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Joel Makower: The Complexities of Going Green

Joel Makower's new book
We’ve looked at businesses going green from a couple different angles, covering things like what employees can do, eco-friendly buildings, and workplaces’ roles in helping us be environmentally conscious.

But today we’re delving into the issue with none other than Joel Makower, chairman and executive editor of Greener World Media and one of the world’s leading experts on green business. His new book, "STRATEGIES FOR THE GREEN ECONOMY: Opportunities and Challenges in the New World of Business," gives an in-depth look at the complications of going green and the revolutionary things being done to overcome the hurdles.

Makower says companies often have trouble going green not just due to the complications of implementing what he calls “the growing toolkit of technologies, materials, business models, and other innovations,” but because implementing change of any kind is difficult in the corporate world.

“Change is hard,” Makower explained, “whether big companies or small, and whether in one business unit of a large company or companywide. The stories are legend about how much time and effort it takes to implement what, to most people, seems a relatively minor tweak. Example: Starbucks' effort to put a mere 10% postconsumer recycled content in its coffee cups – 10%! – took fully two years of working with suppliers, getting FDA approval (even though it wasn't technically needed) and testing with consumers. Imagine how much harder it is to do more ambitious things.”

But ambitious things are indeed being done. Makower points to two revolutionary strategies, green chemistry and biomimicry, as the most exciting.

Defined by pioneers Paul T. Anastas and John C. Warner, green chemistry is
“the utilization of a set of principles that reduces or eliminates the use or generation of hazardous substances in the design, manufacture, and application of chemical products.”

What the concept boils down to is that there are identified ways to create the products we have grown to rely on without using chemicals that damage the environment. California has taken the lead, with its state EPA issuing 38 recommendations on how to make green chemistry a reality (BIG pdf). But, of course – and this speaks to Makower’s point about change in industry – the chemical companies are doing their best to make it difficult to implement the changes. Despite that, a chemical regulation overhaul was just signed into law by Calif. Gov. Schwarzenegger, promising hope for the future of green chemistry.

And then there’s biomimicry, perhaps the coolest, most sci-fi of the green strategies. It espouses the concept of copying nature’s designs to create manmade products. Or, on a larger scale, the science of biomimicry is “a means of transforming industrial systems, creating efficient means of energy production and use, and solving problems on the scale of global climate change,” according to Makower.

The prototypical example is Eastgate, a shopping/business complex in Zimbabwe designed by renowned “responsible” architect Mick Pearce. The building is heated and cooled only through natural means, based on the structure found in termite mounds.

Makower lists many other examples of practical use of biomimicry, including a Moen showerhead with spray holes inspired by the “whorls of seeds in a sunflower” and an Atlanta company with “’self-cleaning’ exterior paint modeled on the lotus plant, whose leaves are covered with tiny points that hold dirt and moisture away from the leaf's surface, cleaning buildings whenever it rains.”

I told you; pretty cool, huh? The implications are fun to consider. How about an adhesive that sticks to everything but your fingers (mimicking how a spider glides across its own web) or a flashlight powered by the same chemical process that sets a firefly alight (no more batteries!) (There are limitless other possibilities. Let us know what you come up with by commenting below).

So there are these strategies out there being used by big corporations. But how does the average office worker contribute?

“Employees often drive company performance,” Makower told me, “for two reasons: they are closest to the waste and inefficiency, so often have the best ideas on how to reduce or eliminate it; and employers understand that being seen as green can be a powerful way to attract and retain talent, especially in competitive job markets. In addition, some companies -- Wal-Mart, for example -- are finding that when they play a role in helping employees be greener in their personal lives, the employees often bring that newfound environmental commitment to work, helping to identify efficiency opportunities and reducing resistance to change.”

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“Joel Makower: The Complexities of Going Green”