By Mary Grauerholz

Rick Fedrizzi’s new book explores how the country can reduce its carbon footprint while thriving economically.

When Rick Fedrizzi’s name comes up in conversation, it is often about his experience at UTC Carrier Corporation, when he got a directive from the CEO to create a “green agenda” for the air conditioning and heating division of the company—a pivotal moment that began the journey toward creation of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).

But the life path that unfurled for Fedrizzi, USGBC’s CEO and founding chair, began much earlier, at the feet of his father. Fedrizzi’s dad, Arigo Fedrizzi, worked with his Italian parents and sister as farm labor throughout central New York, living in poverty and growing their own food in the backyard. “They picked everything imaginable,” Fedrizzi says in a recent interview. “It’s a reality for many people throughout the world.”

Arigo Fedrizzi, burdened in his young life, took comfort in nature in his parenting years. “Whenever he could break away,” Fedrizzi says, “we would walk in the woods, go frogging—catch and release—to smell the clean air and feel the refuge nature gives you.”

Rick Fedrizzi is USGBC’s CEO and founding chair and has authored the new book Greenthink. Photo: Michael Dambrosia

Those times with his father taught Fedrizzi a healthy respect for work. But more importantly, it gave him a deep reverence for the earth—what Fedrizzi calls his “ability to recognize that our biosphere needs to be respected.”

Under Fedrizzi’s direction, USGBC now leads a segment of the global real estate industry with an expected value of more than $3 billion by 2020. The catalyst for that growth has been USGBC’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system. Currently there are LEED projects in more than 150 countries and territories, encompassing 14.4 billion square feet of space (including 4.5 billion square feet that is already certified).

Now, Fedrizzi has explored the role of construction in the future of the planet—in the context of how our country can reduce C02 and thrive economically—in his book, Greenthink: How Profit Can Save the Planet (Disruption Books). Proceeds of the book go to USGBC’s Project Haiti and Center for Green Schools initiatives.

Proceeds of Greenthink will go to the HOK-designed William Jefferson Clinton Children’s Center in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Proceeds also benefit the Center for Green Schools, which promotes global initiatives such as the annual Green Apple Day of Service. Bottom Photo: Ana L. Ka’ahanui

Leonardo DiCaprio, who calls Fedrizzi’s work “revolutionary,” lays out the potential peril to the earth in the book’s foreword, in which he states: “We are living during a period of change unprecedented in the history of our planet.”

In Greenthink, Fedrizzi demonstrates that environmentalism and profit-based business can do much more than simply coexist. They can work together in sublime, syncopated fashion, building on each other for the benefit of the planet and its people. As Fedrizzi writes in his book, “The most successful environmental organizations today work with business, to show them how much money they can save—and/or make—by transitioning to sustainable business practice.”

It is a matter, Fedrizzi says, of rising above the divisive mood of politics, learning how to collaborate, and staring down the old-school attitude that profit and environmentalism do not mix. In fact, business has the potential to succeed in environmentalism in a way that the government has not, he says.

Fedrizzi reflected on the global agreement to reduce global warming, reached this past winter, at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. The unprecedented consensus was a big step forward, but now, Fedrizzi says, governments must ratify it.

“It’s the best intentions and the best strategy,” Fedrizzi says of the agreement, “but now the governments have to put their intentions into action.”

Fedrizzi says there is a clear way around the slogging nature of Congress today. “The real change won’t happen in the Paris conference rooms; I think it will happen in business boardrooms,” he says. “Business is the answer; incentives matter. We have to do it the right way.”

Environmentalists, he writes, have traditionally treated the business community as an antagonist, and with good reason. “For a long time, industry was the opponent,” Fedrizzi says. “Today the game has changed—completely. Sustainability is now profitable.”

He mentions businesses that are taking big steps with no urging by government. “Look at companies like Colgate-Palmolive, which has its own carbon-reduction strategies,” Fedrizzi says. “That’s exciting.” Other companies are linking with environmental nonprofits to act more sustainably, he says, such as the Environmental Defense Fund convincing McDonald’s to change its packaging.

The caveat: Such work must be third-party certified, to prevent greenwashing and incidents such as the Volkswagen debacle, in which the German carmaker admitted to cheating on emissions tests in the U.S. “I think everything must be data driven and transparent,” Fedrizzi says. “Everything needs to be third-party certified.” When third-party certification is in place—as it is for LEED through Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI)—consumers get solid information they need to make confident choices in the marketplace, he adds.

Fedrizzi mentioned the Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark (GRESB)—operated by GBCI—an industry-driven organization that assesses the Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG) performance of real estate assets around the world. Collection of real data, Fedrizzi said, means that sustainable assets then become a basis for large investors’ decisions for their portfolios.

This concept—incentivizing businesses to embrace sustainability—took root for Fedrizzi in the 1990s, when he was a marketing executive at Carrier. “When I was asked by the CEO to help green the company, I knew ozone was just one piece of the story,” he says. “We looked at the refrigerant, the packaging, recycling, transportation, acoustics, air quality, and thermal comfort. When you put that together, you’ve got a holistic story.” It was an enormous success. From there, Fedrizzi teamed with David Gottfried and Mike Italiano to create USGBC.

When USGBC was established in 1993, there were 13 member organizations, 11 of which represented business. “There were 13 members for a very long time,” Fedrizzi says. Today there are more than 12,000 member organizations. Buildings are a substantial piece of climate change, accounting for 40 percent of the world’s energy consumption and a third of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Fedrizzi predicts that in the next 10 to 20 years, LEED certification levels will rise and displace what we know as current building code. As the floor for what is acceptable rises, says Fedrizzi, everybody benefits. “And, at some point, we quit measuring sustainability in square feet; we begin measuring in buildings and entire communities. We have to keep our minds open and think about the context of what world we’re moving into.”

That is what is required, because climate change is such a massive issue, Fedrizzi says. It can be mind-boggling: “Peel back the onion one more time, and we discover another layer.”

“People think, ‘What could I possibly do?’ We could eat less beef, carpool, make better choices. There are so many things we could do, but we get paralyzed.” Setting ourselves on the right course, he says, boils down to education, inclusion, and collaboration. At the end of the day, it isn’t about worlds of government and industry sectors: “It’s all about the people.”

Greenthink implores environmentalists and millennials not to waste an opportunity to participate in what could be a new environmental movement. “Don’t ignore the marketplace,” he writes, “embrace it.”

“Profitability,” Fedrizzi writes, “is sustainable.”