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Opinion Steven Guilbeault on green innovation: ‘Beyond the moral imperative to think and act more sustainably’

In a six-week series of interviews, Canadians with a variety of experiences discuss the major challenges our country is facing and how best to address them. This instalment deals with increasing the innovativeness of our economy.

Steven Guilbeault, co-founder of environmental non-profit organization Équiterre, was interviewed on June 12 by Elizabeth Pinnington, a consultant with Reos Partners.

Pinnington: What energizes you about what is happening in Canada right now?

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Guilbeault: Our municipalities are beacons of hope. In Montreal, we beat a 50-year-old record in terms of transit usage because we've invested in transportation infrastructure. The greenbelt around Toronto is seen by many as a model in North America. Vancouver is probably one of the 10 best examples in the world of what needs to be done at the municipal level on sustainability. In each of these places, it's not just about money, but also about a shift in mentality. People see this challenge as an opportunity to be better in what we do, to be more resilient, to be more efficient.

Pinnington: What about the current situation in Canada keeps you up at night?

Guilbeault: If you look at the federal scene, it is not pretty. Canada used to be a leader when it came to environmental and humanitarian issues. We weren't always the best, but we were part of the leading pack of countries. The Montreal Protocol was signed in Montreal in 1988 to slow down depletion of the ozone layer. Canada led the effort to ban anti-personnel landmines, culminating with the Ottawa convention in 1997. We used to be a country that had a good reputation. Now when I go to UN meetings abroad, senior ministers from different countries come to me and say, "What's happening with Canada? We don't recognize what you've become."

Pinnington: If things turn out badly in the next 20 years, what will have happened?

Guilbeault: Canada as a whole right is now focused on developing a kind of 19th-century resource-based economy. The economy of the 21st century will be one that focuses on knowledge, on know-how, on innovation and creativity. If we are stuck in oil and gas, we will be forced to import technologies that others have developed. We are not preparing for the world that will be.

Also, the reality is that many people are talking the talk of sustainability, but fewer are walking it. We have a role to play both as citizens and as consumers. I have a friend who says, "Buying is voting." We need to become more aware of the choices we make every day as individuals, including in the political arena. These issues have to be a bigger part of people's choices.

If we fail to make the changes we need to, it won't be because the solutions aren't there or because they aren't economically viable. It will be because we didn't believe we could do it and didn't mobilize enough people from all the sectors of our society to make it happen.

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Pinnington: Why are some business leaders beginning to advocate for environmental sustainability?

Guilbeault: Beyond the moral imperative to think and act more sustainably, there are material benefits. I had a conversation with Robert Dutton, the now-retired CEO of Rona [Inc.], the hardware store. Under his leadership, the company took a superb shift toward sustainability. He said, "Today, I interview people to come and work for me. But people's values have changed a lot. It's about the paycheque, but also about what kind of company you are. Are you a responsible corporate citizen? Soon, I will be interviewed by people who I want to come and work for me. It's going to be a totally reverse dynamic. Unless my company is a responsible actor, it's going to be hard to attract new people." He also told me that when Rona reduces waste at their large hardware stores by 80 per cent, they save about $80,000 a year on waste collection. If that's not good business, I don't know what is.

Possible Canadas is a project created by Reos Partners, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and a diverse coalition of philanthropic and community organizations. For longer versions of these interviews, or to join the conversation, visit possiblecanadas.ca.

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