By Kay Nolan
MILWAUKEE — A sense of urgency for businesses to embrace energy efficiency and sustainability — along with a frustration with politics — prevails at the fifth annual Green Energy Summit.
The four-day event at the Frontier Airlines Center, which began Wednesday, brings together businesses, educational institutions, environmental agencies, water and wind technology councils and students.
Presenters minced no words, echoing each other with strong statements like “Climate change science is settled,” “Water is the new oil” and “Today’s shortages will be tomorrow’s wars.” Speakers displayed world maps showing areas of natural disasters and water shortages and compared today’s energy issues to seminal global events like World War II and the falling of the Berlin Wall.
Other images, such as a photo of President George H.W. Bush signing environmental laws, were used to underscore another often-repeated theme: that energy conservation efforts should transcend politics.
Speakers said large corporations have embraced sustainability, debunking the notion that all proponents are “liberals” or “tree-huggers.”
“We’re talking solar panels, not polar bears,” said Andrew Winston, author of “The Greening of Business: Why It’s Not Optional, and How Companies Profit From It.” Winston offered numerous examples of energy-saving measures undertaken by major companies including PepsiCo, CocaCola, Wal-Mart, GM and UPS — measures that he said improved revenue and reduced costs.
Corporate executive John Matthews of Diversey Inc. in Racine provided a Wisconsin-based example. He described how his company developed a successful new product line of commercial floor-cleaning systems designed to save gallons of water compared with old-fashioned mop-and-bucket methods. Diversey, part of the Johnson Family companies, also cut its light bills by 8 percent by rescheduling its own cleaning crew from night to daytime hours.
Matthews advised companies to use language that describes sustainability as driving profit instead of “balancing people, planet and profit.” If you refer to carbon as “waste,” you’ll get more corporate buy-in, he said. If you treat carbon as a social issue, it will be less effective, he said.
Tom Eggert, executive director of the Wisconsin Sustainable Business Council, also urged corporations to separate conservation efforts from politics. “Businesses are on the sustainability bandwagon. Businesses ‘get’ it,” said Eggert. “Politicians are better followers than they are leaders. When I started teaching in sustainability in the mid-’90s, I only used examples of what businesses were doing. It wasn’t federal or state governments pushing this.”
Eggert and Winston noted, however, that businesses are likely to feel increasing social pressure to go green. “A host of Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Evangelical organizations agree that unsustainable behavior will hit the world’s poor the hardest and that we have a moral duty to respond,” said Eggert.
Dean Amhaus, executive director of the Milwaukee Water Council, says sustainability translates into jobs. The state’s 130 water-related companies provide 20,000 jobs and coordinate the efforts of 100-plus scientists, he said.
Jerry Murphy heads New North, working in the Fox Valley to market Wisconsin as a hub for manufacturing wind turbine components. He said the current political climate under GOP Gov. Scott Walker is not helping. Hundreds of Wisconsin companies that formerly made auto parts or paper industry components have the worker skills and manufacturing experience to convert to wind industry production, he said. But the perception that the state doesn’t support wind energy generation casts a negative light, he said.
Green Energy Summit chairman George T. Stone echoed frustration with Walker and the politicizing of environmental issues.
“We’re here to talk about opportunities for the future from a knowledge base, not a political agenda,” said Stone. “If you’re interested in the best interest of the citizens and the future economic development of this state, you have to address issues on the basis of knowledge, not demonize and politicize issues.”