Jeffrey Ball’s recent article in New Republic, “Companies Are Ditching Environmental Schemes that Can’t Pay for Themselves. Good,” provides some food for thought for those interested in the potential growth of sustainable business.

It starts out a little rough for those of us who have cheered the availability of green energy and sustainable business incentives. Having described General Electric’s entry into the domestic solar-panel business – and then its hasty retreat. Ball writes:

GE’s solar-power comeuppance is one small example of a reality check hitting companies, governments and consumers around the world: In trying to minimize humanity’s environmental footprint, generating warm fuzzies is one thing, but generating affordable and material environmental progress is something else. The work is expensive, inconvenient, controversial and complex. There’s no quick fix, and every supposed solution brings new problems of its own. The benefits – both environmental and financial – tend to come in unremarkable, incremental bits, not in some jaw-dropping windfall.

Too bad.

And high time.

I worried he was building up to a full-fledged attack on the prospects for growth in sustainable business practices. However, my concern was unfounded, as a much more nuanced analysis of the sustainability movement followed ….
Ball asserts the movement is at the end of its “first phase,” where flashy environmental issues dominated – think burning rivers and smog-choked cities – and activists could mobilize the public and government to focus on the crises, at least for a time. Ball argues the old model of achieving environmental gains, which had its successes, is obsolete in the face of very different challenges.

Today’s problems, such as global warming, disappearing energy resources, and water scarcity, build incrementally and much less visibly than the problems that led to the Clean Air or Clean Water Acts. Combine the lack of day-to-day spectacle inherent in today’s problems, the complexity of their possible solutions, and the entrenched economic interests allied against change, and the old model for progress seems downright futile.

But don’t abandon hope quite yet! Ball posits we are now entering the second phase of the sustainability movement – one that will be characterized by “pulls” rather than “pushes.” He concludes:

The first phase of the sustainability effort sought largely to compel society to change. At issue now is whether, in a second phase, the change can be made so attractive – among other things, inexpensive – that people choose it. If this transition fails, taxpayers and investors may lose many billions of dollars. If it succeeds, an economy that uses natural resources more efficiently may prove, well, sustainable.

This conclusion really resonated with me. Intelekia’s founding partners first met because of a shared belief that businesses will be the key drivers of necessary environmental changes, and that the regulatory state is insufficient to meet our current environmental problems. And we think the Northwest is well-positioned to become a model for the country on how to grow successful sustainable businesses. While sustainable business practices, especially in energy, may still be a gamble, it is one that many big players are starting to wager on. And that is good news.