Solar panels that only the rich can afford. Urban bike-share programs that limit participation to those using credit cards. Pricey organic grocery stores for communities where many people rely on SNAP benefits. No matter how well-intentioned, if a solution isn't appropriate for part of the population, then it is not truly a sustainable solution.
In the five videos below, all produced at GreenBiz events, we hear a constant refrain: If we want sustainability solutions to be effective and lasting, and sustainable in their own right, they must address diverse interests. This involves reaching out to low-income communities and communities of color as bases of knowledge and experience. This also makes business sense — companies that consider these communities with their sustainability strategy have the opportunity to grow their customer base and markets.
If nothing else, these videos entreat us to stop for a moment when we hear a proposed solution, be it a new city policy or a new mobile app, and to ask ourselves, "A solution for whom?"
1. Van Jones and Tom Steyer on the business opportunity of including all
In a conversation at VERGE 15, two icons of the climate movement — Van Jones, CNN political correspondent, founder of the non-profits Dreams Corps and Green For All, and a former Obama White House advisor; and Tom Steyer, philanthropist business leader and founder of NextGen Climate — discussed ways in which the climate movement can expand to include all. One place they point often for evidence: California.
"The only the way to talk about energy, environment and climate is about local human issues," said Steyer. "If you’re not talking about job creation, relative costs [and] health impacts, then you’re not speaking to the people of California."
Moreover, community inclusion and coalition building in the decision-making process can make solutions even more resilient in the face of criticism. "You cannot now roll back climate policy in California because too many people were at the table designing it and too many people benefit," Steyer noted. "The more people you have on the front end, the more people will be with you on the back end."
2. Energy equity: How community power empowers communities
The poorest 20 percent of Americans pay the most for electricity, an amount that often represents 10 percent of their total household income. Michelle Moore, CEO of nonprofit Groundswell, led a panel at VERGE 16 about the emerging project development and finance models that are empowering urban and rural communities.
In particular, community solar has the potential to transform access to affordable clean energy for low-income households if deployed with equitable project finance models that scale with the market instead of depending on subsidies. Trenton Allen, CEO of Sustainable Capital Advisors, offered a vision for what that would look like.
"The biggest part of scale is how do we create the mechanisms for aggregation," he said. "We’re looking at how we can take that single consumer and put them into larger pools, and looking at how we can evaluate the pool, which allows us to scale. This will give us greater access to capital, greater access to projects, greater buying power, [and] better opportunity for businesses to participate."
3. Tackling poverty and pollution together
Poverty and pollution are not separate issues. They unfortunately often go hand in hand, with the most impoverished people suffering the brunt of pollution’s health impacts.
Vien Truong, national director of Green For All, challenged business and tech leaders at VERGE 2015 to take on these two related issues by building services and products that improve life in all communities and help clean up the air and water.
Doing so, she said, would help companies build their customer base by reaching new markets in new communities. Clean tech for all, she said, is a win-win approach.
"Poverty and pollution, these issues traditionally have been seen as so big they have to be tackled separately. What we now understand is that these issues are so interconnected they have to be tackled together," she said.
4. People-powered places (and the infrastructure that supports them)
Creating resilient communities takes more than good leaders and the latest technologies. It takes people power — informed and engaged citizens weighing in on what will make their neighborhoods more healthy, equitable and verdant.
In a conversation at VERGE 2015 that spanned from smarter investment in infrastructure to crowd-sourced experiential data collection, Harriet Tregoning, head of community planning and development with the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department, and Antwi Akom, co-founder and executive director of i-SEEED, a nonprofit that seeks to solve urban problems through technology, discussed the current obstacles and missing links to creating resilient communities, and how businesses can step in to fill those gaps.
5. Planting seeds of social innovation
For New York public school teacher Stephen Ritz and the students participating in his hybrid urban farming and workforce development program, the Green Bronx Machine, growing fresh produce in an unconventional inner city setting goes hand in hand with upward mobility and community revitalization.
Ritz works in the South Bronx, the poorest congressional district in the United States — where 40 percent of residents live in poverty and 37 percent experience food scarcity. His students grow fruits and vegetables in school classrooms in response to daunting socio-economic challenges, such as skyrocketing obesity and health complications in neighborhoods lacking access to affordable, nutritious food. He can rattle off some amazing statistics from his work: more than 100 farms in schools, and his students have grown over 30,000 pounds of vegetables and secured more than 2,200 jobs.
"My favorite crop is organically grown citizens — graduates, members of the middle class, kids who are going to college," Ritz said at GreenBiz 15.