Voices of Sustainability

Five years ago, Women in Green: Voices of Sustainable Design was published after Lance Hosey and I spent 18 months interviewing hundreds of people and trying to understand why it seemed like there was a preponderance of women doing “green” in many fields. Individual stories poured out and we assembled a suggestive but hardly conclusive collective story. We had the privilege of dipping in and were the beneficiaries of the generosity of an amazing community of creative people—but it’s clear that there is much more to discuss on the topic. We came away with an understanding that there are some sensibilities typically categorized as “female” by contemporary culture that tend to be effective in advancing sustainability goals. I’m reminded of this as I recall a recent conversation at Portland’s Living Future conference where I asked six people to engage in a dialogue with me about these sensibilities and how we can all find ways to cultivate and apply them.

Architect Bill Reed, of The Regenisis Group, whom I like to refer to as the uber-unpacker, talked about the need for us to start personal. He’s not talking about recycling at home before you try to start a business in the green space. He’s talking about a deep and personal knowing of yourself/life/place as a precursor for engagement with others.

Stacy Glass who works with the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, talked about the importance of entrepreneurship and risk-taking. She used her experience of founding CaraGreen, a sustainable materials company in North Carolina, which eventually transitioned away from her original plans for it, as a demonstration of learning from failure.

Lindsay Baker is working with Mary Davidge Associates for Google while she’s also working on a PhD at UC-Berkeley. She talked about the importance of cultivating persistent long-term relationships—with people and with buildings. “I think this is something that many women instinctively feel is important,” she said. “I think we are seeing—and valuing—more and deeper ways of engaging individuals, teams, facilities, and communities.”

Lance Hosey, architect/author and CEO of GreenBlue, my co-author on Women in Green, whose new book, The Shape of Green was just published, talked about how there seems to be a growing understanding in the business world that there is a real return on investment in green. “This is happening,” he said.

Architect Mara Baum, who leads HOK’s sustainable healthcare effort, highlighted the critical links between health and the environment. “For too long, we have seen ourselves as separate from what we do and make,” she said. “Understanding this link is something that can help us change our practices and our technologies.” The work of E.O. Wilson and others in defining and exploring biophilia goes a long way here; Baum sees powerful possibilities as we document the links between human wellness and environmental conditions such as access to light and views.

Dayna Baumeister, the co-founder of the The Biomimicry Guild, brought us around to the critical matter of listening and learning and sharing. Biomimicry, of course, is founded on the notion of our species learning to listen to nature as a model, mentor, and measure. Near the end, when the audience got involved, one person talked about how to be persuasive. This is a topic close to my heart: I think the need to find ways to tell the stories about failures and successes is most critical to ongoing learning for all of us. Baumeister, a passionate storyteller, pointed out that while data is important, how it is shared is still more important. “Who ever got passionate about data?” she asked. (Well, some people do: Mara Baum raised her hand.)  Bill Reed reiterated the importance of seeking unity between the qualitative and the quantitative. “I think we all know that we need both,” he said.

Sometimes being late has its benefits. Since I’m so tardy with filing this post (the last from this year’s Living Future “un”conference) I’ve had time to listen to commencement addresses that started populating the radio waves (yes, some of us still listen to those). I was struck that Barack Obama chose Barnard for his only commencement appearance this year. His eloquence and encouragement to (female) college grads (no easy task amidst what one might call a Recession Persistence Economy) was pragmatic, poetic, and celebrated the strong female role models in his life. The President mentioned that only three percent of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies are women. (He also remarked on the recent effort to address the persistent earning inequalities that met with little support in Congress.)

I was disappointed that in a recent McKinsey & Co. report on female leadership there was not an attempt to cross reference the familiar metrics with sustainability measures. I did, however, see a glimmer of hope: one of the women quoted in the study about “why she did not aspire to the ‘C-suite’” she said this: “I’m happy doing what I’m doing. I have 600 employees I manage. I enjoy interacting with them and giving them purpose. I want to leave a legacy of a sustainable, profitable business.”

Kira Gould, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP, is director of communications for William McDonough + Partners, an architecture firm with studios in Charlottesville, Virginia, and San Francisco. She is also co-author of Women in Green: Voices of Sustainable Design.

Categories: Sustainability