Our Stories

Greenbacks Go Green

Eric Brody '96 believes in the capitalist system -- he just thinks it's a little skewed. It doesn't account for the true cost of things, he says. Like water. Or clean air. Or wetlands, which filter water and prevent floods.

"That's one thing I learned at Willamette -- there are external costs and internal costs. A gallon of gas costs much more than the price we pay at the pump. The costs include air pollution and higher levels of asthma in children. It all has to be figured in."

In 2005, Brody joined Portland start-up Nau as the company's sustainability manager, where his responsibility is to measure the true cost of corporate decisions and help create a smaller ecological footprint. The outdoor and urban clothing company is banking on an untested strategy: In-store customers choose between taking products home or having them shipped, with a discount. This allows Nau to limit store size and rely more on warehouses, which use 1/16th the energy of a retail store. A typical week for Brody might involve a red eye to Thailand to evaluate the environmental record of a supplier, developing humane labor standards, or tracking Nau's greenhouse emissions. "Rather than fix an existing business, we're trying to integrate sustainability at the front end," Brody says.

The job is a natural for Brody, who gained a love of the planet's wild places on boyhood camping trips to the Redwoods and Sierras. "Getting away from the rush of everyday life makes you think about the meaning of life and how we fit into the grand scheme of things," he says. Growing up in a small logging town also meant Brody witnessed the impact -- positive and negative -- that companies can have on the environment, and he realized they can play an important role in addressing environmental problems.

He got off to a running start toward his career at Willamette. "Professors Peter Eilers and Joe Bowersox inspired me," he says. "They are passionate, and they practice what they teach. They look at a holistic picture of the world -- at the interplay between environmental conditions, politics, geography, economics and people."

Brody tries to keep his own ecological footprint small, often biking or busing to work. When he's not hiking, rafting or snowboarding, he volunteers for Oregon Natural Step Network, a group that guides companies toward profitable sustainability. He's volunteered with political campaigns, such as the recently passed Measure 49, a land use measure Brody believes will provide protection for Oregon's farms and green spaces. He and his friends also established Portland Green Drinks, where professionals meet over drinks and discuss how to make their workplaces green.

We asked Brody to share some of his thoughts about sustainability.

Can green businesses be profitable?

Producing more for less money without concern for the impacts to people or the planet is the current trend, and without environmental and labor regulations, many countries and industries will continue the race to the bottom. But sustainable practices are becoming increasingly necessary for companies who want to have a true competitive edge. It's no longer profitable to create waste or unhealthy work environments.

Corporations also need to look at the total operational costs over time, not just the costs up front. If a company reduces its waste, then it means that everything becomes product, with revenue generation. And you get the added benefit of favorable press. Companies can't buy that.

How important is the role of consumers?

A handful of companies are trying to do the right thing, but it will take more than just a few companies to create marketplace shifts. It will take a much larger cultural-values shift in our society, characterized by an intensified search for balance, harmony, ethics and authenticity.

We also need progressive people in government at the local and national level, to create incentives and regulations to move business in the right direction. We need to create a sustainable infrastructure, and it's much bigger than any one business.

Who are your environmental heroes?

Henry David Thoreau, Teddy Roosevelt, Willamette Professors Pete Eilers and Joe Bowersox, and Tom McCall, the former Oregon governor who set a precedent for land use planning that balanced the needs of people -- farmers, ranchers and city dwellers -- with a healthy environment and clean water.

What's the most important thing you learned at Willamette?

The importance of making a difference -- having a voice and making that voice heard. Taking part in our political system, whether it's voting or volunteering.

What's the best piece of advice you can pass along?

Use the power of the dollar wisely by spending your money only on food, products and services that reflect your values.