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

LEEDing the Economy to Sustainability

By Ken Hall on August 14, 2009

It has been fascinating to watch how quickly people respond to market forces.

When gas was over four dollars a gallon, metro transit systems experienced record ridership and hybrids were on lengthening backorder. Now with our global economy in a tailspin, front lawns are being replaced with vegetable gardens and backyards are filling with chicken coops. But I wonder…with a probable resumption of a (more slowly) growing economy, will we see a majority of people return to more comfortable but less sustainable behaviors?

Further, do we need to cross thresholds like ten dollars per gallon of gas and 30% unemployment before we see systemic change in behavior? I think there is a less destructive way.

Within the industries that create and operate our built environment, the LEED green building certification system has become a positive market force. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) created the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) as a third-party verification system that certifies the degree to which a building or community is meeting performance metrics across a wide variety of sustainability metrics.

LEED is creating market incentives that are changing the behavior of real estate developers, designers, engineers, contractors; and building owners, operators and even the occupants. For example, at Gensler we have over 520 registered architects, but over 950 LEED accredited professionals. To help us meet the market demand to deliver LEED certified buildings, every one of these leaders has embarked on an educational program (and passed the LEED exam) to learn how to design and deliver more sustainable solutions.

Now imagine if we could create an educational program for citizens and a certification system for all products in our economy. Let's call it "LEED for Citizens." At its heart, this program would create the market forces to change global consumer behavior and "nudge" our economy and societies towards sustainability. But unlike USGBC which is a non-profit voluntary initiative from within industry, we need government policies which help "nudge" our citizens and economy in a sustainable direction. Many of the components of a LEED for Citizens program already exist in the non-profit sector, but there is still a lack of the kind of systemic market forces that could change consumer behavior on the scale needed to avoid the annihilation of our habitat and the demise of our civilization.

What if you received a small tax break for passing the LEED for Citizens exam…and a small reduction in interest rates by purchasing (or remodeling) a LEED Home? Imagine what it might do if you received a retail discount when purchasing a LEED certified product, by showing your LEED for Citizens endorsement — the way you now receive AAA discounts on travel? For that matter, how might our medical system change if we received a small discount on health care insurance by certifying our diet and exercise program with our doctor? What if additional tax deductions were allowed for the value of food and products that were grown or made within 500 miles of your home? The result of these small benefits would add up to big reductions in our more destructive consumer habits.

The survival of our civilization, and the durability, resilience and biodiversity of ecosystems that make life on earth possible are dependent upon radically changing consumer behavior. We need to foster the market forces that "nudge" people to live life in sustainable ways and "nudge" corporations to provide the services and products that allow them to do so. We need to re-localize our economies and prepare for a future of diminishing energy return on energy investment (EROEI). Now more than ever, we need an educated citizenry and a healthy steady-state economy that preserves and enhances natural, social and economic capital.

A LEED for Citizens program would be a big step in the right direction. Many of us had our hopes raised on April 1st when it was broadly circulated on the internet that President Obama had passed his LEED exam and become a LEED accredited professional. Unfortunately, it was an April fool's joke —and it highlights a growing cynicism that we lack the political will to make sustainability a priority. Machiavelli said that "political virtue is born of crisis alone," but the crisis that is bearing down upon us is way beyond Machiavelli's experience and too frightful to ignore. Fortunately, tools like LEED demonstrate how we can proactively change market forces to achieve sustainability. The time has come to scale up across our economy with citizens that are rewarded by being accredited as "green consumers" and by implementing a full scale "arms race" among corporations to achieve 3rd party sustainability certifications.

This would create the tipping point we need – not the destructive force of collapse, but the positive force of renewal as we collectively reorganize ourselves as buyers and sellers meeting in a truly sustainable marketplace.

Isn't that the ultimate purpose of an economy?

Image Credit: USGBC