Perspectives on greener product development and manufacturing from Sustainable Minds, our partners, customers and contributors.

What I’ll say in China about sustainability and economic opportunity

By Ken Hall on September 1, 2008

At a national green building convention in Chicago last year, my ears were tuned for the specific words and phrases that Bill Clinton, one of our great communicators, would say to thousands of practitioners. The point of listening so intently was to hear the messaging and frames in order to better tell our story and tip the scale in favor of sustainability. This is what I heard:

“… de-carbonizing the economy .. is our single greatest economic opportunity since we mobilized for WWII!”

Wow! That’s a powerful statement. It builds rapidly from naming the quest to identifying the benefit and concludes invoking values and ideas deeply embedded in the American psyche from WWII – the urgent call to arms to defend the nation, the hero’s quest to ward off evil forces and epic battles that lead to victory. It also invokes the monumental collaborations between governments, military, research and industry that were necessary for the time.

This world-changing statement bears repeating and further exposition by others interested in converting our industrial growth economy into a sustainable economy. Other Clinton phrases continue to ring in my ears:

  • “… de-carbonizing the economy will not be easy.”
  • “This will require continued, systematic and intensifying efforts.”
  • “…be relaxed, not everything is going to work.”
  • “We are at the forefront of proving this.”

This builds an important context for audience of practitioners, but the key take-away was when he said that we are proving this not only for the United States, but also for India and China. This master communicator went on to say (and I paraphrase) that America must lead the way by doing what we do best– by innovating with an entrepreneurial spirit. If we did that, we would be in a position to provide Indian and Chinese people an alternative to the carbon economy they are presently ramping up as fast as possible.

My thoughts turn back to these statements in a fresh way because I am headed to Beijing in October to give a speech about sustainable design and building information modeling at the 12th International Conference on Computing in Civil and Building Engineering. As I think about what I will say to a Chinese audience about sustainability I am reminded of two aspects of the above messaging that concern me:

  1. the emphasis on nationalism,
  2. and the sole focus on carbon as the issue (although it is very easy to understand why these may nevertheless be the correct frames to invoke.)


Reframing the central message for an international audience, I plan to say:
“Creating a circular economy is the greatest economic opportunity we humans have ever had.“

And support it with three additional key points:

  • “failure is not an option.”
  • “we are all in this together.”
  • “time has run out – we must act.”


Reframing the central message this way names a new economy, not simply saying what must be undone in the old economy. It reminds us that our challenge is not just about carbon. It also invokes empathy and rich possibilities for story telling around “we humans.”

ClintonVideo Image: © USGBC 2008