Cleantech’s “Double” Bottomline: Sustainability Still Treated Separate But Not Equal

November 30th, 2011

I recently served as a judge for the 2011 Cleantech Open Business Competition’s National Sustainability Award at the CaliforniaCleantech Open (CTO). The competition provides training and mentoring to bring start- up cleantech companies to market. CTO, considered by some to be the Academy Awards of the cleantech industry, continues to help grow and define the cleantech sector. As a judge, I saw first-hand the struggles of the Cleantech Open organizers to integrate sustainability into a start-up business traditional “bottomline.”

The five National Sustainability Award semifinalist had the highest scores in the sustainability category and they all had some very cool products. Invelox introduced wind turbines that don’t use blades, Sanergy developed a waste to energy model that attempts to address sanitation issues of the 80% of the people living in Nairobi, Kenyan slums who don’t have toilets and Indow windows (the National Sustainability Award winner) creates low-tech window insulations. Semifinalists Dragonfly and May-Ruben provide products that reduce commercial scale energy use.

Although all of the start- ups are “cleantech” (meaning technologies that are energy efficient), the issue of sustainability felt slightly ghettoized in the overall competition. Eighty percent of the total CTO score was given for the “single bottom line,” which evaluates financial viability and determines whether the business will make money for its investors. Only 20 percent of the score was given for the sustainability category. The sustainability judging criteria includes Environmental Stewardship, Social Responsibility and Metrics and Reporting.

It may sound harsh to say that sustainability was ghettoized, but I want to emphasize that environmental and social sustainability practices have a long way to go before they are fully integrated and considered equally important to a companies’ financial sustainability.

Hopefully, more and more investors and consumers will continue to support companies that are socially and environmentally responsible as part of their bottomline. In the meantime, the CTO National Sustainability Award as well as consumer tools like SVTC Solar Scorecard are here to help drive sustainability issues into the core of the cleantech industry.

I look forward to getting involved with Cleantech Open next year as a judge or one of the many volunteer organizers who are committed to sustainability and finding ways to “front-end” sustainability practices into the earliest phases of business start-ups.