aspirations by relying on policemen with clipboards.”
To encourage the development of the program, WEI has worked to discover and incorporate incentives for green practices.
“If you’re a builder or developer and you’re doing business differently, if you’re moving green, how might we reward that behavior?” John asks. “For businesses that are making this change sincerely from a policy standpoint—not just looking for photo ops and ‘attaboys’—how can we provide them with strategic business advantages? If a project goes through green development for 4-6 months, how can we get that down to 4-6 weeks, then make that an advantage and get that out to the rest of the community?”
As John points out, incentives won’t work for everyone; but a system that encourages sustainability does not actually eliminate all other choices. “If you’re not interested in doing that, that’s okay: we have a system for you. It’s a little bit more burdensome, it costs a bit more, and it takes more time—enjoy!”
John fully acknowledges the central role of WEI’s partners and collaborators.
“While I think WEI was set up as more of a convening organization around issue—business or environmental issues, water quality, agriculture—when I became director, I wanted us to be more directly linked to businesses,” says John.
“We have a phrase, ‘Doing well by doing good,’ referring to the idea that those businesses are different from traditional businesses in their sector. We want them to do well and provide an example for other businesses. You look at any part of the market, and there are leaders. But the vast majority are still kind of within the status quo, and I think one of the challenges for policymakers is how to bridge that gap. This brings back the MEI experience: you bring all the stakeholders to the table to roll up their sleeves and say, ‘How do we best achieve this goal?’”
Though the answer to John’s question is still taking shape, there can be little doubt that educating stakeholders plays a significant part.
“For Green Built, we started with the builders because we didn’t want them back on their heels and not prepared to answer challenging questions from a much more educated and engaged public,” he explains. “If the public’s demanding green building, we wanted them to have the lead so they could meet those expectations.”
As the idea began to take hold in the building community, however, the educational focus shifted. “More of our outreach has been with the public over time,” John says. “We didn’t want to perpetuate some of the myths. People have this idea that building green has to cost more or result in compromises in comfort, durability, quality. But it can actually be beautiful. One of the advantages, for example, is that green building often results in something that you can take care of, that is high-quality, and will last a long time.”
WEI has since translated these principles to other worthwhile endeavors, such as sustainable tourism.
“Travel Green Wisconsin was modeled after the success that we had with Green Built Home, figuring out how we might reduce the footprint of businesses. I think you see in the Travel Green checklist that it’s very comprehensive, as comprehensive as any in the country. Lots of global initiatives existed at the time we got started, but nothing on the statewide scale. It covers energy, water, waste; and it’s affordable. We wanted to make the program available to the whole range of tourism businesses in the state, not just restaurants and hotels.”
The motivation for Travel Green Wisconsin was slightly different than that for Green Built Home, John explains.
“This was more about being able to exceed the expectations of a growing consumer demand in Wisconsin for more hybrid cars and other products coming down the pike. We wanted to show that this is not a fad; there’s a growing group of consumers that incorporate this into their everyday decision-making. And demand for clean air and clean water is never going to go anywhere but up. That’s what we use as a business model.We think that programs like this are not only good for the participants, but are really good for the state, especially to attract more industries, more clean businesses. There are other reasons for doing this, too. A lot of the talent pool coming out of universities want to work for companies with good environmental track records. These programs can help ensure that employees are more likely to be retained—and being able to attract and retain talent is a big issue for the corporate world right now.”
What lies ahead for WEI?
“Where we’re always going to have our fingers in the pie is to be a catalyst for this kind of program, where you sit down with businesses in a sector so you can benchmark where you’re at, and then look at where you can go.”
In terms of policy, John points to international conversations on climate change and the effect of new initiatives like the Clean Energy Jobs Act. “You’re already seeing the battle lines being drawn between the traditional, mainstream business organizations and the environmentally proactive community,” he says. Green Tier, a WEI program that provides support for businesses that surpass minimum environmental compliance standards, is another area where John sees opportunity for growth.
“For businesses that are making those investments and are focused on superior environmental performance, Green Tier represents how government and business can be more like partners,” he says.