Green, White and Blue: The new American workforce

March 1st, 2008

By Mike Berlin

In the vacant lobby of 239 Cherry St., I hesitantly pen my name on the unattended sign-in sheet, though it doesn’t seem mandatory. From the street, the building is indistinguishable from the other boxy, grey industrial-looking ones around it. Inside, it’s clinical and corporate. I sit at the head of a long table set with shiny, varnished wooden chairs until Jason Salfi, CEO, co-founder and partner of Comet Skateboards, emerges from the door behind to greet me.

In paint-speckled jeans, tattered Nikes and a black zip-turtleneck, Salfi doesn’t come across as the CEO type—but then again, this is a skateboard company, a green skateboard company.
I can envision the eyes rolling now—another environmental consumerist goody that will no doubt join the ranks of Natalie Portman’s designer line of vegan pumps and C-IN2’s collection of men’s bamboo briefs. Upon mentioning Comet to a friend, she replied, “Doesn’t that just undermine the idea of environmentalism?” She was referring to the overabundance of green stuff for sale, which can distract from actual issues at hand. And in a way, Comet Skateboards will fit right in with the other sustainable schlock that constitutes green consumerism.

The workroom that we enter is lined wall-to-wall in bare decks, many of which are made of North American maple. In addition, Comet Skateboards utilizes other local, sustainable materials—like soy and hemp—for their production. Their method has only come to fruition as the result of years of research by Patrick Govang, former industrial partnerships director for the Cornell Center for Materials Research, and Anil Netravali, professor of fiber science and apparel design at Cornell University. Their brainchild, e2e Materials LLC, fuels Comet skateboards and falls in line with a revolutionary new way of doing business. It also is saving Salfi money, contributing to Ithaca’s local economy, and serving as a prototype from which to resolve two of the most disconcerting crises facing our country and the entire world: economic recession and climate change.

It’s what many are calling the “green-collar solution,” a concept that is poised to become ever more vague and overused as we approach Election Day. But it’s also the most promising thing to emerge from environmentalism in recent years—the panacea that will ideally revitalize our nation.

First the green-collar concept will have to pass through a dangerous labyrinth of misguided politicians, underdeveloped industries and resistant capitalists for its potential to be realized. It’s a harrowing journey but one that is already beginning in Ithaca.

Green, in the context of collared jobs, is arguably white and blue—let’s just say light teal. What defines a green-collar is its positive impact on the environment, which makes the term somewhat difficult to define but easy to apply.

Jerome Ringo, president of the national environmental organization The Apollo Alliance, offered a succinct, visual explanation of the green sector on Feb. 15 for NPR’s All Things Considered. “When we talk about production of wind turbines for example, someone has to design those wind turbines, someone has to build those wind turbines, someone has to install those wind turbines, someone has to maintain [them],” he said.

So green-collar encompasses both professional jobs (the heads of renewable energy companies, the designers, the accountants) and manual labor (the builders, the installers, the maintenance workers).

“From my perspective ‘green-collar jobs’ is a term that encompasses a range of functions,” says Gay Nicholson, program coordinator for Sustainable Tompkins, a local county-based environmental coalition. “But it’s all towards a shared goal of living and working differently and having jobs that support people living and working in a more sustainable way.”

Sustainable Tompkins is currently focusing on expanding the regional marketplace through increasing awareness and community access to different burgeoning industries—renewable energy, energy efficiency, green building and, yes, green purchasing. True to form, these fields require workers of many different types.
But in terms of manual green-collar work, each different realm or industry has its own specific training. For instance, Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, N.Y. offers “envelope professional training,” which prepares workers for careers in sustainable ventilation and heating. After the 30-hour training session, which includes classroom and field experience, graduates will earn a Building Performance Institute, Inc. certification. Depending on regional demand, this makes workers more marketable and gives them a sustainable edge. But it also costs $1,125.

Unfortunately, fees like these may present a problem to the unemployed blue-collar workers who stand to benefit most from jobs created through the green-collar movement. HVCC has a partnership with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, which allows for individuals in the program to be reimbursed 75 percent of their tuition upon completion. But this again is a regional perk, not a national one.
The key to creating a new blue-green workforce is getting politicians to appropriate money in the right places. With the recent passage of the Green Jobs Act of 2007, $125 million was set aside for training workers for clean energy jobs. But to foster these kinds of manual jobs, policymakers must cover all aspects of workforce reform.

“Whenever you’re trying to start something new, you need to dismantle the subsidies that have gone into the destructive thing that you’re doing,” says Nicholson.
Money from the Green Jobs Acts is said to equip approximately 35,000 workers with skills suited for green-collar work. But legislators need to shift their focus to the white-collar sector—the industry leaders that will employ these green workers. Only when government incentives for change are in place, will there be an increased demand for blue-green-collar workers.

Marian Brown is the Special Assistant to the Provost/Vice President for Academic Affairs at Ithaca College. Brown is in charge of most of the sustainability initiatives on campus. Her office in the Center for Health Sciences is cluttered—potted plants, both real and synthetic, rest on the desk and shelves, while green-colored pamphlets, books and buttons frame a patch of bare carpet where two maintenance men are replacing her computer for its triennial update.

She corrects me when I attribute the mess to the tech support, cheerfully joking that “it’s always like that” as we head to the coffee cart. Once there she buys two coffees, one for her reusable mug and one for me.

“For most people, if you say green-collar right now, they would think of a blue-collar adaptation for renewable energy, technology and skill development,” she says. Ithaca College’s role as a liberal arts institution prevents it from tackling this sort of manual labor training head-on with its students. But at the same time, some students are able to seek out these types of experiences themselves.

Stephen Figgatt, a senior environmental studies student at Ithaca, is one of them. “There’s so many things you can do in the environmental realm, especially now,” he says. “I personally want to go into renewed energy development, mostly wind.”

For many college students like Figgatt, environmental studies appeals to both idealism and practicality by preparing them to work toward positive change in an emerging field with widespread job opportunity. Having interned at Renovus Energy Inc. last semester, Figgatt was able to learn first-hand about the installation process for solar panels and wind turbines. Through pursuing independent studies, Figgatt has also utilized the plethora of opportunities available in the Ithaca community, working extensively with the EcoVillage through the ties they have with IC.

With our country on the verge of a recession, every viable presidential candidate has touted a green-collar economy as a potential solution for both economic and environmental woes. Though candidates are many times insincere, climatologists
aren’t; the need for significant environmental reform is as necessary as global warming is imminent.

Darren Usinowicz is a recent graduate from Green Mountain College
in Poultney, Vt.—a small liberal arts college that incorporates environmentalism into all of its studies. “We’re in such a unique position with all the different climates we have [in the U.S.]. We’ve got desert, tundra and everything in between. You can work on any of those technologies in any one of those climates and adapt that all over the world,” he says. “So how can you go wrong in developing that industry?” Currently, Usinowicz works at Agricultural Consulting Services, a firm based in Rochester with a satellite office in Groton.

Green Mountain College is certainly a unique place, but it speaks volumes to the role of the college-aged generation in the environmental movement. Students, especially in Ithaca, are increasingly greening their career paths, sometimes in very unorthodox ways. Alicia Emer ’07, who graduated with an Integrated Marketing Communications degree, is one of them, pursuing a career in green marketing.

“Green marketing is when a company will promote its positive environmental aspects,” she says. “Right now, green is kind of the buzzword in marketing.”

At first, it seems that the two ideas are paradoxical; marketing for commercial companies is based solely on making a profit, while environmentalism emphasizes the importance of compromising revenue to make change. But there are advantages to companies, consumers and the environment; companies market their green features because that’s what consumers are now interested in, and by doing so, these companies are creating competition to see who can out-green the other.

In fact, for the green-collar movement to really take off, more businesses need to start adopting its principles. Brown says that IC is seriously considering this train of thought, not just for humanities or communications students, but also for the entrepreneurs of tomorrow.

“Having people think differently and put a sustainability decision-making framework on so that they really do take into account: Is it good for people? Is it good for the environment? Does it make economic sense?” says Brown. “That’s what we’re doing at the business school hopefully.” There are also little things that Brown wants to focus on.

“We’ve done a lot with education for students, but we have not really, in a meaningful way, stepped up to faculty and staff,” she says, turning to the buzzing drink machine behind us. “In many cases they’re the ones who see a lot of opportunities, and we need to start to empower them to say, ‘Now wait a minute. Figure out a way I can turn the bloody light off on the Snapple machine after hours.’”

Back on Cherry Street, Salfi and I walk to the second, more mechanical room of the Comet Skateboards plant. Some near-finished boards jumbled on a large table catch my eye; their designs create a vibrant display with loose wheels scattered on top. We move around to the workroom to some hulking devices, where the skateboards are pressed with airbags instead of a popular hydraulics system.

“It’s very unique and has allowed us to adapt our own technique,” Salfi says of the press. “The standard skateboard press can’t work with the materials we use.”

This factory is Salfi’s dream, a culmination of more than 10 years of work that materialized just a few months ago. He came back to Ithaca in 2007 to team up with Patrick Govang of e2e Materials. Salfi’s manufacturing plant was moved to Cherry Street in October, up and running in November, and producing new e2e skateboards lines by early February 2008.

A 1993 graduate of Cornell, Salfi had been living in San Francisco, selling Comet Skateboards and developing his own production system. On a road trip to the East Coast in 2005, he decided to visit one of his professors, Anil Netravali, who had been working with Govang to develop what is now known as e2e Materials. At the time, their substitute for the popular but expensive and toxic adhesives used in skateboards drew him in.

“What e2e Materials does is replace products that exist today that use petroleum with stuff that can be grown in one year,” says Govang. “So, for example, our resin technology leverages soy protein rather than petroleum-based resin. And then we combine them with natural fibers that are rapid renewables compared to say, a tree, which would typically go into a product like particleboard or maybe density fiberboard.”

These local fibers, such as flax, jute, bamboo and hemp, can all grow within the span of one year and are also biodegradable. The whole process, in turn, is a cycle that continuously sustains itself.

Aside from using a sustainable approach to production, Comet Skateboards has also been able to cut down on costs; the regional materials they use save money on shipping. And their independence from petroleum-based resin helps them bypass the continuously rising costs of oil by-products.

“Sucking from the oil nipple isn’t going to help anything,” says Salfi. “Having a bio-based solution that isn’t influenced by a crazy geopolitical climate is a good solution.”

Another innovative aspect of Comet’s factory is that it’s located in Ithaca—not exactly the manufacturing capital of the world. But local production is something that the U.S. government will want to look into very soon.

The way in which most goods are currently mass-produced is both hurting our economy and environment. Many products use materials from different parts of the world, which are then shipped to China to be assembled and shipped back to the U.S. When companies outsource their manufacturing like so, they are not only taking away jobs from Americans, but also perpetuating a system that leaves a massive carbon footprint by using harmful materials and transporting them through extensive air travel.

It’s here where Comet is able to both cut costs on shipping and contribute to Ithaca’s economy. The workers in the plant are local, and the farmers who supply most of their materials are based in the Northeast.

To some, Salfi’s success may seem rare; but it won’t soon enough. Govang and e2e Materials plan on developing their technology for the renewable resources found in different regions of the country. But for now, they’re focusing on the Northeast and have been drawing attention from many interested furniture companies.

“I think the challenge [for us] is: do we view our company as a triple bottom line company?” says Govang. “The single bottom line that drives capitalism today is the dollars at the end of the day. With the eye on the dollars, we also look at a bottom line of our impact on the environment, the bottom line of our impact on society.”

This triple bottom-line approach—caring about profit, society and the environment—has the potential, when applied on a national scale, to fix many of our problems. But as Govang points out, we live in a capitalist society, staunchly driven by profit. Add to this the comfort with which many Americans live today and the widespread change necessary in reversing our environmental impact, and the challenge for green industry is even more apparent.

Even if many are becoming increasingly aware of global warming, there is a spell of denial that has fallen on our country, one that allows us to recognize the problem and falsely feel at ease that others are working to fix it.
“The human psyche is unprepared for what we’ve wrought together, very unprepared,” says Gay Nicholson. “But on the other hand, in terms of human potential, we are maybe poised for a leap forward in human consciousness.”

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Mike Berlin is a senior writing major. Email him at mberlin2[at]gmail.com.

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