Since the federal floods of 2005, New Orleans has built momentum for building cleaner and greener, better — most visibly on a national level with Brad Pitt's Make It Right Foundation, and also through nonprofits, in schools, in community gardens, and, more recently, in government, where recycling initiatives at City Hall have sparked new conversations about restoring citywide recycling and overhauling waste management.
The Washington D.C.-based U.S. Green Building Council has set up an office here; there are green neighborhoods (the ReUse and the Green Light districts); and Lisa Jackson, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is a former Pontchartrain Park resident and St. Mary's Dominican alum. Signs point to New Orleans possibly becoming a nationwide leader for green building — but not quite yet. Of the more than 75,000 people in the U.S. who have completed LEED certification programs, the green standard for building, few are attorneys. In Louisiana, there are only four.
"It's time for New Orleans to move into the big leagues," says Kathleen Lunn, a sustainability consultant with the Alchemy Group, which helped organize the inaugural Green Matters Legal Conference, a three-day event designed to get law firms, as well as businesses, nonprofits and developers, in the same room — and on the same page — not only to learn about the latest green legal strides, but also to take advantage of Mayor Mitch Landrieu's recovery projects.
"With the administration having just listed 100 projects that are [expected to cost more than] a billion dollars, this is a key time to get information to get those projects more sustainable, more hardy for hurricane-proofing, and employ more local people who are small business owners in the green economy, and the timing is good," Lunn says.
Channeling events like last October's Green ReBuilding of New Orleans Conference, a Sierra Club-led two-day event putting green builders, urban farmers and other sustainable businesses under one roof, the Green Matters Legal Conference expanded to include more environmental topics. The program was originally slated for April with a more limited agenda, focusing solely on green law, but without enough local environmental firms, there was a limited audience. Now moved to Oct. 13-15, the conference includes input from dozens of companies, from Walmart and IBM to local firm Wolfe Law Group and the Crescent City Farmers Market — what Lunn admits is a broad lineup.
"New Orleans is a primary location for having the conversation about the intersection of industry, government, academia and nonprofit sectors," she says. "That collaboration is needed for an emerging green economy."
The first track of the conference, focusing on legal issues, looks at "the new normal," as one seminar calls it. Debbie Belletto of the New Orleans Convention Company Inc., one of the convention's co-organizers, says addressing "green" issues and taking them beyond a meaningless buzzword is one of the hurdles companies face with sustainability.
"What you'll hear is, 'Oh, it's a fad.' But it's not a fad. This is reality," she says. "In the long run, the big picture, there are definitely cost savings connected to all of this. And that's the bottom line, talking to a person in the street and their perception of this:
'Green' is efficiency."
Other legal seminars at the conference address LEED certification, building codes, real estate development and liability — "Where Green Goes Wrong" explains, naturally, how do it right.
"A green economy needs professional advisory services and professional technical services," Lunn says. She adds these sessions are meant to help law firms build a green practice and train attorneys to write contracts, advise clients on developments and building codes, and keep New Orleans firms up to date with best practices used around the country that work.
"Portland and Seattle — New Orleans can be right there," Belletto says. "That's what we're looking at, and looking at very quickly, in becoming a sustainable city. We have to make the processes of businesses, government and life sustainable, and that's what's going to make it attractive to the rest of the world, and to be a model city, to be an example to them."
Belletto also says a citywide green investment doesn't just make New Orleans a competitive city for sustainability; it makes it attractive to visitors and tourists.
"We have clients looking to come into cities that are walkable, have public transportation, biofuel buses. We're being touted in the tourism industry as one of the leaders in greening our city," she says. "The consumer is really dictating this. Consumers are becoming more dedicated to the importance and efficiency of being knowledgeable about energy."
That consumer drive is spurring bigger companies to think more sustainably, which is why the conference brought in several massive, global companies — companies most would assume would not have green or sustainability on their minds. But Lunn says these companies, like Walmart and Shaw, are being forced to follow what's now a trend by hiring green consultants and executives. Many have created a "chief sustainability officer" position, or a similar executive title, charged with making both products and the company itself more sustainable.
"Sort of an internal and external sustainability," Lunn says. "These corporations formerly viewed as not in the green sector are now driving it."
That includes more practical efficiency measures, like paperless offices and cloud computing, which IBM chief environment executive Florence Hudson addresses in "Smart Buildings for Smart Cities."
Lunn says large corporations making those changes will direct a trickle-down effect to smaller businesses. "It starts at the top," she says. "It helps when (businesses) can market themselves as sustainable — that they have a plan in place, and they follow it, to help reduce their emissions, their waste products."
— The Green Matters Legal Conference will be held Oct. 13-15 at the Westin New Orleans Canal Place (100 Iberville St., 566-7006). Visit www.greenlegalmatters.com for registration information and a complete schedule of events.