As consumers become increasingly interested in environmental and social causes, companies can gain a competitive advantage by addressing such issues in their business practices, a group of panelists said at the Americas Competitiveness Forum that was held in Atlanta June 11-12.

“If you’re not increasing your sustainability practices, you’re quickly becoming obsolete,” said Tom Hicks, vice president at the U.S. Green Building Council, who was a speaker during a sustainability panel that was held June 12 during the forum.

The forum drew nearly 1,000 public and private sector representatives from throughout the Americas and the Caribbean to discuss ways Western Hemisphere nations could work together to be more competitive against other regions such as Asia or Europe.

Representing the United States’ environmentally responsible, energy efficient building industry, Mr. Hicks said he is seeing more developers construct environmentally sustainable commercial and residential buildings because consumers are demanding it.

“Consumers are aligning their purchasing decisions with social causes,” he said, noting that the U.S. green building market is anticipated to go from a $12 billion industry in 2007 to a $60 billion industry by 2010.

Through their design, construction, operation and maintenance, green buildings have a lesser impact on human health and the environment than do traditional constructions.

Consumer demand is also changing the way decorative palm fronds are harvested in Mexico and Guatemala, according to Chantal Line Carpentier, head of environment, economy and trade at the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, which addresses the environmental provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Also a panelist at the forum, Dr. Carpentier said that churchgoers in those countries, who typically use the fronds as decorations at Easter time, had started to pay more for ones that were harvested in a way that protected the environment and provided a living wage for the harvesters.

She also said that once consumers start demanding sustainable products, supply chains shift to accommodate them.

“Buyers will start requiring it from their suppliers,” Dr. Carpentier said, citing Texas-based Continental Floral Greens as an example. The import company started sourcing “sustainable palm fronds” from Mexico and Guatemala once they realized there was a market for them in North America, she said.

But sourcing environmentally friendly products is not always evident, according to Mike Bertolucci, consultant to CEO at Interface Inc., an Atlanta-based carpet tile manufacturer that has been working to reduce its impact on the environment since 1994.

Reducing waste, using recycled materials and having a company-wide environmental policy has helped Interface produce high-quality products and has given them an edge in the marketplace, said Dr. Bertolucci. But finding affordable sources of renewable carpet fibers has proven to be a challenge, he said.

“The cost of organic farming puts renewable fibers at a disadvantage in a competitive market, because consumers are not always willing to pay a premium,” he said, adding that he would like to see more research in the industry.

Until then, consumers will have to be willing to pay for their environmental and social causes, especially when it comes to fiber-related products.

“Those who want the products do need to demand them,” Dr. Bertolucci said. “And they need to be willing to pay a higher price as industries get started.”

Philippe Pommez, executive advisor at Natura Cosmeticos S/A, a Sao Paulo, Brazil-based cosmetics company that employs environmental and socially responsible business practices, also participated in the sustainability panel discussion.

The June 12 panel was one of 22 that were held during the competitiveness forum. Other issues addressed included education and workforce development, global supply chain strategies, small business development and innovation.

Story Contacts, Links and Related Stories
Americas Competitiveness Forum

U.S. Green Building Council

Commission for Environmental Cooperation (need link)

Interface’s sustainability project

Natura Cosmeticos