Going For the Green

Sustainable North Carolina will be giving out its annual Sustainability Awards on Monday, October 30. Formerly known as Save Our State, the organization's goal is to promote "sustainability" in business and government sectors. Heavy hitters such as Weyerhauser, Progress Energy, IBM, and Dupont as well as Advanced Energy Corporation, Burt's Bee's , and the Environmental Defense Fund are involved with this organization.

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce sponsors the "Foundation for a Sustainable Community" and it is a finalist for this year's Sustainability Award from Sustainable North Carolina (I'm beginning to feel sustainable myself after repeatedly typing this powerful word...).

The Foundation for a Sustainable Community has held some community workshops, built a Habitat house, and organized the recent trip to Madison, WI by community leaders and their core of business activists. Over the last few years - and this probably started with the Aaron Nelson era - the Chamber has begun to reflect back to the community some of the aspects of sustainability that were painstakingly woven into the fabric of our community by countless activists over the past few decades. Many of these efforts were against the wind and often the sources of that wind were prominent Chamber members and supporters.

The purpose of opening this up for discussion is not to diminish the steps that the Chamber or Sustainable North Carolina has taken. Undoubtedly, good work is being done as a result of their efforts. It is also fair to say that companies and individuals can take advantage of these organizations and don a "green" mantle without a thorough analysis of their history or commitment to authentic sustainability.

What are the implications of this type of "greening" of business organizations? And, in light of the incredible efforts by so many activists over the years to push issues of "sustainability" to the point where the Chamber can safely adopt some of them, what has the Chamber actually accomplished to deserve this award? I repeat, this is not to diminish their efforts, but how can we put this into a perspective that reflects the reality of the ongoing struggle for authentic sustainability?




You could start a new thread on the sustainability issues surrounding local golfing. Suggested name:

Going For The Green

You can also get offsets for installing composting toilets!

Ouch... but I am planning on holding a seminar that will teach people how to replace their divots.

Maybe I can get an Athletic Sustainability Award for that?


I didn't say the Chamber should get credit for all of this, although I did start the list with Chamber efforts. They are part of the community and they are responding as such. Just as you continue to play golf, an intensely unsustainable use of land IMHO, despite your investments in building a green home, their efforts may be imperfect but they are making good strides in the right direction. One organization cannot be sustainable in a community that is not on board with the concept--sustainability is a joint effort.


Many of the efforts you cite originated from citizen activist action over the years or were instituted quite independently of Chamber activity.

How can the Chamber get credit for the actions of Friends of Bolin Creek?!?

Or OWASA's decision to utilize methane?

Or the strides in waste reduction?

How could I have missed....

the amazing progress we have made in waste reduction, including the new computer recycling program initiated last year. Wasn't our landfill due to close 10 years ago except through the incredible efforts of the hardworking public works staff and the commitment of local businesses and residents?

Mark M asked "what are the successful sustainability gains that we should be giving kudos for?"

How about the fact that the Chamber received a statewide sustainability award? Or that they are offering workshops on waste reduction, energy savings, etc. for member businesses? Or that they've hired a sustainable business coordinator?

How about all the restaurants that are now buying food directly from local farmers?

Or the university's willingness to pursue the water reuse program and a policy of no net gain in stormwater runoff, even with all the capital construction going on?

Or Carrboro's investment in 3 hybrid vehicles (I was mistaken the other day when I said they have only 1) as well as their commitment to biofuels?

Or OWASA's plan to capture methane gas at the treatment facility and use it to power some of the equipment out there?

Or the Friends of Bolin Creek's very sustainable festival (compostable paper plates, napkins & cups and utensil free food, solar power generator)?

Or farefree transit?

Or the CRed commitment made by the university and the town of Chapel Hill and the greenhouse gas reduction commitment made by the county and 3 municipalities?

How about the longstanding commitment to farmland preservation?

Shall I go on? We aren't a perfectly sustainable community and we have lots of room for improvement, but I'm proud of how well we are doing and hope that by recognizing and honor the steps we've taken so far, local businesses, agencies, and residents will be motivated to push the boundaries even further, especially in the areas of social and economic sustainability.

Glad you posted the accurate story, Anita. What the N&O actually said was as you report:

"Aaron Nelson called five council members and reached Mark Kleinschmidt, Cam Hill and Sally Greene before Wednesday night's council meeting. He asked them to hold off on a resolution pressing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for stricter fire safety enforcement at the Wake County plant until they heard from Progress Energy, a chamber member."

I would like to correct one of the inaccuracies in the above discussion. Aaron Nelson contacted our elected officials to ask them to give Progress Energy some time on the agenda to respond to the allegations and concerns made by the group who brought the referendum to the Town Council before the Council voted on it. That is not an unreasonable request. I would hope any of us, if we or our businesses were accused of wrongdoing, would have the opportunity to respond to the allegations before being judged. And I would think our elected officals would want to be sure they had all the information necessary to make an informed and appropriate decision.

Aaron at no time requested that any council person vote a certain way. He just asked them to allow Progess Energy to respond to the assertions in the referendum, ask questions if they wanted to, and then make a decision. That makes perfect sense to me.

"And, to his credit, Dan did not ask the town to pay for him to boycott the Progress Energy danish."

I think the jury may still be out on that.

Consider three plausible scenarios:

1. Progress gave funds sufficient to cover the breakfast in Madison;
2. Progress gave funds that not only covered the breakfast but also some other conference expenses; and
3. Progress gave less than what was necessary to cover the breakfast, and general registration dollars covered the shortfall.

If I attend the conference and public dollars are used to pay my fee, then a boycott with scenario 1 is more than symbolic. Scenarios 2 and 3 are a whole ‘nother matter; 2 says you need to boycott the entire event and 3 says you wasted some portion of the people's money.

Eleven elected officials attended and four boycotted; I guess this was not an organized protest. As another participant observed, not being at the Monday morning breakfast meant passing up an opportunity to educate people sitting with you about your concerns.


I don't know that I meant to infer anything specific. I was just curious to know.

However, I do generally feel it is inappropriate for elected officials to spend/waste taxpayer money to support positions not stated as official policy.

And, to his credit, Dan did not ask the town to pay for him to boycott the Progress Energy danish.

Actually, supporting Progress Energy's agenda probably does offset - by multiples - any other efforts at sustainability. But I'm open to another point of view - what are the successful sustainability gains that we should be giving kudos for?

It sounds like we need a Sustainability GPA. Core subjects include economics, society and the environment- energy and energy efficiency should be in there somewhere. Electives include advertizing and advocating for others, and ...

No matter how the evaluation is done, in the US, it seems most companies, local governments and people could be doing better. Some grades maybe high but Sustainability GPA's are not. It is still good to hear about individual grades and students seem to do better when you emphasize their A's. Ok, I'll stop with the grade analogy...

"Nobody is diminishing the steps that have been taken. If your kid gets an A in one subject and an F in another, it's certainly OK to talk about both grades and also to wonder why he's being accepted into the Honor Society."

Where's the discussion of the A? Where the discussion of what criteria should be used as a basis for induction into the Honor Society? From what I've read so far, any relationship with Progress Energy automatically offsets any of the other positive actions the Chamber has taken toward sustainability. That may not be what you intended, Mark, but that's the way it's coming off to this reader.

Allan, curious as to the inference here... Do you mean, to exaggerate a bit, that if you're a local official and you pass up a snort at an Abramoffian food trough it's wrong?

"As a result, Barry Jacobs, Bill Strom, Randee Haven-O'Donnell and I met that morning in the hotel dining room and enjoyed an unsponored but nonetheless nourishing breakfast."

I am also curious, were you reimbursed for that meal with taxpayer money?

Nobody is diminishing the steps that have been taken. If your kid gets an A in one subject and an F in another, it's certainly OK to talk about both grades and also to wonder why he's being accepted into the Honor Society.

How did we get from the original post to blasting the Chamber for taking funding from Progress Energy for the Madison trip? If the purpose of this discussion isn't to "diminish the steps that the Chamber or Sustainable North Carolina has taken," or to "diminish" the Chambers efforts, it is certainly an off-track discussion.


Fred, I know you read my Madison Smoozefest series highlighting its "back room" lobbying potential.

Do you think Progress sponsored part of the trip's festivities for purely altruistic reasons or do you think there were other motives - roughly equivalent to greenwashing (community ingratiation?) - at play?

Aaron's defense of Progress Energy, in the face of Progress' indefensible delays in correcting safety problems - and on the heels of the Madison trip - is troubling.

Amory Lovins has said that splitting atoms to generate electricity is like using a chainsaw to cut butter. And now we might add that splitting hairs to obfuscate corporate influence peddling is like using real money to advertise for a monopoly.

Fact: Progress Energy buys influence by spreading millions of dollars across all sectors of society in order to further its unilateral control of its power. Doesn't matter where you eat breakfast, unless it's actually being provided by Progress Energy.

Thanks Dan, but I only saw one question in Will's original post, and it was asking about the boycott of the Progress Energy sponsored breakfast in Madison. Again, I'm pointing out that that given the way these conferences are typically funded, to make the point you and the elected officials of Orange County, Chapel Hill and Carrboro wanted to make, you would really have to boycott the entire event.

Personally, I thought all of your participation was valuable, as well as meaningful, to the outcome. Did the other elected officials in attendance decline to participate, or were they invited to participate?

I believe Will's concern was about the relationship of the Chamber to Progress, perhaps including Marcoplos' latest comments about Progress' public relations endeavors. But, I should let him speak for himself.

Will's original question was, "Dan, didn't Aaron's org coordinate a Progress Energy sponsored breakfast in Madison?"

You responded, "As a result, Barry Jacobs, Bill Strom, Randee Haven-O'Donnell and I met that morning in the hotel dining room and enjoyed an unsponored but nonetheless nourishing breakfast."

My comment dealt with the issue of corporate sponsorship maybe being more than just a breakfast that you and others boycotted at a conference you attended at the tax payer's expense.

What point did I miss?

Fred, you might reread Will's original question above. I think you may have missed his point (and thereby the point in my reply).

I don't know what financial model the Chamber used for the Madison conference, but let's assume they used a common one. In that model, you solicit corporations/individuals for sponsorship dollars. To acknowledge their contributions, you showcase them in the program and on site by having their name/branding associated with a conference event, like a breakfast, a lunch, or a dinner.

The contributions are generally used to underwrite the conference overall and the specific gift may actually exceed the cost of the event where their branding appears. If this is how Madison was done, then for one to be true to a cause like demonstrating dissatisfaction with a particular corporation, one would have to boycott the entire conference and not just the breakfast where the branding appeared.

Since the four people mentioned above are all "elected" officials, I will also assume that their conference fees came from tax dollars. Therefore, the real question ought to be, whose money was really in the pot when they boycotted breakfast?

Why would the Chamber jeopardize their credibility this way?

In terms of local economic benefits from Progress Energy, the Chamber and Progress Energy should recognize NCWARN for the large amounts of advertising money that now flow to local media such as WCHL & the Chapel Hill Herald, as well as other entities - even though Chapel Hill & carrboro are not oin Progress's service area.

Before NCWARN successfully dogged Progress about the problems with their huge and unsafe nuclear waste storage facility at Shearon Harris, we did not have Progress Energy putting out big local newspaper ads with cute children and stud linemen. Nor did we have Progress Energy halftime reports during UNC basketball games.

Background on Will's question: at our September Assembly of Governments meeting, we received a report from Orange County staff on the fire safety problems at Shearon Harris. We agreed to take up a resolution to the NRC at each of the three governing bodies.

Steve Halkiotis commented on the county's long involvement with safety issues at Shearon Harris and on his long-term effort to avoid eating Progress Energy sponsored danish. I pointed out that those of us heading to Madison the next week would be faced directly with the "Halkiotis challenge" when presented with a Progress sponsored breakfast.

As a result, Barry Jacobs, Bill Strom, Randee Haven-O'Donnell and I met that morning in the hotel dining room and enjoyed an unsponored but nonetheless nourishing breakfast.

More recently, BTW, Progress was the "Platinum" (i.e. big $$$) sponsor for the Chamber's recent community awards event.

Dan, didn't Aaron's org coordinate a Progress Energy sponsored breakfast in Madison? Maybe I'm sensitized to the issue because of the not too long ago local machinations of a national Astroturf organization in Chapel Hill politics and the troubling way a few of our current Council members gladly participated, but the possibility of a wolf adopting sheep's clothing is something to keep in mind.

A case in point (as documented in this Washington Post series) has been the co-option of the "Nature Conservancy" brand by corporate interests. Greenwashing, as a business stratagem, is not just a national phenomena.

I posted a little something in Sept. on greenwashing.

Timely news that a not dissimilar award has gone to Wal-Mart.

Thanks, Terri. Like you, I think a lot about the limitations of what I can do along those lines in my own life. Also, about the limitations the Town of Carrboro faces. A big part of my point is that unless we can undertake a sober examination of those limitations, our ability to meet our goals will be constrained.

BTW, a big part of why I am working with Doug Crawford-Brown's class to explore the possibility of municipal power for Carrboro is exactly so we will have the capital to bring energy efficiency to every homeowner who wants it.

p.s. to Terri. I did throw a bit of a barb your way in my original post. I appreciate the grace with which you replied.

Dan wrote: "The point of recounting this incident is not to hurl a barb at the Chamber or to overlook its many good works. Rather, it is to point out how difficult it really is for business to commit to “balancing” the triple bottom line."

It's not just businesses that have trouble commiting to the balancing act, Dan. Local governments and individuals face those same challenges. I'd love to have a completely energy efficient home, but I just don't have the upfront resources to make it happen. But I can make small changes that will allow me to make larger changes over time. Carrboro has one hybrid vehicle--I'm sure they will invest in more as their current fleet ages out. Balancing between current financial limitations and sustainable investments takes time.

Change happens through a combination of top down and bottom up pressure. And it all starts with education. It also helps to have a plan and the evaluative critieria you spoke of. Those criteria are in the Chamber's sustainability planning doc. Too bad that document is just setting around collecting dust.

p.s. sorry that several paragraph breaks were lost in the post above.

You're way ahead of us, Dan. It's just about 1:30 where I am! :-)

When the foxes guard the hen house, if they are wise foxes, they will do all they can to sustain the hen ecology, whether it is the food system, or the ability of hen's to reproduce, or to maintain their pecking order. The foxes will then tout their commitment to sustainability and to the triple bottom line of equity among hens, conservation of the hen house environment, and the continued fulfillment of their own appetites.

The problem with business embracing “sustainability” and “the triple bottom line” is two-fold: first, for every business that undertakes the occasional good works cited by Terri, there is another business hiding its greed-driven destructive practices behind a thin evocation of the mantras of sustainability; and, second, these maxims make no actual requirements of those espousing them—there are no standards, no benchmarks, and no measurements taken to determine whether all those bottom lines are in fact in balance. And, when someone attempts to shine a light on all this, the fellow-travelers of the triple bottom line sect are ready to charge that the gross incivility of “failure to applaud” has been committed.

Those applauding might consider the commitment to sustainability of Halliburton.

Here's a recent case in point to help clarify the challenges faced by the Chamber in embracing sustainability:
On October 1, the N&O reported that the director of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce lobbied Chapel Hill Council-members on behalf of Progress Energy to try to derail the resolution calling on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to enforce fire safety regulations at Shearon Harris. Consider that Progress Energy does no business in Chapel Hill or Carrboro. Consider that a fire at Shearon Harris is among the worst potential catastrophes that could befall the local business community (to say nothing of the rest of us). Consider that Orange County governments have a long track record of engagement with issues surround Shearon Harris and that the resolution in question would be soon approved unanimously by three local government bodies. This was disappointing coming right on the heels of the good will generated by the trip to Madison.
This incident demonstrates that, for the Chamber, it is the economic bottom line that overrides any other. This is only to be expected given the fundamental mission of the Chamber. Sadly, in this case, that economic bottom line was so narrowly construed that its expression could actually threaten the economic vitality of its members. That should not sit well with anyone (except Progress Energy).
The point of recounting this incident is not to hurl a barb at the Chamber or to overlook its many good works. Rather, it is to point out how difficult it really is for business to commit to “balancing” the triple bottom line. After all, the environmental movement has thrived in its Herculean mission of countering the destructive practices of business-as-usual. Our profit-driven economic system, with accounting methods that externalize the cost of environmental damage, will be hard-pressed to place the environment on an equal footing. This presents a challenge to all of us.
The Chamber of Commerce's apparent inability to discriminate is particularly troublesome. Consider its placing corporate criminal Duke Energy* on the board its sustainable community foundation. Duke would more appropriately be admitted to a sustainability half-way house. To achieve a sustainable society, we must be able to discriminate between what/who is helpful and what is not.

It might be helpful in this regard if the Chamber established different classes of membership: an auxiliary status for those like Progress that do no business in the community, a step up for businesses (like Duke) that do a small part of their business here, and a full membership for those primarily owned and located here. The alternative for sustainability-minded local businesses might be to set up a more focused organization, perhaps along the BALLE model.

For the time-being, I imagine the Chamber and its assorted councils will continue to espouse the triple bottom line. A three legged stool can be a very stable seat. But if one leg is longer then the others, a pratfall is the likely result.

Note: I write the above as an ardent supporter of local business. But I am not a supporter of Duke Energy (but a customer, alas) or Progress Energy or Bank of America or their ilk. I do make the distinction and consider it important to do so.

[* for example, Duke Power paid a $25 million settlement to federal regulators to settle charges that it intentionally used inappropriate accounting methods to underreport regulated profits in the Carolinas between 1998 and 2000. Duke was also implicated in the Enron-associated California energy crisis. It also operates some of the nation's worst polluting power plants, according to EPA.]

Lots of people would say this issue is similar to what's been happening around organic. As that segment has become dominated by big corporations (e.g., Earthbound Farms) some of the original principles of small scale, low impact, buy-local, etc., have given way to quarterly profits. Whole Foods does not have the same sensibilities for small-scale organic farming that Wellspring used to.

Thinking through the 'dumbing down' of sustainability seems like a good thing to do. The trend is probably inevitable, but at least we should know what we're witnessing.

Sustainability is about the triple bottom line--economic, social and environmental. So greening businesses is only one part of sustainability.

I understand your concerns about capitalizing on green without really undertaking the process of becoming green Mark, but I also believe that the only way to make the cultural shift toward sustainability is by supporting individuals and businesses who indicate a willingness to change. Ray Anderson didn't start out green; he changed.

If the Chamber supports sustainability through education on "greening your restaurant and water-wise landscaping; an ink cartridge recycling program with more than 80 participating businesses; the Workforce Housing Partnership; college scholarships; and programs to retain, support and recognize family-friendly employers and sustainable businesses" shouldn't we be applauding their efforts to change? I think the Toward a Sustainable Community in Southern Orange County is an excellent planning document. I wonder why it hasn't been adopted/endorsed by the towns.


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