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Is Portland Showing Us The Way To Sustainable Economic Growth?

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on June 5, 2007

I just got back from a few days in Portland, OR and suggest that our armies of corporate anthropologists skip the malls in Shanghai or Mumbia for a bit and head to what may be the quintessential 21st century American city. A fast-growth, but sustainable growth culture is coming together in this very dynamic city.

I remember Bill McDonough of cradle-to-cradle fame once telling me that forests grow and they grow fast. They just don’t pollute. So just change the chemistry of our modern economy and we can have growth without destroying the planet. You can see that happening in Portland.

It’s all over the place. Nau, the hip new retail company, is changing the way it makes fabrics to boost its ability to recycle stuff. It’s setting up small stores to show off their great new clothes (all green, brown, greys) and pushing people to order online. Both steps in cutting back on size and distribution save a lot on gas and energy.

Portland is a big food town and people are really into seasonal and local foods. Again, this cuts back on distribution and the huge amount of energy we expend in transporting our food. It also makes for wonderfully tasting food (the salmon are running in Alaska right now).

People get around on bikes—lots of bikes,cool trolleys and light rail (down to Beavertown and Nike and out to the vinyards in Hillsboro).

Peets and Stumptown and other coffee shops have real spoons and cups that they wash to cut down on throw-away stuff. There is a strong aversion to throw-away.

I stayed at the Ace Hotel, an old SRO in what was once the seedy part of town, that was just refurbished into hip, modern, cool. But it was done so it retained its old wood details, slow elevator and funky corridors remained.
Even as you leave Portland, you’re reminded of this eco-culture. Go to the airport bathrooms (at least the Men’s) and there are Sloan Water Saving Dual Function Handles (which are green). Liquid wastes, push up (less water). Solid wastes, push down (more water). So simple, it blew me away.

Something is happening in Portland.

Reader Comments


June 5, 2007 9:15 AM

Although I applaud these initiatives (obviously), I think you're slightly off the mark in linking them to McDonough and Braungart's philosophy of "Cradle to Cradle".

Nau states on their sites that their goals include "low impact" "maximum efficiency". The same could be said for the water-saving tap. Trees on the other hand don't have a low impact, they have a positive effect. They're not eco-efficient (far from it), but "eco-effective", to put it in McDonoughs words.

So kudos to the people in Portland for stepping up to the plate and trying to reduce their environmental impact, but they're still doing it through the old "reduce, re-use, recycle" method, they haven't really adopted the Cradle to Cradle paradigm as far as I can tell.


June 5, 2007 8:46 PM

Kudos to you Mr. Nussabum for showcaseing Portland. Lets hope NYC moves in the same direction.

Don't pooh pooh Portland!!!!!

I agree that they have not adopted the "Cradle to Cradle" paradigm, but it is a step in the right direction. Cradle to Cradle will require epic societal changes. The ways and things we teach in engineering, design ,economics, materials chemistry, accounting, the basic ways we do business all have to change. In the mean time why not reduce, reuse , recycle.

For example, if we finance and support companies that sell services rather than products that we throw away, economic imperatives will force them to design products that can be reused again and again. They become assets not to be thrown away. This is not Cradle to Cradle but it sure beats what's goin on today.


June 5, 2007 9:22 PM

Wasn't trying to pooh pooh Portland ;-)

Just noting the difference in approaches. Like I said: kudos to the people over there!

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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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