It’s Just Good Business
A look at how three leaders in environmental management are fighting to strengthen our economy through sustainability.
In a world dominated by grim environmental headlines — coastal erosion, climate change, loss of biodiversity — it’s heartening to find stories of positive action. The good news is there are plenty of these stories in south Louisiana: change makers building a more symbiotic relationship between the economy and the environment.
Biz New Orleans takes a deeper look at three of these leaders: Bethany Kraft, director of the Ocean Conservancy’s Gulf Restoration Program; Liz Shephard, CEO of LifeCity; and Robin Barnes, executive vice president and COO of Greater New Orleans, Inc. — all are working with the private, public and not-for-profit sectors to transform the region’s environmental challenges into economic assets and make Louisiana a model of resilience and preparedness for communities around the globe.
Saving the Gulf: Bethany Kraft
Director, Ocean Conservancy’s Gulf Restoration Program
Photo Jeff Johnston
Though she has spent her life in states across the Gulf Coast, it took the BP oil spill for Bethany Kraft to fully appreciate the interconnectedness of the coast’s various ecosystems. In the wake of the spill, Kraft left her job with an environmental non-profit organization focused on coastal Alabama to join Ocean Conservancy, a national organization, and its efforts to aid the Gulf region’s recovery. Kraft’s “playground” now runs from Texas to Florida, and while she is located in Louisiana, she has come to believe that the best results will come only by looking beyond borders.
“We try to think, from Texas to the Florida coast, what are the restoration projects that will be most impactful? How will what’s happening in Louisiana benefit Florida? How will Florida benefit Alabama? Rooting for the home team is not going to be enough to get us where we need to go as a region, and we try to carry that message with the science to back up our priorities,” she says.
Kraft and her colleagues advocate a comprehensive approach to restoration, which is a delicate balancing act. “You can’t just do one type of project or focus in one region, but you also can’t spread everything so thin that you can’t tell at the end of the day what you’ve spent $10 billion on. There are a lot of good projects out there.”
With so many individuals and localities lobbying for their own interests, decisions aren’t always easy. As Kraft says, “Sometimes science and politics collide. But we really try to infuse what science says is the right thing to do into this global construct for restoration. Sometimes I joke and say if everybody’s mad at you, you know you’re doing the right thing.”
“ People are coming here for the place. Without the place, there is no economy.” - Bethany Kraft
The BP spill also taught Kraft how little the environmental community at large understood about the ecosystems they were trying to protect. “BP’s fines were predicated on what the conditions in the Gulf were the day before the spill. If you can’t make a sensible case because you haven’t been measuring or monitoring, you are in trouble. You have to really understand how your ecosystem is functioning. This is an economy that thrives in accordance with how our environment thrives. That was a wake-up call for a lot of people.”
That wake-up call has sounded ever more loudly with each disaster striking over the past decade. Kraft believes this is an important development. “This whole concept of environmental protection versus economic growth as some sort of zero sum game is an illogical fallacy. That has never been the case, especially in a place where the economy is driven by natural resources. If you want to make money fishing or on tourism, you won’t make that money if there are no fish or the beaches are polluted with oil. People are coming here for the place. Without the place, there is no economy.”
Kraft also espouses the economic benefits that come with the work of restoration. “There are jobs to be had rebuilding wetlands and oysteries, planting trees. There is room for everybody — laborers, landscape architects, engineers, construction firms — to make money. We can grow our economy and take care of our natural resources. And anyone who tells you that you can’t, you should be very suspicious of.”
She also cautions against relying on disaster to spur communities to take action, encouraging them to act now, “while we still have a choice. Why wouldn’t we try to make things easier on the next generation by working on some of these tough issues while we still have options on the table?”
Ultimately, Kraft hopes that a more widespread commitment to action will put her out of a job. “I would love to be in a place where we don’t need environmental advocates because we are all environmental advocates.”
GDP for the Five Gulf States = $2.3 trillion/year
Current Threats to the Gulf Include:
• Lingering effects of BP oil spill
• Coastal erosion
• The dead zone
To be a part of the solution, visit OceanConservancy.org.
Helping business work Smarter: Liz Shephard
Photo Jeff Johnston
Liz Shephard’s commitment to sustainability was sparked during her six-week Semester at Sea program in college, where she was instructed to take the trash from the 125-foot sailboat’s galley and dump it overboard. “For an environmental organization, I was kind of shocked that they were asking us to dump the trash into the ocean, but in reality, it hit me that I’ve been doing that my entire life — I just never had to actually do it myself.”
After a volunteer program brought her to New Orleans, Shephard “fell in love with the city and the intentionality of people living here.” She came up with the idea for LifeCity as a software platform to help people identify and understand the environmental resources and operations in their communities, but she didn’t want to build a software platform before she had people to use it. Instead, she built a community of businesses and individual consumers “who want to do the right thing but don’t necessarily know how… and make it easy and affordable to make choices that support healthier planetary and human resources.”
Shephard and a team of colleagues have spent the last five years building that community and growing LifeCity into an organization that helps companies across a range of sectors adopt more sustainable policies and practices.
To be clear, for Shephard, sustainability isn’t just about the environment. It also includes social impact and making choices that benefit communities as a whole. “Most environmental consultants will focus on one issue or area, and most green certifications only talk about the environment. What we have created is a holistic certification that measures both environmental and social impact, because they are deeply connected,” says Shephard.
LifeCity also brings a local perspective to its assessments, taking into account factors like the local geological impact of subsidence or flood management — things that national organizations may not recognize. And they are committed to supporting clients at any stage in the sustainability journey: “You might be just learning about this, you might be a leader in this — we work with you no matter where you are.”
“The trick is to help people realize this isn’t about politics or making you feel like you did something wrong or have to spend more money to do the right thing. This is about being a smart business.” -Liz Shephard
Shephard believes in making the process fun as well. “A lot of environmental groups have this kind of doom and gloom approach. We say, ‘Hey, this is good. This is not so good. And this not-so-good stuff is an opportunity.’” She also acknowledges that “green” and “sustainable” have become loaded terms that can get in the way of good intentions. “The trick is to help people realize this isn’t about politics or making you feel like you did something wrong or have to spend more money to do the right thing. This is about being a smart business.”
Shephard’s strongest argument to potential clients is just that: Incorporating sustainability is simply good business. “Most people are just working in their silo — they don’t realize there are ways to be more efficient, to partner, to save money.”
In fact, Shephard often encounters companies who don’t even realize they are making sustainable choices. “I talked to an event planner who buys everything reused for table tops because it’s cheaper. I said, ‘That can be a marketing opportunity for you.’ I meet companies all the time that do things because it saves money, and they are not realizing that this is something they can actually be proud of.”
LifeCity recently helped both Shell and GNO, Inc. make greener office moves, bringing in partners who picked up waste for free and resold those items in the economy; an organizer who made the moves more efficient; and a moving company committed to recycling materials. They might be called upon “when the Sheraton is getting rid of their furniture or has a big conference coming in that wants to do a volunteer activity, and a local school needs garden beds — we can connect those relationships,” says Shephard.
As she looks to the future, Shephard is seeking funding to get that software platform off the ground, a move that will enable LifeCity to broaden its impact beyond New Orleans to communities around the world. The organization is also driving an initiative called Value Louisiana, which supports the growth of “for benefit” organizations, which Shephard describes as companies that are both “profit driven and mission driven.” Shephard is encouraged by the critical role that businesses can play in addressing our community’s toughest social and environmental issues: “Businesses are going to be more efficient at solving these problems because they are going to have a more direct relationship with the market they are serving.”
In 2015, LifeCity’s business members had a marked impact on the local environment while helping their bottom line.
• 660,395 pounds of waste diverted from landfills
• 270,000 gallons of water saved through efficiency and conservation
• 2 tons of carbon reduced through transportation and energy improvements
• $1,147,252 in cost savings
For more information, visit MyLifeCity.com.
Building resilience: Robin Barnes
Executive Vice President and COO, GNO, Inc.
Photo Jeff Johnston
For Robin Barnes, the greatest asset our region has developed after a decade of disasters is resilience. And resilience is an area in which she has plenty of experience. Barnes helped hundreds of small businesses recover after 9/11 in New York, then moved to New Orleans 10 years ago to help Seedco Financial assist small businesses in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. It was her work with local fishermen and restaurants during that time that helped her develop a deep appreciation for the regional economy’s dependence on the environment.
“I felt that there was a missed opportunity when people talked about environmental issues that they were not actually talking about jobs and economic growth at the same time,” says Barnes. When she came to GNO, Inc., an economic development organization, she had the opportunity to connect those dots.
Barnes and her colleagues at GNO, Inc. believe the region’s continued growth rests on diversifying the economy and building social resilience. And environmental management, in areas such as water, is a critical part of that formula. Barnes points to coastal restoration, building green infrastructure, and implementing the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan (which GNO, Inc. administered and is now part of the city’s Resilient NOLA strategy) as promising areas of economic opportunity.
Even more exciting to Barnes is bringing that expertise to other communities around the world. Barnes’ aspirations in this area are modeled on the Netherlands, which exports its water management services, technology and expertise around the globe and has developed the sector into an engine responsible for 4 to 5 percent of the country’s GDP. “If I look a generation ahead, 30 years down the line, I would like to see Louisiana be able to identify GDP from environmental management, which is probably going to be largely water related.”
“What will tell us we have an industry is when we have a critical mass of companies that are generating revenue from water management.” -Robin Barnes
According to Barnes, there are 30,000 jobs in the Greater New Orleans region associated with water, ranging from construction to professional services, and GNO, Inc. projects that number to grow by 23 percent over the next decade. “But jobs do not an industry make,” says Barnes. “What will tell us we have an industry is when we have a critical mass of companies that are generating revenue from water management.”
That critical mass will only come from bringing our expertise to new markets. One of the most exciting strides in this area is the growth of RES/CON, an international conference on resilience and disaster management held annually in New Orleans, which Barnes hopes will become “the Davos of resiliency.” The 2016 conference, held in March, attracted participants from 18 countries and 37 states and included key partners such as 100 Resilient Cities, the Rockefeller Foundation and the International Association of Emergency Managers. “This is really about making Greater New Orleans the global hub of resilience… We’re looking to have RES/CON be where key practitioners, policymakers, funders, and students come to share information about resilient practices, disasters, and resilience management,” says Barnes.
She is also encouraged by growing awareness in the business community that the health of the environment and the health of the economy are closely linked. GNO, Inc. has sought to translate this awareness into action by creating the Coalition for Coastal Resilience and Economy, a group of business leaders making the case that coastal restoration is critical to economic stability and growth. “These are not companies that have a vested interest,” says Barnes. “They are not engineering firms or companies that are going to be getting contracts. These are bank presidents, managing partners of law firms, CEOs of manufacturing companies, investors. These are influential people who are on many boards and have vast networks who are now talking about this issue.”
What fuels Barnes most is not only hope, but the experience and commitment to transform that hope into results. “We’ve shown that we’re still here, that we’re going strong. We have a multitude of challenges, but now we have very real plans in place that have been adopted, that are now seeking funding, and that have a significant amount of funding. We can teach other cities that you can do this. We give other places hope.”
Environmental Initiatives from GNO, Inc. include:
• RES/CON – a three-day conference that brings together more than 500 leaders, advocates and specialists in resilience and disaster management from around the globe, along with over 100 companies. This year’s conference had an estimated economic impact of over $1 million.
• The Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan – Released in November 2013 following two-years of work, this plan directly addresses issues with groundwater and storm water that greatly affect Southeast Louisiana.
For more information, visit GNOInc.org.
Photo courtesy of New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center