How to turn adversity into green opportunities

When hearing about sustainability champions, do you get a sense that their superpowers come from another planet? Do their actions and efforts seem like X-Men qualities that no mere mortal could “just do.” In being introduced to three sustainability champions at Sustain Dane’s Badger Bioneers conference on Nov. 18, we noticed a shared power that isn’t limited to superheroes: turning a (perceived) catastrophic event into an opportunity for sustainability to shine.

The first accidental champion we were introduced to was John C. Warner, one of the founders of the green chemistry movement and a featured speaker from the national Bioneers conference. He was already a successful industrial chemist when his 2-year-old son died of complications from a birth defect. At Bioneers, he told the audience that it was this event that made him pause and think, “What if it was something I touched that caused his birth defect? What if it was something I created?” After working at the Polaroid Corp. for nearly a decade, he joined the University of Massachusetts at Boston, where he started the world’s first green chemistry Ph.D. program.

Green chemistry involves creating new materials that are also nontoxic and safe. Not only will these new materials — everything from nontoxic hair dye (that isn’t really dye) to a formaldehyde-free wood composite —benefit society and the environment, they will also provide a less expensive resource for industrial use. Warner’s shift came from putting a person at the center of chemistry — which is exactly how tomorrow’s scientists are being trained as sustainable green chemists.

Whole Trees co-founder Roald Gundersen, who was a distinguished speaker at Badger Bioneers, explained that trees are stronger than milled lumber. This insight came from an unfortunate experience involving the structural failure of a two-by-four. He wondered, “Could a whole tree be stronger than this?” This hunch turned out to be well placed. A whole, unmilled tree can support 50% more weight than the largest piece of lumber milled from the same tree.

The benefits of using whole trees go beyond their strength. By using whole trees, you are using locally sourced material (at least the ash trees will find a second use) and labor, and you’re also promoting healthy forest management. Round timbers are a sustainable, cost-effective alternative to steel, concrete, and other heavy timber products. With more than 20 years of experience with natural building, Gundersen is ready to move into the commercial building industry. The scaling up of such an idea didn’t happen overnight. Rather it started from recognizing the single tree that could withstand a storm and then seeing a forest of possibilities.



Finally, Jen Voichick, founder of Habitat ReStore in Madison, was honored as one of our 2014 Badger Bioneers. Having worked as a carpenter for 14 years, she noticed the incredible amount of waste and materials from the building industry that go into landfills. When she began to have health issues and needed to find a new career, her thoughts went back to how she could reduce this waste while supporting her local community. By partnering with Habitat for Humanity of Dane County, the Habitat ReStore has diverted more than 4,500 tons of materials from Dane County landfills, and sales have provided enough income to build 28 Habitat for Humanity homes per year in Dane County. Voichick’s idea for reducing building material waste was just that — an idea. She has proven that the opportunities to be a sustainability champion are all around us when we’re given the time and space to make it happen.

As these champions have shown, you do not have to be a sustainability guru from the get-go. Nor do sustainability business opportunities have to be limited to “green alternatives” — they can also have a real competitive advantage in the marketplace. As with most innovative breakthroughs, their origins are not always the result of planning but often come from a combined recipe of circumstance, awareness, and motivation.

So the next time something throws off your day-to-day routine or makes you stop in your tracks, take a moment to step back and reassess. Ask questions such as “could this be done sustainably?” Be willing to bravely create a new path, a new product, or a new service. And find your sustainability champion alter ego.

Want to hear from more local sustainability superheroes who didn’t wait for an accident to happen? Save the date for the MPower Champion Public Showcase on Jan. 23.

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