Tomorrow, millions of people in 192 countries will participate in Earth Day 2013 activities.
But for Susanne Croft, Monday is just another day – another opportunity to help local businesses and residents change past habits and build a better future.
Croft is executive director of Sustainable Resources INW, a small nonprofit dedicated to strengthening the community by encouraging people to, as Thoreau would say, “live deliberately” – to consider how what they buy and how they live affect the environment and, in turn, their own health and happiness.
She discussed her organization’s efforts, and why it’s important to support local businesses, during a recent interview.
S-R: What does “sustainability” mean to you?
Croft: It has to do with the broad range of decisions that impact our ability to, as they say, keep on keeping on. It’s not that we didn’t used to need to consider those decisions – it’s that we didn’t know we needed to.
The post-World War II effort to keep returning soldiers employed created our consumer economy. It also led to planned obsolescence and using up resources like there was no tomorrow. Well, now we’re in the “no tomorrow part” of that, and there are a lot of other things to think about – energy security, climate change, population growth.
S-R: So is sustainability a new idea?
Croft: It’s a way of packaging a lot of concepts our parents and grandparents lived by. I came into it because my mother taught home economics, and I grew up washing aluminum foil. I thought everyone did. And I was a Girl Scout practically forever, and learned to leave a place better than I found it.
That’s really what sustainability is about. It’s a way of thinking, like learning a foreign language. Once you really learn Spanish, you realize you’re thinking in Spanish and dreaming in Spanish. Likewise, once you embrace sustainability, you think about finding efficiencies, conserving resources, consider the human impact.
S-R: When you were young, what career did you envision for yourself?
Croft: My first master’s was in ancient Chinese language and literature. I quickly realized that in Seattle there were too many native speakers for me to be competitive, so I worked as a paralegal for 10 years. Then I got a master’s in urban planning, and worked for the city of Spokane in planning, local economic development, and eventually (in 2008) as Mayor (Mary) Verner’s sustainability coordinator.
S-R: What did being the city’s sustainability coordinator involve?
Croft: I wrote the state grant that funded a one-year position. I was staff to the mayor’s sustainability task force and structured all of the public outreach we did. We were one of the first local governments anywhere to simultaneously plan around energy security, climate mitigation – reducing greenhouse gas emissions – and climate adaptation.
S-R: What’s the city’s sustainability track record since then?
Croft: The city’s Green Team continues to find ways to implement the plan. From 2010 to 2012, I was on a citizen advisory committee that helped STA add a sustainability chapter to its comprehensive plan. And just this month, there’s a local food conference and a “new economy” conference at Gonzaga. The whole community is finding practical ways to embed (sustainability) in how they do things.
S-R: How did Sustainable Resources INW come about?
Croft: We started in 2005 as a group of friends looking at our own investments, realizing at least some of our money should be working locally, creating jobs and businesses that would make Spokane stronger. So we formed Sustainable Local Investment Partners (SLIP) as a nonprofit in 2007, and focused on finding ways for nonwealthy people to invest their money locally. In the past year – maybe because of the recession and the risks associated with Wall Street investments – the whole country has woken up to this concept. More investors want to keep their money in the community where they have relationships.
S-R: How does one do that?
Croft: You have to comply with SEC requirements. So if you’re an unaccredited investor, you have to have a pre-existing relationship with the business owner. The investment can be equity or debt. Just about every business right now is struggling with access to capital. That’s one of the big fallouts around the banking crisis.
S-R: Do you focus on green businesses?
Croft: It can be manufacturing, retail, a restaurant. Green jobs and green businesses aren’t limited to green building or clean tech. It has to do with how a business is run. Do they conserve resources? Do they operate efficiently? Do they reduce waste?
S-R: And SLIP led to Sustainable Resources INW?
Croft: Yes. A couple of years ago, we realized that if you’re going to invest in green businesses, there need to be green businesses. So we changed our name, and our focus is now on educating businesses and supporting their efforts to adopt sustainable practices.
S-R: How do you do that?
Croft: One way is our quarterly green business networking luncheons. We also provide sustainability assessments for SNAP’s green loan clients and others interested in tracking their sustainability performance. We teach people how to invest their money locally. We’re working with SFCC interns who will help businesses identify ways to reduce their utility costs. And we just took over the city’s SMART (Sustainable Management of Assets, Resources and Technology) business recognition program.
S-R: How do you pay the bills?
Croft: We get very little grant funding, and the luncheons don’t make money. So we’re pretty much fee-for-service at this point.
S-R: What were some early successes?
Croft: There was a huge vote of confidence in 2010 when I was still working at the city, and Avista asked us to coordinate an energy efficiency loan program they were putting together with federal stimulus money. That and an early retirement incentive offered by the city were what encouraged me to become our first staff person.
S-R: Is anyone else in Spokane doing what you do?
Croft: Not that I’m aware of – especially not from a nonprofit standpoint. There are some consulting firms, like McKinstry, working with large companies on specific system improvements, such as heating and air conditioning. We’re more focused on education.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Croft: Making a difference. Helping the community find its way to a stronger future.
S-R: What’s your biggest challenge?
Croft: I’d like to work more with individual businesses, but this economy has put so much pressure on them that they don’t have the luxury of looking up very often.
S-R: What about American culture encourages you the most?
Croft: We have a history of being resourceful and finding our way out of fixes. The key to sustainability is being creative.
S-R: What worries you?
Croft: It’s not human nature to make radical changes until what you’re doing becomes more uncomfortable than the change. The problems we’re facing are very real and very big, but they’re not as obvious at a local level, so they don’t tend to motivate people to action as quickly as maybe we should be moving.
S-R: Are there any common misconceptions about sustainability?
Croft: People jump to the conclusion that it’s expensive, when it’s the exact opposite. If you were going to do anything under the brand of sustainability and it was going to cost you more than you would ever recover, you shouldn’t do it, because saving money is part of the equation. But you have to factor in the long-term cost of something, so it’s a different way of looking at costs.
S-R: How does Spokane compare with other communities?
Croft: Typically we’re a little slower to adopt new ideas, but once we get on board we really dive in. And I think we’re moving right along.
S-R: What are some of the hard choices we face?
Croft: Getting outside our comfort zone and trying something new. It can be as simple as wanting to start riding a bus, but not knowing how to do it.
S-R: What’s been hardest for you?
Croft: I’m not a chemist. I know I should pay more attention to what I put on my skin – beauty products, shampoo – but I read the lists and they don’t mean anything to me. That’s why our June luncheon is about green beauty – to help people make those choices.
S-R: What one change would you encourage people to make starting today?
Croft: Think about who you do business with. It makes a huge difference to the health of our community and our local economy when we make and source as much locally as we can. Local businesses typically provide better service, they create jobs and they keep their profits in the community.
S-R: Pretend you’re speaking to an adult audience. What would you say?
Croft: Think about the world you want your children to grow up in.
S-R: And what would you tell their children?
Croft: I’m sorry we created a problem for you. I’ll try to help you figure out how to solve it.