Where profit meets environmentalism, green sparks fly

By Daniel Cusick | 11/13/2015 08:11 AM EST

Rick Fedrizzi is sending a parting message as he steps down from the U.S. Green Business Council after two decades of infusing the building trades with an environmental ethic: Profit is the fuel that drives sustainability.

Rick Fedrizzi is sending a parting message as he steps down from the U.S. Green Business Council after two decades of infusing the building trades with an environmental ethic: Profit is the fuel that drives sustainability.

The co-founder and CEO of the group that coined the acronym LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), Fedrizzi built the green buildings movement from a room of efficiency-minded executives into one of the country’s pre-eminent brands in environmentalism.

Rick Fedrizzi
Rick Fedrizzi, co-founder and CEO of the U.S. Green Building Council. | Photo courtesy of BerlinRosen.

Today, the 60-year-old Syracuse, N.Y., native who built a career in the air conditioning industry before launching the council pulls no punches about what he believes led U.S. business from the days of using pollution to help measure economic output into the modern era of corporate sustainability metrics and green business principles.


"There are two key ways all businesses stand to gain from being environmentally conscious," Fedrizzi writes in his new book, "GreenThink," released this week.

"First, by eliminating waste and doing things more efficiently, companies save money," he says. "Second, by using sustainability to drive innovation new products become more effective, more desirable to customers, and thus more profitable."

Nowhere in Fedrizzi’s lexicon is there talk of businesses acting responsibly solely for the protection of the planet. Rather, Fedrizzi believes the primary driver behind green business is, and should be, profit.

Moreover, he says, many environmentalists’ deep distaste for profit motive as a catalyst to protect the world’s land, water, air and climate is as dated as the old industry adage that pollution rises and falls with economic productivity.

Shifting the ‘business bad, environment good’ mindset

"In the old narrative, what’s bad for the environment is good for the economy, and vice versa," Fedrizzi writes. "But take a look around. Environmental disasters are severely impacting the private sector."

In 2012 alone, he notes, a crippling summer drought caused $17.3 billion in agricultural losses, mostly in the Midwest, followed by upward of $65 billion in economic damage caused by Superstorm Sandy’s landfall on the Eastern Seaboard later that year.

Fedrizzi doesn’t see such events as anomalies, but as evidence that climate change is real and that American businesses have too much at stake to leave climate mitigation and adaptation strategies entirely to governments and nonprofits. The same holds true for conventional pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and particulates that reduce life expectancy but also rob the economy of trillions of dollars in productivity annually.

Even as it remains the most powerful change agent in the world, the U.S. business sector continues to squander or resist bold policy initiatives that could significantly reduce heat-trapping emissions from the environment.

All of this has led Fedrizzi to conclude "that we’re in the midst of a global environmental depression." Yet, "tragically, few people understand this, because they’re trapped in a half-century-old worldview in which the private sector and the environmental community are independent actors in a zero-sum game."

Fedrizzi’s solution is what he describes as "Environmentalism 2.0." It’s an overhaul of the traditional advocacy approach that has divided the country along political lines and ground progress on a national climate agenda to a halt.

Rather than define profit-making as the enemy of environmentalism, Fedrizzi believes that business and environmental values can coexist and even propel each other forward. Such cooperation has been borne out in the work of the USGBC and its spinoffs, including the Green Building Certification Inc., the Green Building Information Gateway and the Center for Green Schools.

Filling the big tent

"What I’ve learned over the last 25 years is that by involving business and industry in environmental problem-solving at the outset, we usually get to viable solutions in a fraction of the time it takes to get to solutions without business [leaders] at the table," Fedrizzi said in a telephone interview.

Moreover, businesses that have contributed to environmental problems in the past are often ideally positioned to apply core business principles of innovation, efficiency and profit motive to undo harms, he argues.

"It’s clear that a business-driven industrialized society has been the single largest contributor to climate change and the vast amount of carbon in the Earth’s atmosphere," Fedrizzi said. "But imagine if we could incentivize those same businesses with a significant return on investment for doing the right thing, [for] solving the climate problem while expanding their opportunity in the marketplace? That’s a fundamental shift from where we’ve been over the last 25 years."

Others who have worked closely with Fedrizzi since the USGBC’s founding in 1993 with partners David Gottfried and Mike Italiano say such ideas are at the heart of the organization’s "big tent" approach to environmental problem solving.

Alex Wilson, founder of the consulting firm BuildingGreen Inc., which preceded USGBC by nearly a decade, said in an interview that the growth of the USGBC, and especially LEED, into a globally recognized brand has done more to reduce the building sector’s environmental footprint than any other government or private-sector program introduced over the last half century.

"I think USGBC is a really interesting model, and a pretty unique one," Wilson said. "To have such a broad base of participation, and to draw from segments of both industry and the environmental community, including some groups that have traditionally been at odds, is a remarkable thing."

And while other major organizations — such as the Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council — have partnered with the private sector to achieve specific goals, none has brought more large corporations directly into its membership base as the USGBC.

Growth through profits, not good intentions

Among the USGBC’s platinum members are Kimberly-Clark Corp., the paper and consumer goods giant, and United Technologies Corp., the world’s largest manufacturer and provider of building technologies — from commercial heating, air conditioning and ventilation systems to elevators, escalators and building automation systems.

Fedrizzi points to United Technologies, his former employer, as a leading example of how businesses can step into the environmental realm without compromising profit motive.

Since 2004, the Fortune 500 company, which owns the air conditioning and refrigeration giant Carrier Corp. and the jet engine firm Pratt & Whitney, has reduced its carbon footprint by more than 30 percent while also pressing its suppliers to set and meet environmental sustainability metrics. At the same time, UTC’s revenues soared to $65 billion in 2014, driven by strong demand for its engines and building system products in countries like China.

Lately, UTC has extended its green buildings commitment into the public health realm. Last month, UTC-sponsored research from experts at Harvard University, the State University of New York and Syracuse University found that people who work in green buildings have cognition scores 101 percent higher on average than those who work in conventional buildings.

The company also has achieved LEED certification for 12 manufacturing and office facilities around the world, including U.S. plants in Huntington, Ind., and Charlotte, N.C.

While such measures have greatly benefited the USGBC, to which UTC has donated millions of dollars, and helped expand LEED certification to places as far away as China and India, Fedrizzi maintains that UTC’s commitment has little to do with good deeds.

"UTC is becoming more sustainable for a simple, powerful reason," Fedrizzi writes in "GreenThink," "one that has motivated every enterprise and entrepreneur throughout history: to make more money."