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Sustainability in the Recession

The Green Living Reps & the Harvard Office of Sustainability have been discussing some of the impacts of the recession on the sustainability movement. While there are challenges in an economic downturn, there are also amazing opportunities.

The recession. While it has only been “official” since the NBER announcement a couple months ago, we’ve all been feeling the effects for some time. It has certainly affected our decisions: from choosing a network job search (versus relying on the Job Bank) to vacationing in the Caribbean (versus the more glamorous and expensive South Pacific). For those of us with a passion for the environment, another question looms: what impact will this economic climate have on the world’s focus on sustainability? Will people change their decisions with respect to green living?

Sustainability for Business in the Recession

As I write this article, the US House just passed an $825 B stimulus bill. Whatever your views on the bill may be (necessary medicine, pork-laden, or both), this represents a tremendous opportunity for sustainable business ventures. Initial estimates1 place the amount of direct green spending at over $68 B! Some of the major opportunity areas include:

$30 B:Building & Appliance Efficiency Improvements
$19 B: “Smart” Grid & Transmission Technologies
$10 B: Mass Transit Investments
$5 B: Renewable Energy & Carbon Capture Research
$4 B: Clean Vehicle Research
$68 B: Total Direct Green Spending

What’s your entrepreneurial idea to serve one of these sectors? The time for entry is now – some of these amounts represent 700% to 1,000% increases over the previous federal budget. One economic estimate concludes that these energy investments will create (or reallocate) as many as 460,000 jobs! To put that in perspective, here’s a list of the United States’ top five employers:

2,100,000 – Wal-Mart
1,100,000 – US Postal Service
(460,000 – New Stimulus Energy Jobs)
430,000 – UPS
390,000 – McDonald’s
390,000 – IBM

Even if this estimate is a bit high, we’re definitely looking at a sizeable market opportunity. Which HBS student will be the one to capitalize on this shift?

Sustainability for Us in the Recession

Beyond the business opportunities created by the (potential) stimulus, what does this mean for us directly? Here are the Top 5 reasons you should keep on living sustainably in 2009:

It makes economic sense. Whether we’re talking about CFLs, returning bottles for a refund, or adding insulation / auto-thermostats to your house, it makes even more sense to make this a priority when money is tight.

The environment still exists. Believe it or not, pollution and trash continue to build-up, even during a recession. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (a vortex of debris in the middle of the ocean that’s twice as large as the United States) is still there!

BCG says so. Well, at least they say 34% of Europeans (and 16% of Americans) systematically search for and purchased more green products in 2008 than they did in 2007.

Green jobs are hot. Within the job bank and elsewhere, HBS hiring is responding to rapid sector growth and strong future outlook. Do you really want to show-up to an interview with a plastic water bottle and a foam carry-out box?

Recycling is a habit. It’s like Psychology 101 – we’ve worked hard to establish this ethic, and there’s no reason to let the current economic crisis erase the effort that’s been put into developing sustainable behaviors.

February 17, 2009
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