Posted: January 12, 2010
Green Jobs: Trust in Sam Walton, not Uncle Sam
Wal-Mart not to be taken lightly in sustainability rush (Special Section)David Lewis
Back in 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama said he would spend $150 billion to create 5 million "green collar" jobs. More recently, President Obama spoke at the White House jobs forum's "Green Jobs of the Future" session, and said, "I would be surprised if we don't end up moving forward on ... an aggressive agenda for energy efficiency and weatherization."
Such highly publicized efforts have meant that, "There's this notion out there that somehow or other the economy is going to revive itself and we're going to have these millions of green jobs," says Graham Russell, executive director of Denver-based CORE, the Connected Organizations for a Responsible Economy.
Yet, "You can look at reports where the projections of green jobs will vary by a factor of five or even 10. Part of the problem is that there is no sensible definition of a green job so all of these reports come at it from a different standpoint."
Russell argues that most government subsidies amount to "a fairly political exercise and a fairly futile one."
The fact is, "You've got to create a market. That's what is so powerful about what Wal-Mart and some other big companies are doing - they're creating real, genuine, hardcore business-driven markets for new stuff which is energy-efficient, water-efficient or otherwise minimizes waste," Russell says.
Wal-Mart, the discount super-store behemoth? Indeed. Russell reached these conclusions in mid-November at the Wal-Mart Green Jobs Council in Denver.
"This was a seminal moment in my thinking," Russell recalls. "We went through an hour's worth of excruciating debate about what a green job was and how many there would be and how many there wouldn't be and what was going to drive them and who was going to train people for them and so on and so forth."
"Then Wal-Mart spokesman Nate Hurst said, ‘We believe that it doesn't matter how much yakking you do about green jobs and how many reports you write about it - the only way you ever get a green job is to create market demand, and we are doing that in Wal-Mart right now through our sustainability initiatives,' which are incredibly impressive," Russell adds.
Russell observes that Wal-Mart and businesses big and small - from Denver-based warehousing giant ProLogis to the Boulder Outlook Hotel - are creating "genuinely economically bottom-line, dollar-driven new jobs. Whether it's a green job, a purple job, or whatever you call it, it is obviously eco-related in the sense that it minimizes resource use, minimizes waste. Bringing in another solar company from China or somewhere is a perfectly legitimate thing to do, but it isn't getting driven by fundamental market forces, whereas what's going on with Wal-Mart is."
Georgia Johnson hasn't brought in any Chinese solar companies yet. But as management analyst for the Denver Office of Economic Development for energy industry and green jobs workforce development, she has helped land Denmark-based Vestas Wind Systems, SMA Solar Technology from Germany, and Portland, Ore.-based REpower USA Corp.
So what is a green job?
"It's funny. You'll get 10 different answers from 10 different people if you ask what a green job is. But the more someone has worked in this environment, the more likely it is that you're going to get an answer like, ‘Who cares? What does that have to do with anything?' It's no longer important."
Just as a home-based worker typing away on a laptop is no longer considered a high-technology worker, Johnson suspects that, "The term ‘green job' will slowly fade, and we'll all have ‘greenness' to our jobs. The biggest struggle people have around green jobs is, you've got jobs where there's very little argument that it's a green job: You're installing solar panels or manufacturing wind turbines. But then most companies are trying to implement energy-efficiency measures within their companies. So, are those green jobs?"
Paul Sheldon, senior consultant for Longmont-based Natural Capitalism Solutions, laughs when asked to define "green job."
"Ideally, every job is a green job," he says. "But there is a whole series of criteria that are applied variously that have to do with whether the job is with a company or organization whose impact on people and place meet the definition of sustainability which is, according to the United Nations, ‘meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generation to meet their own needs.'" (For more, see: www.cleanandgreenjobs.net.)
The principles of natural capitalism, Sheldon explains, are efficiency, redesign and managing for sustainability.
That's what Dan King, "Ambassador of Cool" for the Boulder Outlook Hotel ("I own the place; I get to pick my title") says are his business goals. And that's why King in 2006 hired "Green Goddess" Diane Schevene.
Whatever the title, King says a small business needs an eco-coordinator as much as does a big business. "For a small business to commit to sustainability, unless the person at the top is going to commit the time, they need a resource who can say, ‘All right, here are the first five things you can do, and here's how you do them,'" King says.
King says the Boulder Outlook Hotel has annual revenue of about $4 million. Denver-based ProLogis last year had revenue of $5.65 billion. The company also has its own Green God, Chief Sustainability Officer Jack Rizzo, and a sustainability program that encompasses social responsibility, business excellence and environmental stewardship.
"What is a green job?" Rizzo asks. "All our project managers are LEED-accredited, AP-certified right now. I could make the argument those are green jobs. All the recycled content that we buy from carpet suppliers - the manufacturing of that I would contend is a green job.
"We require that the steel that we use in our building has 25 percent recycled content. I could make the argument that that is related to green jobs. I guess my job is green. So it depends on what your definition of a green job is."
David Lewis is a freelance writer based in Denver.