SXSW Eco Conference: A Perspective on One of Austin’s Most Engaging Green Events

Earlier this month I attended the inaugural SXSW Eco conference in Austin, Texas. SXSW Eco is a newly created three-day conference designed to foster dialog among an international audience of executive level decision makers from both public and private sectors as well as recognized thought leaders from academia. This integrated cross sector approach to solving recognized sustainability challenges evolved the environmental conversation beyond rhetoric and took considerable steps towards productive conversations and serious solutions dedicated to making progress for society, the economy, and the environment.

Just as the SXSW Music, Film and Interactive Conferences & Festivals have provided a springboard for fresh and innovative creative content in various media, SXSW Eco now provides a singular atmosphere for pioneering approaches to the most pressing challenges of our time. Yet as soon as I walked into the Austin Hilton hotel, the vibe felt completely different from what I have experienced at SXSW over the past few years. There were no hipsters to be found. Dockers®, business suits and button downs surrounded me. There was no music filling the halls. At the onset, I felt an initial sense of deflation—there didn’t seem to be the same sort of kinetic energy or enthusiastic that any attendee of the SXSW festival can attest to.

But as I sat down to my first session, it became clear that the agenda was of a higher order. We were here to learn from each other. SXSW Eco was of a different sort of inspiration, and just like in the garden, the clothes you wore didn’t matter and the natural surroundings were the soundtrack of the experience. Below are a few of the panels I experienced and over the next few weeks, I’ll post details of each of the SXSW Eco panels in greater detail with further discussions.

Training the New Generation of Social and Environmental Entrepreneurs

The first panel I attended was of a strongly academic bent—I wasn’t expecting it, especially since I was just on my first cup of coffee. Panelists included representatives from some of the top sustainable business and policy programs: Rick Bunch from the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise, Stuart Decew representing the Yale Center for Business and the Environment, Judy Samuelson of the Aspen Institute, and moderator Bill Shutkin from Presidio Graduate School. These were impressive brains, and yet the discussion was surprisingly engaging, interactive and accessible. As we began the conference, we jumped into the important questions:  What does it mean to be a sustainability leader in today’s corporations, non-profits and government agencies and what kind of education and training is required? How are contemporary education environments preparing interested students for the challenges that corporate sustainability initiatives and policies demand? 

These leaders were inspired by business, not threatened by it. The group discussing the current chasm between enterprise and entrepreneurs seeking social enterprise solutions and the limited message that it sends that the only solution for sustainability is to need build business that are building wells in Africa. The panel encouraged attendees to bet our money on global business because that is where the resources really are, and to take a broader view of social capital.

Mainstreaming Personal Sustainability with New Technologies

As I walked into the second panel, I was expecting a “Star Trek” approach to sustainability topics, the latest and greatest in what technology leaders could provide and inspire. And though the technology was not new, many of the applications and directions were. Panelists Kimberly Henning of Gazelle, Seth Frader-Thompson from EnergyHub and moderator Susan Hunt Stevens of Practically Green addressed both the challenges and progress that we are making to create tools for personal accountability in our sustainable lives so that green-ing the world is easier, faster and more fun. Technology most of us are familiar with—bar code scanners, social media applications, gamification and more advanced technologies that allow for energy use monitoring are reshaping how consumers approach sustainable living.

After detailed introductions of their businesses and missions, the panel noted a remarkable statistic: 30% of consumers were thinking of purchasing green products in 2002, and this has now grown to 80% as of last year (2010). Yet despite this seismic shift, the typical active green consumer takes only 8-14 actions per month—and yes, this includes recycling. This doesn’t feel like much in the way of progress. We all asked, who are the Super Greens, the heroes of sustainability and how can we reach them, grow these habits? Unanimously, the panel agreed that environmentalists must meet people where they are and that whether we are talking to consumers or corporations, it’s one step forward, one better choice at a time.

God, Guns and Greens: Forging Unlikely Allies in the Fight for Safe Food

Simran Sethi, representing the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at University of Kansas, was perhaps one of my favorite speakers at the conference. Her approach to sustainability was one that unified the spiritual and the practical, and her work with Kansas farmers provided the ideal allegory on multiple levels. Regardless of what particular faith an individual may claim, research supports that 89% of Americans believe in some kind of “god,” and that faith is a key part of their lives. By framing our actions in the context of a bigger relationship, Sethi was able to drive home powerful argumentation about our planet’s food supply. She asserted that we much all creatively work together with food, and that food is what we all have in common, this unifying force.

In the last 30 years, our food supply has become more chemicalized, industrialized, and consolidated than at any other point in history. Food is regularly grown out of season and shipped long distances—we are byproducts of GMOs and pesticides. At the same time, consumers have substantially less access to information about what’s in our food and how it is made—nutrition labels do not tell the full story. Rather, hunger is a global social disease linked to policy and poverty, and Sethi’s speech inspired all who attended.

By taking the environmental conversation into the abstract—focusing on weather stripping or reducing our carbon footprint—we drain the movement of its momentum and power. Because there is only so much that we can worry about at a single time, the way to make something relevant is to tap into current concerns and worries, and we can do this by connecting to our universal connection to, love and need for food.

But wait—there’s more

Admittedly, when I walked into the SXSW Eco conference, I experienced a brief moment of deflation—my initial expectations of the environment were not met when I compared it to the SXSW Music, Film and Interactive conference. Where was all the fun, the music, the creativity?  However, when I let go of my narrow attachment and instead, sat down and opened up to the moment, listening to the speakers and panelists, I became enthralled with their knowledge, their passion, their experience. And more so, I was soon humbled by all that I learned and am now honored to share a few of their insights and perspectives with you.

About Lea G.

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