Editor’s note: On Nov. 9, Sustainable North Carolina will recognize companies and organizations that are leading the way in finding a balance between healthy natural systems, vibrant communities and a prosperous economy at its annual awards dinner.

Wednesday’s discussion topic is: “Is There a Future for Manufacturing in North Carolina? Making the Shift to the 21st Century Marketplace.

Katy Ansardi, president of Sustainable North Carolina, talks to Local Tech Wire about why it’s time for sustainability in North Carolina, and clears the air on misconceptions about the term “sustainability”.

What is Sustainability?

People seem to love to debate the definition of sustainability. It’s unfortunate that we don’t have a better term, because the word “sustainable” can mean so many different things to different people.

To me, it’s simply a way of thinking about how we do things that recognizes our interdependence with the natural world and an equitable society. We tend to act as if financial return is the only thing that matters. Ever notice that we’ll debate all day whether something is safe or fair or the right thing to do, but nothing stops a discussion in its tracks as fast as saying, “It’s not economical.”

At the core of sustainability is the goal of always striving to optimize environmental, social and economic benefits in everything we do.

That sounds very idealistic. Isn’t it impractical when we’re facing global competition?

On the contrary, when we act as if maintaining healthy ecosystems and treating people fairly are luxuries we can’t afford, we’re putting our own survival and prosperity at risk. We’re sawing off the limb we sit on.

Globalization is about a lot more than cheap labor markets. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. What we’re experiencing is nothing less than a fundamental shift in how we see our place in the world. It can be pretty unnerving when it sinks in that we’re playing a whole new ballgame and we don’t even understand the rules yet.

We hear people say that we either have to lower our standards for health, safety and wages or we won’t be able to compete in the global economy. That’s a sucker’s choice. It suggests that there are only two possible strategies — stick with our current way of doing things and go out of business or join the race to the bottom.

Well, what other choices are there?

Using our ingenuity to come with innovative solutions that move beyond either/or choices. That’s what people have done throughout history. Time and again, we find that simply changing how we look at a problem allows for new breakthroughs.

Companies are finding profitable new business models by adopting what we call sustainability-driven innovation. My favorite story is about a textile company whose fabric trimmings were declared hazardous waste. They re-evaluated their entire production process, eliminating hundreds of chemicals with known toxins, finally settling on a few dozen that are completely safe. Today, their trimmings are composted by the local garden club. Inspectors who tested the effluent thought their instruments were broken — the water coming out was cleaner than the drinking water going in. Not only did they eliminate the costs and risks of handling hazardous materials, their award-winning new fabrics have been a huge commercial success.

Why do we accept that the only way to make things is with our current wasteful, polluting processes? Why do we think we have to accept cumbersome regulatory processes as part of the cost of doing business? Only because we have lacked imagination and the will to change.

Really now, do we want our society’s epitaph to read, “Well, we may have trashed the place, but we sure did make a lot of cheap stuff.”?

How and why did you get started in Sustainability?

It’s a topic I’ve been interested in for a long time. Even when I was in real estate development back in the 80s, I was concerned about the impact we were having. A few years ago, after my husband and I closed our computer business (some of your readers who used IBM’s OS/2 may remember Indelible Blue), I decided it was time to do something I felt passionate about. I had been hooked on the idea of transforming the way we do business since first reading The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken. It just took a little longer to find a paying job in the field.

What has been the biggest challenge in getting the message out about Sustainability?

People are distracted, they’re busy. The pressure to meet short term financial goals is tremendous. Of course, larger companies have more resources for long term planning — I think that’s the reason you mainly see large corporations getting on board with sustainability today. Often, unless a business owner has a personal commitment, smaller companies are too engrossed with day-to-day survival to take the longer view.

Add to that the way we talk about sustainability often comes across as nebulous “do-goodism”, and you can see the challenge. What’s encouraging to me is that sustainability is gaining momentum as a credible business strategy. Everyone in the field I talk with is seeing the same trend — where even a couple of years ago you would meet with blank stares, people are now saying, “Yeah, I’m hearing about sustainability. Can you tell me more?”

For information about the Sustainable N.C. program, see: www.sustainnc.org/public/index.cfm?menuid=3