Feb. 25, 2010

Green gurus

by Diana Pounds

Yvon Chouinard, a rock climber, surfer and falconer who never wanted to be a businessman; and Leith Sharp, an Australian who founded Harvard University's much acclaimed Green Campus Initiative, shared insights with participants in Iowa State's Symposium on Enhancing Sustainability this week.

Here are some highlights from their keynote talks:

Yvon Chouinard

As a young climber, Chouinard started blacksmithing his own pitons. Soon, he was supplying friends and then customers, and his outdoor equipment company was born. When he later discovered the popular pitons were destroying cracks in rocks, he quit making them. The environmentalist would make many such decisions in future years as he grew the outdoor clothing company Patagonia.

On leading an examined life: Chouinard was surprised to discover that most 100-percent cotton fabrics really were about 73 percent cotton and the rest, chemicals. "I had no idea what I was doing. But I knew one thing. I didn't want to put formaldehyde on my clothing anymore." The incident would spark an exhaustive search for organic cotton and a corporate decision to ask questions and examine everything that goes into a Patagonia product.

On taking responsibility for your product forever: Patagonia asks customers to return old or worn products so they can be recycled. In addition, the company gives 1 percent of its sales back to environmental causes. "We use that as an earth tax, just for being polluters, for using up nonrenewable resources."

Leith Sharp

Leith Sharp

Leith Sharp

Sharp created one of the first green campus organizations in the world at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. In 1999, she was recruited by Harvard to establish a similar program. Under her leadership, Harvard's Green Campus Initiative blossomed into one of the largest green campus organizations in the world. Today, she is an international consultant on strategic campus sustainability. She's also a visiting scholar in the Harvard School of Public Health and teaches courses on sustainability and green building design at the Harvard Extension School.

On the danger: "In the last couple hundred years since the industrial revolution, we've very much removed ourselves from nature very rapidly. As an unintended byproduct of that, we've actually lost touch with nature and the way in which it is impacted by our practices, our choices ... The symptoms have really started to come home for many people from around the the world. Almost every major life support system that we depend upon as a species is under stress."

How much do we need? "Right now we live in a society in which consume and we consume. And we're told from the cradle to the grave, through the media and many other avenues, the road to happiness is paved with consumption. But we know from fact that this is not the case, that people with very high consumption levels are no happier than people with quite conservative consumption levels."

On higher education's role: Universities can influence sustainability not only through teaching and research, but as economic engines. "I've seen it firsthand. When Harvard switched its attention to green buildings as normal practice (as you have done here), the architecture community in Boston changed. And, all of a sudden, every architecture firm had a sustainability expert ... This is the power of a university to really change the local economy."