Go green—San Francisco hosts America’s largest green festival in the world

Building sustainable green local economies based on ecological balance and social justice

We recently returned from San Francisco, where we had a wide variety of experiences including environmental, cultural and the requisite tourist stops. We rode cable cars; walked through Chinatown; saw the Golden Gate bridge; visited Muir Woods on a rainy day perfect for creating a spiritual mood; and strolled along Fisherman’s Wharf viewing sea lions relaxing and wrestling and people fishing under toxic chemical warning signs. We had been invited there by a national professional organization seeking our perspective on citizen participation.

We also attended what was billed as the largest sustainability conference in the world—the Global Exchange and Co-Op America’s green festival. The two-day festival was shockingly large and overwhelming. It was held at the Exhibition Center, which is a one story building covering an entire city block. With 475 green business booths and 125 speakers, there was just too much information available to absorb over the two-day event.

It was designed to reinvigorate people with the ideals, energy and hope to create healthier, greener ways of living while contributing to a thriving local green economy. Judging by the throngs of people filling the aisles, the event certainly provided a boost to the economy of San Francisco.

The festival covered all sustainable living bases. Electricity powering the event came from methane digesters from a nearby dairy operation. Rideshare programs, discounts to bike riders and convenient public transit maps encouraged participants to minimize single-passenger auto transportation to the festival.

The exclusive serving of organic foods and beverages further demonstrated a commitment to advancing a model of sustainable living on the part of the event organizers.

A wide range of products and services demonstrated the possibilities of building sustainable green local economies based on ecological balance and social justice. Community action groups focused on ecology, peace, human rights, organic gardening and redefining progress enthusiastically explained their concerns and visions to participants.

Conservation and recycling groups showcased products from recycled plastics and paper to sculptures from recycled metals.

Ecofashion displays were dominated by organic cotton, wool and hemp. Fair trade products came from Africa, Guatemala, Mexico, Southeast Asia, Madagascar and South Africa. Fourteen institutions had booths and handouts to explain their programs to those seeking careers or educational programs in the green economy. Less formal learning interests at a dozen booths featured books, magazines, films and DVDs. Natural health and body care products were available at 25 booths. Pills, lotions, drinks, oils, diets and home machines to cleanse home air and water were offered as aids to cleaner, healthier living. Thirty-six booths offered natural home and garden products. Cabinets, flooring, paints, rugs, glassware, bed, bath and kitchen furnishings along with ecofriendly cremation and memorials were displayed. Bamboo and palm flooring, plywood, paneling and veneers were offered as ecologically sustainable building materials.

Renewable energy displays were surprisingly sparse, considering California’s national leadership in solar installations. Only five firms specializing in installing renewable energy systems were present. One booth highlighted the benefits of biodiesel fuels.

Eleven firms featured socially responsible investing, and six focused on sustainable travel and tours.

What the event demonstrated to us is that sustainable living and building green economies is a vibrant business trend dominated by many small firms that is edging its way into our national economy. Another less comforting impression is that the green consumer movement merely modifies our patterns of consumption and fails to convey a sense of urgency regarding the need to consume far less than we do to restore the health of the planet.

From the Nov. 16-22, 2005, issue

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