The International Council of Shopping Center’s (ICSC’s) annual “RetailGreen” Conference was recently held in Phoenix, Arizona. It’s the only green conference that exists primarily to serve the retail development industry. In planning meetings for the event, my colleagues and I on the Program Committee spent a lot of time conjuring up panel presentations and roundtable discussions on the sustainability topics most relevant to ICSC members: we put together “how-to” workshops on greening retail property, presentations on green benchmarking, and even had Jane Poynter give a presentation on what it was like living in Biosphere 2, that glass bubble in the Arizona desert, for two years. After the conference ended and after all the presentations, debates, and conversations played out, I realized that one theme kept coming up in many of the formats. It wasn’t a single theory or idea; it was more of an ambivalent, unanswerable dilemma.
On one side of the dilemma, the conference attendees all had an interest in “greening” retail. Whether for reduced energy costs or just wanting to do the right thing, these people were there because they were interested in sustainability. They all have either recently dipped their toes into the shallow end of the sustainability pool or have long been swimming in the deep end and created many LEED, Green Globes, or EnergyStar projects. Yet, their desire to be sustainable contrasts with an also-present anxiety, expressed mostly by developers and building owners, that governmental regulation enacting and enforcing sustainability is over-burdening and over-reaching. From new federal stormwater regulations to LEED-centric zoning ordinances, many in attendance worried that stiff regulations complicate development to the point of killing good projects. Developers from California to Wisconsin to Florida spoke of one-size-fits-all green legislations not fitting their locales. In one fascinating presentation, a Walmart executive showed how a new big-box store in almost any state would require either 1 or 5 or 22 shower stalls, depending on which of the pertinent codes was followed. Everyone at the conference is green by choice, but “it’s complicated” felt like a running theme.
The good news is attendance figures were up, with more than double last year’s attendance. People were energized, and it felt like we all left the conference wanting to try some new things, keep tabs on green legislation, and definitely keep up with the new people we met.