Sustainable communities, sustainable businesses: A business summit at the DNC

Published on September 6, 2012

By Julia Hawes, The Progressive Pulse

CHARLOTTE — Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) looked to an unlikely source of inspiration when speaking to a crowd of business leaders at the Democratic National Convention on the importance of building sustainable businesses and communities. That source was his father — a preacher whom Rep. Clyburn credited with teaching him a lesson on how to approach the world of business, and how that business can serve its community and the greater good.

“Stewardship,” Rep. Clyburn said. Based on his father’s teachings, the Congressman learned the importance of responsibly managing one’s resources. Cleaning up the environment first and foremost, and becoming a more resourceful nation could make all the difference in leaving something better for the next generation.

“I believe we need to build a future for our children,” he said. “I believe, as my dad would say, that we need to provide good stewardship over our environment.”

Indeed, stewardship — in business, in our communities, and in addressing environmental challenges — was the name of the game at a summit Wednesday morning led by the American Sustainable Business Council, featuring business leaders from across the U.S. who gathered to explore how both policy and business engagement might help build a more sustainable economy.

“We need to look at using capital to build a sustainable economy and socially conscious businesses,” said Frank Knapp, president of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce, who moderated a panel about “responsible capital” and its role in fostering local economic development. “Capital turned upside down during the Recession. We have to go outside the box.”

Challenges run rampant for businesses in a climate that doesn’t always favor those with a mind for sustainability, which is almost always a long-term investment, often without immediately visible results. Jeffrey Hollender, co-founder of Seventh Generation, worried that there’s a fundamentally un-level playing field for businesses created by tax policies that don’t ask big businesses to pay their fair share.

“There are pockets of sustainability, but inequity, injustice, and unemployment are pulling us apart at the seams,” he said. Businesses are allowed, and even encouraged, he said, to do the “wrong thing.”

“They develop strategies that abuse the environment because it doesn’t cost them anything,” he said. Bad, unhealthy products are cheap, after all, while sustainable, healthy ones can often cost more at the onset.

Nikhil Arora is attempting to run a business based on the latter. He runs Back to the Roots out of Oakland, NC, an urban mushroom farm that utilizes the 40,000 pounds of coffee ground waste produced by a local coffee shop each week. The purpose of the company is mostly environmental — they’re turning trash into food, and donate their own compost to local schools’ urban gardens. But there’s also a focus on the company’s team sustainability as well. Arora said the company offers English and financial literacy classes to their own teams as well as those from other local farming and food companies from the area (tofu, kale, etc.)

Until the policies themselves fall into place, it seems many businesses and leaders may have to change the rules themselves — one business at a time.

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