Sustainable Cleveland 2019 is incongruous on sustainability

Principal author:
John L. Clark


A year into its work, the Sustainable Cleveland 2019 project had its second summit this week. This article provides a summary and a critique of the events of the summit. Mainly, the summit emphasized the way that businesses and other communities can benefit from practices that are commonly labeled as sustainable, although it did not provide a framework for analyzing whether the result of these practices does lead to a sustainable society.

Everyone wants to make headlines; Cleveland mayor Frank Jackson and many other city and area leaders want those headlines to reflect its rebirth as a sustainable community. Working to make this vision a reality, the Sustainable Cleveland 2019 project held its second annual summit this week (working, unsurprisingly, towards a redirected anniversary in 2019). The summit posted a good definition for sustainability, but much of its activity managed to essentially ignore that definition.

This year's summit attracted some four hundred people from the Cleveland area and beyond; we were encouraged early “to build an economic engine to empower a green city on a blue lake”. The organizers of the summit sent the participants an executive summary of key principles from the first year of the project; it mentions the importance of economic growth 19 times (in 40 pages). For example, we read:

A sustainable economy integrates the goals of economic prosperity, environmental health and social vitality. Industrial Era trade-offs between environmental degradation, economic growth and equity are no longer necessary.

According to these assertions, we can have our cake and eat it, too.

Over half of the attendees were representatives of businesses. They largely emphasized their interest in the ways that they can make a profit from sustainability, as well as flashing the badges of their sustainability efforts. More broadly, the general area leadership presented their interpretation of sustainability as community vitality or even viability. These two groups are unsurprisingly aligned, emphasizing the need for economic growth in their understanding of sustainability. Thus, right from the beginning it was clear that the focus of the SC2019 project was on sustainability as a strategy for economic growth.

Consider the sustainability definition that was provided in one of the summary documents that we found in the obligatory reusable shopping bag that awaited us at our assigned tables (but which was missing from the executive summary):

Sustainability is meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

That seems to be a fair starting point, but at no point in the summit did the members, as a group, stop to ask if the above economic growth interpretation—or any other—actually follows from this baseline. There was no consideration of how this definition should help guide the work at the summit. One very blunt slide shouted the equation “sustainability = innovation”. Another enthusiastically agreed with management expert Peter Drucker that “every single social and global issue of our day is a business opportunity in disguise”.

In this way—meeting in the main ballroom of the Cleveland Convention Center, which is completely isolated from the outside world—was the tone set from the very beginning: a large group of well-meaning "stakeholders" met in this imposing auditorium to discuss solutions to the gravest crisis that the human race has ever manufactured, without stopping to consider whether these solutions were consistent with a reasonable core understanding of that crisis. They were certainly enthusiastic about their abilities to craft a solution, believing fervently that “all of us are called to create a better world”.

The summit organizers scheduled time for us to "express our voice" with a partner at our tables; this was a nice opportunity to reach out and engage, and it set the pattern for the conference of alternating conversation with presentation. They gave us a workbook to structure our conversation, and one of the interview questions involved brainstorming about key characteristics of “projects that take long term dedication”. I thought about one such project, and came up with the characteristics of faith in the message, a willingness to sacrifice, and awareness of shared responsibility. My partner had come up with two very similar points, but I think she was slightly startled by my second point. The next swing to the passive side of the summit handed the floor to Sherwin Williams, where we received a strong taste of the summit's corporate spirit of growth.

Tom Seitz, a senior vice president of The Sherwin Williams Company, gave a detailed presentation about the steps that they have taken recently to work towards sustainability. With it, he exemplified how a company can work very hard to ameliorate the symptoms of unsustainable practices without considering whether the result will actually be sustainable. According to Seitz, the existence of this “great Cleveland company” for almost 150 years, since 1866, is “itself ... a statement of sustainability”. So has sustainability now been reduced to longevity or economic strength? And is 150 years really that long? Seitz also touted his company's invention of the first latex paint in 1941 as “a sustainability achievement before we knew what sustainability was”, as if carefully isolating artifacts from their environment with a thin layer of potent and finite chemicals was in any way relevant to the "needs of the present". Later, Seitz would explain that new product lines which now include sugar as an ingredient are “more sustainable”, without providing any of the accountability for the impact of this switch that the sustainability definition requires. They also have a product that “actively improves the environment” ... by absorbing bad smells.

Seitz informed us that sustainability “has to make economic sense”, and the main way that Sherwin Williams—like all of the businesses at the summit—promoted for making economic sense of sustainability was through efficiency improvements. Sherwin Williams has reduced their total electricity consumption by 6.3%; this 1200 GWh reduction leaves 17300 GWh of electricity consumption remaining. They also have reduced their solid wastes by 90%, but Seitz didn't mention how much energy it takes to recycle these solid wastes, or what they are doing about their chemical wastes. They are proud of the work they've done to literally streamline their shipping fleet; at an overall saving of 0.6 MPG, when they drive 40000000 miles a year, those savings add up ... to some positive number. What happens when you can no longer squeeze efficiency improvements from these systems? Don't increases in the size of the company quickly require more resources than were saved from these efficiency improvements?

One thing that shocked me emotionally was when I recognized Sherwin Williams's logo. It depicts a thick stream of red paint being poured over the Earth, in which is written the motto “Cover The Earth”. It's difficult to think of a more flagrant symbol for the relationship between our culture and our planet. So, while Seitz asserted that Sherwin Williams is “determined to leave this planet ... better than we found it”, it is hard to see how that requires a planet drowned in paint, or, less metaphorically, covered by a "coatings" company. In fact, I fail to see how that goal requires "coatings", at all.

After that word from our sponsor, we mixed up our ideas with our entire table, and then some tables presented their ideas for the summit to the entire group. Following that exercise, we heard very brief status updates from the working groups that had organized over the previous year, and then a panel of business representatives talked to us about “why sustainability and SC2019 matters to the future economic success of our region”. Once again we heard that it matters because of efficiency improvements that allow for cutting costs. A Piece Of Cleveland (APOC) has found a niche making new stuff from deconstructed building materials. Oh, and Wal-mart is happy to be selling more compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs). The moderator asked an interesting question about how businesses can justify moving from large buildings to slightly larger ones, with a couple of very apropos examples. The Eaton representative said that they have to move to support growth. Wal-mart said that they “do what's best for our customers” in the end. After the panel discussion, David Orr, a teacher at Oberlin College, wrapped up the first day of the summit with a very rousing speech on his impressive goals for sustainability in Oberlin, and how he wants to use that work as a model for the area and eventually the whole country.

The emphasis for the second day was on reorganizing the working groups for another year of action. This organization process was very strictly orchestrated, which left a general sense of unreality to the results. Or perhaps this feeling flowed from the fact that the process was not grounded in core principles. In any case, the other notable aspects of the second day included another panel, this time on “sustainable business practices”, and another live sponsor advertisement, this time from Ford. From the panel (“ten companies that represent all of you”), we learned that “sustainable business strategies get results” because “sustainability is not a cost center, but a profit center”. These panelists continued to preach the gospel of efficiency improvements. Tellingly, though, Forest City Enterprises, a national real estate business, noted that they expect “zero efficiency improvements ... for new buildings that don't have much that can be improved”. Are these new buildings, then, sustainable?

Our main daily advertisement came early in the day, though, when John Viera, Director of Sustainability and Environmental Policy for the Ford Motor Company enthused about Ford's approach to sustainability. Viera wanted to be clear that “the things we do need to make business sense”, although that clarity did not extend to sustainability: “sustainability means different things to different people”. In keeping with the theme, Ford's approach emphasizes efficiency improvements. Ford's goal is to work towards 450 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere, and since Ford's “CO2 footprint is predominantly vehicle emissions” (at 98%), that's the main focus of their efficiency improvements. To this end, Viera mentioned that “weight-reduction is really key for a sustainable strategy”, and he also highlighted Ford's EcoBoost technology, which allows their big trucks to run with six cylinders instead of eight.

In addition to efficiency of their gas cars, Ford is rolling out battery electric vehicles (BEVs) in 2010 and 2011, and a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) SUV in 2012. Viera noted that the payback window for their BEVs is 30 years, but also that that equation changes as “gasoline costs go up”. Aside from fuel efficiency, Ford is using soy instead of petroleum for some car materials; their vehicles are 85% percent recyclable. Ford is also concerned with the amount of water used in the manufacturing process. They achieved a 50% reduction in water use, to 25 million m3, from 2003–2009. The company is trying to avoid conflict minerals, which come “from some pretty ugly areas”. As an example of an ugly area, Viera mentioned the Democratic Republic of the Congo, accusing China of exploiting the area. For all of this, Viera claimed that Ford wants to do “more good ... not just less bad”.

Mayor Jackson closed the summit by praising the energy that was displayed over the two days, and encouraging us to channel that energy into action over the coming year. And thus we dispersed, feeling individually energetic but, lacking a cohesive core, collectively divided. Perhaps we might try to find a way to make or save money by increasing efficiency in our homes or businesses, or maybe we might buy a Ford, perhaps with a Sherwin Williams coating.

This page was last modified on 2010-09-26 17:49:00-04:00.

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