By Monica Von Dobeneck - The Patriot-News
Photo – BGI
After a successful career as a businessman and author, the younger Pinchot opened a graduate school in 2002 in Seattle offering the first master’s business degree in sustainability in an effort to show that business can be green and profitable. The Bainbridge Graduate Institute has about 200 students and has served as an example to other universities.
In a telephone interview, Pinchot talked about business, the environment, social justice and the role of government in promoting green standards.
If business does not deal with environmental problems, they will not be solved, he said.
Q: Tell me about your school.
A: Students range in age from 22 to 65, with an average of 34. Most are working for private or nonprofit companies. They get a lot of practical experiences, like going into companies to analyze their carbon footprints. Sustainability is emphasized in every course. The appetite for this type of education is exploding.
Q: What are your graduates doing?
A: One built a methane digester which provides 700 kw of power. It helps dairy farmers rid themselves of their manure lagoons and provides bedding and fertilizer.
He’s now building a second which will heat a greenhouse. It’s profitable.
One saved 1 million tons of carbon emissions as head of sustainability for a Fortune 10 company, so her company can use less energy.
Two students started a business delivering lunches by bicycle in Portland. I thought it sounded silly, but they are now opening a second service in another town and they are being copied by others.
One working for a forest products company arranged for a cost competitive soy based glue to replace formaldehyde in plywood.
Q: How receptive are companies to green practices?
A: All the big companies are taking sustainability seriously.
Q: It seems some companies use “green” as a marketing ploy without changing much of their practices.
A: My other grandfather told me, “never underestimate the value of hypocrisy.” General Electric came out with “ecomagination” as a marketing idea. Fast forward, they discovered that their greatest growth came from their “eco” products. They realized it’s also a business strategy, and now they’re serious.
Q: Has the U.S. fallen behind other countries in developing alternative energy?
A: We were dominant in wind power but we lost that to Denmark and Germany.
We let the solar business go to Japan. We can catch up if we get serious about it.
Q: What is the role of government in promoting green strategies?
A: Government incentives can be very helpful. Solar is a good example. Solar needs incentives now, but the cost is coming down and it will grow to the point it doesn’t need incentives. Even modest subsidies can tip the balance. But thinking green also has benefits to companies.
Q: As the political winds are changing and everybody is worried about government spending, grants for green practices are drying up. How important is politics in developing green strategies?
A: Political winds are a minor factor. The issues of environmental problems won’t go away, the disparity between rich and poor won’t go away. We may have global warming deniers, but temperatures are going up and will continue to go up.
Most companies work in a global marketplace, so it doesn’t much matter what the laws in the U.S. are, they sell in all major markets.
Q: Will shareholders looking for quick profits delay green practices in companies?
A: There are trillions of dollars in the socially responsible investment movement. That’s not just from individuals, but from investment funds of unions and pensions. It’s a big, important movement.
Q: What do sustainable business practices mean to employees?
A: Employees don’t get out of bed in the morning to make money for shareholders.
But they might in order to make a better world. Companies using sustainable practices usually outperform because they open their employees to work on something that inspires them.
Q: Is the poor economy making it harder for companies to implement sustainable practices?
A: The way out of the recession is through spending on green infrastructure. There is a distinction between investment and expense spending. The next boom will be fueled by green infrastructure.
Q: How important is your grandfather’s legacy to what you are doing now?
A: My grandfather died when I was 4, so I didn’t know him well. My father was a very active environmentalist, and I grew up sheep-dipped in the conservation philosophy. The legend of Gifford Pinchot was also about people. He was supportive of the idea that forests had economic value for their timber supply, but he wanted the forests to benefit all citizens, not just the timber barons.