The University of Texas at Austin held its 2010 Sustainability Conference this past Friday, Feb. 5th, featuring keynote speakers a.k.a. corporate PR representatives from Walmart and Frito-Lay, as well as an impressive array of panel speakers comprised of local political and business leaders, professors, nonprofit managers, and other green company reps. Hosted by the McCombs School of Business for the third year in a row, the conference provided an intimate atmosphere for sustainability professionals and environmental newbies alike to discuss current and past trends in business and government sectors with regards to improving our world through sustainable recommendations. The conference was well-run and provides a working model for similar events to be hosted by other schools, but improvements could still be made. A lot of the attendees, and speakers even, seemed more concerned with helping their bottom lines through sustainability initiatives than actually helping the environment. Ironically, the billionaire figurehead for the business school, Red McCombs, has had his share of the negative environmental spotlight. See Jeff's piece in High Country News.
The abundance of topics covered (all interesting to me) had to be split into two separate, unofficial tracks of panels, policy and marketing (I chose policy), so that two panels were always going on at the same time. This led to the frustration of not being able to be in two places at once, alas Superman, and my idea for the suggestion box for next year: to spread the conference out over two days. I told this to my brother, a McCombs student and planning committee member, so hopefully this will be addressed next year. In honor of doppleganger week (I think Facebook should now have dopplegangbanger week) and continuing the Just the Two of Us theme, this dilemma also inspired a brilliant coaching strategy if you have identical twins on your team (Bill Self may already employ this with the Morris brothers); switch the two players' jerseys in select games so the defense never knows the strengths of which player is coming at them. Wise and otherwise, my two aliases, and the name of a Baldurdash spin-off, by far the silliest thing about the conference had to be the use of compostable cups, napkins and utensils... but with the absence of compost bins. This is not good since trade shows and conferences have an enormous impact on waste emissions. People like the Frito-Lay representative are under the impression that these bioplastics made from corn stock will degrade in landfills, but simply put, sun, oxygen and microorganisms that eat that material are not permitted in the sealed landfills. The lack of available recycling bins also irked me, a campus-wide problem needing to be addressed by green groups at UT.
The conference and surrounding campus weren't the only people with waste management problems; I and I fell victim to some strange stomach bug. While fighting dysentery from either my breakfast taco or something I ate at lunch, your resilient and fearless reporter was able to keep a critical eye on the events, however. The Walmart (Warmall?) representative was not as convincing a speaker as the chum from Frito-Lay, perhaps because he was younger and it was the first thing in the morning when he spoke. Nonetheless, both companies have set global goals of using renewable energy, being zero waste, decreasing their supply footprint, and selling products that sustain people and the environment. This last goal is laughable considering their current globalized manifestations as two of the biggest companies exemplifying the consumeristic American lifestyle, obesity, plastics and all. Walmart has over 8,000 stores worldwide registering two million customers weekly, and Pepsico, which owns Frito-Lay, is a $43-60 billion dollar company that produces the two largest subsets of landfill items, food/chip bags and beverage containers. While it's true their green initiatives combined with the scale of their companies have the chance to make a huge impact, that same ginormous scale of production places them in league with some of the largest waste-producers and is enough to make myself force vomit saturated fats all over their corporate jets.
One panel was smart to raise the point that while they should be congratulated for taking steps to alleviate their footprints, for something is better than nothing, they still should be avoided by conscientious consumers since they aren't sourcing locally through their support of national distribution systems and factory farming, putting small businesses and local entrepreneurs in jeopardy. Their companies are so big that it's impossible to keep track of all their practices, have a small footprint, and "sell products that sustain people and the environment." To be fair, I've listed some of their initiatives and statistics in a Word document, although a lot of them are buried in the percentage game. Notable improvements being made by both companies include modifying their distribution trucks to get better gas mileage, reducing waste sent to landfills from their outlets and factories, and using less or alternatively sourced energies. Frito-Lay should be commended for developing a compostable bag for their Sun Chips line, their "Prius brand" produced in solar-powered factories, while overcoming the necessity for an oxygen barrier by inserting a nano-thin aluminum barrier between two layers of PLA (biodegradable plastic). They plan to showcase this technology in the future by wrapping a building in Arizona and California with the material so daily travelers can see the degradation over time created by exposure to the elements. This technology will have tremendous benefits for end-of-life consumer packaging; now they just need to extend it to all their product lines.
As far as sustainable policy trends, urban planners are realizing the need for a transport mode shift, more public transportation options, sourcing fresh food within 100 miles of a city, and building communities in walking distance of shops and restaurants in what is called an "urban village" model. Portland is the Mecca of this model, where nearly 50% of the population uses public transportation or bikes to work, and progressive communities across the country are increasingly following their lead. This main recommendation stems from the suburban sprawl development of the past half century, hence our reliance on cars to get around. In the future, people will hopefully be able to walk/bike to wherever they need to go. The call for a national building code to make buildings more energy-efficient was echoed as was the need for toxic releases laws for companies to disclose any toxic waste or ingredients they may be producing. The innovative ways businesses are starting to achieve standards without legislation is remarkable, but without some government or outside pressure, markets can deviate substantially from what free market theory suggests. The line between ethics and economic theory has grown thinner from generations ago. Tim Mohin from AMD brought up the point that young people are increasingly graduating into the workplace looking to devote their careers to jobs that have redeeming value, and businesses are having to accomodate that if they want talented workers. Way to go Generation X, Y and Millenials! Keep up the pressure on the oppressor!
Unfortunately, this recession has not been good on small businesses and nonprofits, leaders of innovation and sustainable thinking. It has forced companies to make more efficient use of their resources, but has stymied investment in new products and research. While green products have definitely begun to dominate a share of the marketplace, consumers and businesses with tight budgets are choosing cheaper alternatives. Countries without as many regulations as America, due in part to free trade legislation, have cheaper resources to exploit and price those resources below their true values, and so rainforests and other diverse habitats are continuing to disappear, and fossil fuels are continuing to be extracted and used up. However, businesses employing these practices with no regard for the environment or communities around them will ultimately fail because they are not sustainable. Hope lies in communicating the science available to endangered or impoverished communities across the globe as well as supporting microfinancing, small interest-free loans to poor people in developing countries looking to start their own businesses. Going back in time, ancient communities had sustainable systems, and somewhere along the way that systems link was broken and was replaced by this industrial mega-rape in the name of more profits. That link needs to be repaired by voting with our dollars to support transparent, localized production based in sound science and human rights.