Sandra Weeks

Five and half years after the collapse of the global financial market, fingers are still being pointed: at the wealthy for reckless trading, at the poor for living above their means, at Republicans for deregulating, at Democrats for runaway spending.

The ticket out of the darkness, however, may be to recognize that economic recovery cannot be framed as a white-collar or blue-collar (or even a red or blue) issue. Building a vital and competitive economy will require innovative, growth-oriented thinking. It will require us to recognize that, this time, the real solutions may be in the hands of the green-collared workers.

Research into the nation’s economic recovery indicates that communities like Boulder, whose economies rely heavily on green industry, are bouncing back quicker. According to a national report released by the Economic Policy Institute, greener industries are outperforming the rest of the economy.

Though the data are still young and definition of green jobs can vary, some interesting trends in green industry are emerging that may have a significant impact on Boulder’s ability to climb out of the latest recession.

Sectors in the economy with a “higher green intensity,” or percentage of green jobs, have faster employment growth, according to the Economic Policy Institute report. In a state that boasts the third highest green intensity in the country —Colorado stands behind only Vermont and Pennsylvania — future prospects are encouraging.

“Boulder really fared better than most places in the country during the economic downturn,” says Liz Hanson, the City of Boulder’s economic vitality coordinator.

Hanson attributes Boulder’s relative success to a diverse local economy.

“We’re not a one-company town, so we still had industry sectors that continued to grow in that period,” Hanson explains.

Boulder’s leading industries, such as federal research labs, the University of Colorado and green and clean tech, proved more stable than other industries, which corresponded to more stable employment, she says.

Data compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics supports Hanson’s claims. According to the their numbers, Boulder’s unemployment rate (5.1 percent as of April 2013) remained consistently below both state and national levels (6.9 percent and 7.5 percent, respectively, as of April 2013) throughout the recession.

Although Boulder fared relatively well, not all industries were immune to the financial crisis.

The construction sector, which according to the report has the second highest green intensity, suffered heavily at the start of the recession. According to Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, Colorado construction employment dropped more than 25 percent between 2006 and 2011.

Sandra Weeks, the president of the Colorado Green Building Guild and the president and owner of Blue Spruce Design and Construction, a Boulderbased construction firm that specializes in green retrofitting, recalls the tough times in the construction industry.

“The recession hit across the board,” says Weeks. Business owners “had to tighten their belt and in some cases reorganize and redefine how they were going to approach their business moving forward.”

However, over the last couple of years, the green construction sector in particular has begun to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

In Boulder, green construction appears to be “healthy all across the residential and commercial construction spectrum,” Weeks says. “Things have really picked up and there’s a lot of work going on now.”

Weeks attributes the sector’s recovery to government influence (both on a national and local level) and Boulder residents’ progressive and environmentally conscious attitudes.

“Building codes are changing and they’re mandating that new construction, as well as remodels, meet certain criteria,” Weeks explains. Boulder’s Green Points and BuildSmart programs require that certain energy efficiency requirements be met before the city issues a building permit. Because of these requirements, green construction has been able to stay afloat despite a severe drop in new construction.

The federal government also played a role by investing in the U.S.’s green industry through the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The Recovery Act provided federal funding to rebate programs such as EnergySmart to offset the costs of energy efficient retrofitting for both commercial and residential buildings.

The federally funded rebate programs, coupled with the local government’s environmental building mandates, have heightened public awareness of energy efficiency.

“Green building became almost the new normal,” Weeks says.

Richard Fleming, the president of the Boulder Independent Business Alliance (BIBA), an advocacy group for small businesses, also attributes Boulder’s relative resilience in the recession to Boulder residents’ distinct demographic.

“I think what you have that’s unique to Boulder, and the reason that the green industries are so successful, is that you have this creative class and you have this highly focused set of educated people that are committed to enhancing the world, and that starts at this local level,” Fleming says.

He’s right. Boulder is home to one of the most educated populations in the country. Nearly 60 percent of Boulder’s residents over 25 years old have a bachelor’s degree or higher, more than double the national average (28.5 percent).

“There are a lot of very young, hungry people that are looking to get in and get big and make a difference and I think the most immediate sector for them to enter into is the green sector because it’s popular and it’s necessary,” says Fleming. “It’s in that fad, but it’s also very timely and important.”

According to Fleming, local businesses can be influential in shaping a community’s culture by adopting certain environmental practices.

One example is Movement, Boulder’s energy-efficient climbing and fitness gym. More than 80 percent of its energy comes from solar panels and solar thermal heaters.

Western Disposal, Boulder County’s primary waste management company, is a leader in green practices. It, too, felt the effects of the recession; as construction jobs disappeared, so did commercial and consumer waste.

However, by embracing green business practices, education and community outreach, Western Disposal weathered the recession. They worked with many local businesses, such as Ozo Coffee, to divert waste from the landfill through composting and recycling.

While the role Boulder’s eco-friendly industries played in the city’s quick economic recovery is difficult to quantify, there’s no doubt that the city and the federal government believe in the vitality of green industry. Match that with Boulder’s uniquely educated and environmentally conscious population and you have a solid recipe for a thriving green economy — despite the economic downturn.

Going green doesn’t just make environmental sense, it makes economic sense too. Finally, a study that both sides of the political spectrum can get behind. Share that at your next dinner with the in-laws.