Mario Sanchez

Monday October 23, 2006

If you imagine a “green festival” as a communal gathering overly populated with hemp and tie-dye clad hippies nostalgic for simpler times of peace and love, then the 2006 Washington, D.C. Green Festival probably would not have fit the mold. Sure, you could fill your closet with the hemp products for sale there. But the activities and participants at the Green Festival proved that green has gone mainstream.

Until recently, living in an eco-friendly, environmentally sustainable way was a choice that required forgoing some modern comforts and amenities. But few Americans are willing to seriously reduce their consumption. In the last few years a number of factors, including heightened awareness of global warming and high gas prices, have dramatically increased the public’s interest in sustainable living, creating a new market for companies whose products support a convenient, yet globally responsible lifestyle.

Investors have taken notice and a deluge of funds have poured into what is perceived to be a growth market. Just last month, during the Clinton Global Initiative, Sir Richard Branson, head of the Virgin Group empire, pledged to spend $3 billion to fight global warming by investing in environmentally friendly industries.

Such mainstream acceptance of the Green movement was in full display at the Green Festival. It was an event of music, film, food, education, entertainment, and shopping, encompassing everything from socially responsible investment plans and MBA programs in sustainable enterprise to yoga classes and an organic food court.

A prominent display on the convention center floor, the Green Technology and Travel section featured a variety of alternative fuel vehicles, including a biodiesel school bus and a hybrid Metro bus. Former Maryland Governor Parris Glendening, who is currently president of the Smart Growth Leadership Institute, said, “[Alternative fuels] are a good step forward, but there is a lot more to be done, including that we have to rely less on cars, more on mass transit, more on living in urban locations.” In 2006 alternative fuel vehicle sales soared, pushing the total number of alternative fuel vehicles on U.S. roads to more than 9 million.

Products like hybrid cars help the green movement reach out beyond its typical niche market to populations that haven’t traditionally been involved in the push for sustainability, such as the politically apathetic. Hybrids are the model solution that the green movement should strive for. Driving a hybrid car doesn’t require a behavioral change the way recycling and conservation do, and thus is more attractive to consumers who are unwilling to change their established habits.

In a panel discussion on Urban Youth Protecting the Environment, a group of local high school and college students involved with the Student Conservation Association discussed how SCA is ensuring minority access, inclusion, and parity throughout the District of Columbia and the nation’s conservation workforce. Monikah Baltimore, a student at School Without Walls Senior High School, commented that since she began her involvement with SCA, her family has “started to recycle a lot more, gone on more hiking trips, and begun riding bikes more often to help the environment.” And Jean Baptista, a student at Cesar Chavez Public Charter School, talked about how his involvement with SCA has led his uncle to discover the advantages of recycling and helping the environment.

The green movement is trying to reach students even younger than high school aged. Attendee Bret Schenewerk, a University of Texas student, attributed his interest in the Green Festival to his participation in the Cub Scouts, which taught him early in life the environmental benefits of recycling. Several attractions at the festival were marketed toward young children, including a full jungle and climbing wall, encouraging a new generation to value environmental sustainability from as early in their lives as possible.

If any one feature of the conference exemplified the far-reaching advances the green movement has made into American business culture, it was the Socially Responsible Investing Pavilion, where financial companies presented a range of investment opportunities for the environmentally conscience. If Wall Street has taken notice and is willing to put money on green industries, then it’s safe to bet that this isn’t your hippie parents’ green revolution.

Barry Wind of Progressive Asset Management summed up the direction of the current green movement when he stated that the goal is, through investment, to “proactively change the corporate paradigm” and “change the corporate culture” in favor of the environment and sustainability. We can all raise a toast of organic wine to that.

Mario Sanchez is a senior at the University of Texas at Austin. This semester he is interning with the Domestic Policy team at the Center for American Progress