Moving On Up To The Green Side With Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown

Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown has come a long way from the days when her friends used to tee-pee her lawn to get under her already eco-conscious skin. Now Brown is Chair of the Oregon Sustainability Board and oversees a multitude of projects, initiatives and policy-driven goals within that role. For Brown, a lawyer turned legislator, it’s surprisingly the first time she has been able to directly put her environmental expertise to work in her public service–but that hasn’t stopped her from making waves, tackling big challenges and working tirelessly to spread the word about Oregon’s leadership in sustainable enterprise to the world.

Before she keynotes at The GoGreen ’09 Conference, Secretary Brown sat down with us to give you a sneak peek at what’s going on in Oregon’s sustainability-focused Capital.

GG: When did you develop an interest in environmental conservation and sustainability?

KB: [Laughs] You’re kidding right? Well I got my undergraduate degree in environmental conservation back in 1981. And I went to Lewis and Clark Law School and got my environmental certificate in 1985, so it’s been a life long interest.

GG: Was it something that growing up, as a young woman, you were interested in?

KB: Yes. Totally. My girlfriends used to throw their trash out at my house and toilet paper the house because they knew it would drive me crazy! My parents thought it was really funny, believe me. But I wanted to be an environmental lawyer for many, many years—since I was a little girl.

GG: Well you’re obviously very passionate about the issue. How has that passion manifested itself into your work with the State of Oregon?

KB: Well that’s a really interesting question, because this has actually been my first opportunity to work directly in environmental policy through two areas—one being that I chair the Sustainability Board. For whatever reason, it just didn’t happen during the 17 years I was in the state legislature. I became caucus leader fairly early during my tenure in the State Senate and ended up working, sort of conducting issues. For instance Brad Avakian was chair of the Environmental Committee or Charlie Ringo was chair of the Environmental Committee, so I didn’t really work those issues directly. This has been my first opportunity to work in policy, so I’m chairing the Sustainability Board. And for me, that job is to continue to fill former Secretary Bill Bradbury’s role or rather his very big shoes.

The first piece is that the Sustainability Board develops sustainability plans for 24 of the State agencies. So I would see next steps for them as performance evaluation—how are [agencies] complying with the sustainability plans and are these plans making a difference? And the other piece is that DAS (Department of Administrative Services)—which is kind of like the pie crust–has just sent out a draft for a policy on resource conservation and I think what you will see the State Sustainability Board do is assess how well State agencies are complying with this statewide manual on resource conservation.

GG: What’s been the greatest challenge for you, since coming into office, in pushing this front of sustainable business and an ecological focus for the Oregon economy?

KB: I have to tell you—even on the Sustainability Board—we have no funding. So I have an 11-member board and we don’t have the resources—people are just doing this out the goodness of their hearts and their commitment to environmental policy for the State.

GG: Can you describe some of the creative ways the Sustainability Board gets around having little funding? Because a lot of businesses are in the same situation these days…

KB: Well, for example the Board traveled to Enterprise in June—and I wasn’t able to go—but they went to meet with a number of folks and toured the Zumwalt Prairie in Wallowa County and all the board members paid for that out of their own pocket. We’re basically on a shoe-string here. So we’re having to be very creative and folks are willing to donate their own personal time and resources to participate. It takes a lot of creativity and ingenuity on the part of the board members to implement projects.

GG: Are there any projects that you have a great desire to see accomplished in 2009? Any personal goals?

KB: There are a couple of things. One is, we have typically done an awards presentation in combination with the OEC (Oregon Environmental Council) Business Conference in December, and I’d really like to leverage that into and opportunity for businesses to—well let me give a really specific example: In the 2007 and 2008 years, one of our vineyards, Sokol-Blosser, got an award for their sustainability practices and I want to leverage that award process for encouraging sustainability cluster wide. I want to make sure that we are meeting our statewide sustainability goals and I want to make sure that we are implementing one of the bills we worked to pass for eco-system services while I was in the State Senate: Senate Bill 513. Those are my three goals for the year.

GG: It sounds like you have a lot on your plate—and on a “shoe-string” budget as you said—which is where a lot of business in Oregon seem to be at. What are some of the important action steps for Oregon businesses to take in order to take them to the next level of sustainability?

KB: I think for Oregon, we are developing both a national and international reputation for our sustainability practices and our green economy, and I think it would be leveraging with other businesses and collaborating with other businesses in your cluster area to make sure you’ve implemented best sustainability practices. So replicated best practices, and I think we’ve got to do better at marketing communications.
So if we’ve got a business cluster where everyone has great sustainability practices—that’s great, but the next step is to ensure that there are good marketing practices in place so the general public knows how well we’re doing. Oregon Country Natural Beef is a really great model.

Let me also give an example from the public sector. In the late 1990s we passed legislation, Senate Bill 1149, which provided for a conservation fee on utility bills in the Pacific Power and PGE (Pacific Gas and Electric) service areas. Those dollars are going into what I would essentially call a trust fund—an energy trust—and I think there is about $100 million in there. I don’t there’s been a good enough job done of marketing that those resources are available for certain types of projects. So that business model works very well, but we have to do a better job of marketing and communicating—which is a tough challenge in today’s over-messaged world.

GG: Are there any recent success stories in terms of projects taking off that you’re really excited about?

KB: You know, I would talk about Senate Bill 513, but we’re meeting with Senator Devlin because it’s become sort of a three-way partnership with the Natural Resources Institute at Oregon State University and the Oregon Sustainability Board and now, the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board. What I see with Senate Bill 513 is the breaking down of agency silos and moving forward on environmental sustainability projects. What’s exciting, initially, about the proposal is that you have one state agency, one higher education institution and a state board all working together to implement this proposal. It’s a partnership of an odd conglomeration of folks. And I think folks are going to have to remember that politics makes strange bedfellows and they’re going to have to look at unusual partnerships.

GG: Do you see that happening in the private sector as well?

KB: That I don’t know, but I think it needs to happen.

GG: If we can pull this off—that is interweaving sustainable and economic goals into the foundations of our businesses—where do you see us going?

KB: I see Oregon as being a leader nationally and, hopefully, internationally in the green economy.

Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown is a keynote speaker at the GoGreen ‘09 Conference in Portland, Oregon on Wednesday, October 7th. Join us for a day of sustainability inspiration and education! GoGreen ‘08 sold out, so get your tickets soon to get serious about greening your business. Visit http://www.gogreenpdx.com/registration to register.

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