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'Green' economy opens doors for eco-minded professionals

October 13, 2010

By Amy Roach Partridge

When Timonie Hood ‘92 J.D. began her career as an environmental activist in the mid-1980s, curbside recycling was still a new concept and the term “green building” referred to a building that was, literally, green. Hood says our society has come a long way since then.

Hood is one of a growing number of Americans — and ASU alumni — working in the so-called “new green economy,” a fast-growing sector that carries with it great hope for economic growth. While traditional jobs grew by only 3.7 percent nationwide between 1998 and 2007, clean energy and conservation jobs grew at a national rate of 9.1 percent, according to a 2009 Pew Charitable Trusts report. Growing financial support for green initiatives has come from both the private and public sectors — one huge boost came from nearly $85 billion slated for energy- and transportation-related programs as part of last year’s federal stimulus bill.

All these factors would seem to indicate that the green economy is poised to expand significantly.

“The green movement is not a fad. There has been a major shift in the way we think about industry and the way we think about our society,” says Sander van der Leeuw, dean of ASU’s School of Sustainability, the nation’s first school of sustainability.

What makes a job or a company “green” is still the source of much debate, and gauging the scope, size, and impact of the green economy is challenging. For its federally funded programs, the U.S. Department of Labor defines green jobs as those “involved in economic activities that help protect or restore the environment or conserve natural resources.”

But that still leaves plenty of gray areas. Is a company that uses eco-friendly packaging counted as green? Can a firm that donates a percentage of profits to environmental or social organizations say it is fostering sustainability? Because of growing public interest in environmentally conscious business practices, companies have rushed to declare themselves green, and a “greenwashing” effect has begun to emerge.

Amy Lively, internship coordinator for the School of Sustainability, said that some of her school’s students don’t even like to use “green” as shorthand to describe an environmentally conscious business.

“Many of our students cringe at the overuse of the word ‘green’—they see it as a marketing term that the public is getting tired of hearing about,” explains Lively. “They are embracing ‘sustainability’ instead, as a broad concept that is about implementing solutions to environmental and economic problems.”

Dan O’Neill ‘79 B.S., director for entrepreneurship and research initiatives at ASU SkySong as part of the university’s Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development, said that the term “green” also just doesn’t go far enough in describing the shift in mindset that has occurred.

“Sustainability is not just about being green, it is about taking a systemic view to find balance between the economy, the environment, and society,” said O’Neill, who is also a Ph.D. student in the School of Sustainability. “A green economy means that you have found a way to address environmental issues by incorporating them into the economic system.”

Growing Interest, Gaining Traction

Regardless of how you define or measure it, the idea of a green economy is attracting growing interest from students and companies alike. ASU’s School of Sustainability now offers bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees, while business, engineering, and law students can earn their degrees with a concentration in sustainability. Though only in its third academic year, the school has graduated more than 80 students and had approximately 600 students enrolled during the 2009-10 academic year. The School’s transdisciplinary approach is helping to make it a leader in sustainability education.

“Our idea is to harness as much of the university as we can — scientists and social scientists, humanities and arts people, business scholars — to think about, explore, and promote sustainability,” says van der Leeuw, who also directs ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change.

By encouraging students to think about how sustainability is interwoven with the economy and everyday life, the program prepares them to find real-world solutions to environmental, economic, and social challenges, he adds. And companies are chomping at the bit for employees with knowledge of sustainability issues.

“There is a real demand in the business world for people who have done substantive work on sustainability. A number of major companies now employ high-level managers to oversee sustainability efforts,” he said.

“Students often ask, ‘What can I do with this degree?’” Lively adds. “I respond by asking them, ‘What do you want to do with this degree?’ Do you want to work for a hospital? Own your own business? Work for the government, or in finance, or retail?’ Our program helps them figure out how to take a sustainable approach to any of those options.”

Students in the internship program Lively oversees have netted a rich range of experiences, which include calculating the carbon footprint of a hospital, designing an eco-friendly golf bag, and conducting an energy audit. And the school’s impressive, albeit short, list of alumni includes an assistant director of sustainability at a university, a recycling programs manager, and a solar photovoltaic analyst.

Jobs With a “Green Collar”

As the number of sustainability graduates grows, so too will the long and varied list of sustainability-driven careers, says Hood, who reports growing interest in an area known as “climaterials,” or the connection between climate change and the production of goods and materials.

“New research shows that more than one-third of greenhouse gas emissions are associated with the production of ‘stuff,’” she explains.

“Corporations are now looking to measure and assess manufacturing processes across their products’ entire lifecycles so they can gauge — and hopefully reduce — the carbon footprints associated with those products.”

Green building will be another big engine for domestic job creation, Hood asserts, adding that while new construction has been the primary focus of green builders to date, a shift is occurring now to make existing commercial and residential buildings more efficient and eco-friendly.

“The industry needs people who can look at groups of buildings in a system—the vast cookie-cutter suburbs, for example—and determine the best retrofits for those types of structures,” she explains.

Green Academics and Entrepreneurs

Academia will be another source of jobs for grads with sustainability knowledge, as universities across the country seek to develop and expand sustainability education, van der Leeuw notes. One School of Sustainability student who confirms that notion is Vairavan Subramanian ‘07 M.S.E., who is seeking a Ph.D. focused on product sustainability.

“There is a lot of research to be done on sustainability and I feel very certain that academic institutions will be looking for people with my background and education. Also, people in the business world need the expertise this kind of research can provide,” says Subramanian, whose own skill at combining research and business earned him a 2007 grant from ASU’s Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative. His proposed venture, Eco Imitation, looked at ways to create a biodegradable drinking straw made from food waste products.

Subramanian is far from alone at ASU in his desire to parlay sustainable ideas into viable businesses.

The Edson Initiative, which provides funding, training, and office space for student entrepreneurs, acts as a launching pad for students like Subramanian, whose green ideas are sprouting up all over the desert.

“Because this green movement is so hot right now, we are seeing a lot of green ventures,” says Scott Perkofski, program manager for Edson. “And because sustainability ventures are so new, there is a lot of exciting free-thinking about the industry.”

In addition to the Edson entrepreneurs, a growing number of the companies associated with the ASU Scottsdale Innovation Center, known as ASU SkySong, have a green focus. “We have quite a few sustainable ventures including solar, biofuel, and construction product companies,” says O’Neill.

Here Comes the Sun

Not surprisingly, a burgeoning community of solar entrepreneurs is also taking root in the Valley of the Sun, which enjoys more than 300 sunny days a year. American Solar, the largest installer of photovoltaic systems in Arizona, is a SkySong resident company, and China’s largest solar manufacturer, Suntech Power Holdings, recently announced that it will base its first U.S. manufacturing plant in Arizona, O’Neill notes. Some 50 other companies in the solar and renewable energy industry have made a home in the Phoenix metro area.

ASU is helping to boost this solar and renewable energy boom through LightWorks, an initiative that pulls together the university’s varied light-inspired research under one strategic framework.

“LightWorks embraces promising research that is creating third-generation solar panels using nanotechnology, employing cyanobacteria to create the basis of renewable liquid transportation fuels … and producing biodiesel and jet fuel from algae,” explains Gary Dirks, LightWorks director.

As the university focuses on seeding education, innovation, and business opportunities in an industry still in its infancy, forward-thinking students, alumni and faculty are playing a vital role in shaping an emerging sector of the national economy. And it’s possible they just may enjoy themselves doing it.

“Future job seekers thinking about what to spend their lives working on have the opportunity to find a career that can really make a difference,” says Hood. “Implementing changes that impact communities is the fun part about having a green job.”

Amy Roach Partridge is a freelance business writer based in Thornwood, N.Y.