Is Portland Showing Us The Way To Sustainable Economic Growth?

I just got back from a few days in Portland, OR and suggest that our armies of corporate anthropologists skip the malls in Shanghai or Mumbia for a bit and head to what may be the quintessential 21st century American city. A fast-growth, but sustainable growth culture is coming together in this very dynamic city.

I remember Bill McDonough of cradle-to-cradle fame once telling me that forests grow and they grow fast. They just don’t pollute. So just change the chemistry of our modern economy and we can have growth without destroying the planet. You can see that happening in Portland.

It’s all over the place. Nau, the hip new retail company, is changing the way it makes fabrics to boost its ability to recycle stuff. It’s setting up small stores to show off their great new clothes (all green, brown, greys) and pushing people to order online. Both steps in cutting back on size and distribution save a lot on gas and energy.

Portland is a big food town and people are really into seasonal and local foods. Again, this cuts back on distribution and the huge amount of energy we expend in transporting our food. It also makes for wonderfully tasting food (the salmon are running in Alaska right now).

People get around on bikes—lots of bikes,cool trolleys and light rail (down to Beavertown and Nike and out to the vinyards in Hillsboro).

Peets and Stumptown and other coffee shops have real spoons and cups that they wash to cut down on throw-away stuff. There is a strong aversion to throw-away.

I stayed at the Ace Hotel, an old SRO in what was once the seedy part of town, that was just refurbished into hip, modern, cool. But it was done so it retained its old wood details, slow elevator and funky corridors remained. Even as you leave Portland, you’re reminded of this eco-culture. Go to the airport bathrooms (at least the Men’s) and there are Sloan Water Saving Dual Function Handles (which are green). Liquid wastes, push up (less water). Solid wastes, push down (more water). So simple, it blew me away.

Something is happening in Portland.