Taking on the big challenges | August 8, 2012 | Almanac | Almanac Online |



Cover Story - August 8, 2012

Taking on the big challenges

Menlo Park native, 27, becomes leader in the green-building movement

by Elena Kadvany

In 2005, a self-described "annoying student advocate" got the University of California at Santa Barbara to replace all of the campus' carpets with "green," environmentally sustainable carpets. She went on to write the entire UC system's first sustainable purchasing policy, transforming the way companies do business with the UCs.

Now, Ashleigh Talberth, 27, of Menlo Park has taken on an even bigger challenge: persuading California companies to reduce their building's energy, water and waste by 20 percent in just two years.

This is not just some idle wish. As director of special projects for the Northern California Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, Ms. Talberth is leading the charge on the project, known as the California Best Buildings Challenge, which has won the backing of former president Bill Clinton and his Clinton Global Initiative.

Menlo Park native

Born and raised in Menlo Park, Ashleigh Talberth attended Hillview Middle School and graduated from Menlo-Atherton High School in 2003.

She went on to study business economics at UC Santa Barbara, but it wasn't until her sophomore year that any interest in environmental issues was sparked. "I had kind of an 'aha' moment," she said.

She attended an on-campus screening of a documentary called "The Corporation," a film that takes an in-depth look at the concept of the modern-day corporation. She was struck by a particular interview with Ray Anderson, chairman and founder of an international carpet company called Interface Inc.

In the film, Mr. Anderson explains his own "aha" moment. After reading "The Ecology of Commerce," by Paul Hawken, he decided to transform his entire life and company.

"He (Mr. Anderson) basically had this epiphany and realized his company was contributing to a lot of environmental destruction," Ms. Talberth explained. Carpets can use a lot of oil and give off chemicals that pose a multitude of potential health dangers.

"He changed his whole company to make it uber green and to contribute toward making the world a better place rather than the alternative," said Ms. Talberth. "That really inspired me."

So she decided to start with what she had: the college she was attending and an inspiring story about an environmentally conscious carpet company.

After extensive research, Ms. Talberth learned that UC Santa Barbara could go "green" and reduce its environmental impact, as well as save thousands of dollars, just by changing the carpets. She approached the facilities people, first at UCSB, and then devoted lots of time to persuading all 10 UC campuses to change their practices with regard to carpets.

Ms. Talberth eventually helped change the way the UC campuses do business by writing their first sustainable purchasing policy. "Now, when companies go to do business with the UC system, it's not just about cost," she said. "They're not just bargaining over that; they're bargaining over recycled content and sustainability and that kind of thing."

As a business economics major with a passion for the environment, Ms. Talberth says she thrives at this intersection of business and sustainability.

Her introduction into the sustainability world was through carpets, but she soon moved onto green building.

"Carpets go into buildings, but buildings are so much bigger than that. I really believe that the way to have the biggest impact in the most cost-efficient way toward sustainability is through buildings," she said.

This belief led her to her current position at the Northern California chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council in San Francisco, where she went to work after graduating from UCSB in 2007.

From architects to engineers to lawyers, she has worked on educating people and companies about green building. But her strong interest in public policy and advocacy eventually led her beyond education.

In the spring of 2011, President Obama issued a "Better Building Challenge," which calls on businesses in the U.S. to reduce energy consumed in buildings by 20 percent by 2020. Ms. Talberth said she was inspired by the president's idea and originally thought the local chapter of the Green Building Council could contribute by recruiting California companies to join the campaign. But should they go beyond that?

Last November, she convened a group of Silicon Valley company leaders to discuss what California's green building role should be.

"What came out of those conversations was this very California attitude: We're California, we don't just do what the rest of the country does. We're leaders, we're innovators, we set the bar," she said.

She took the president's "better" and made it "best," proposing the California Best Buildings Challenge, which calls on companies to reduce their building's energy, water and waste by 20 percent in just two years.

After much collaboration with other Green Building Council staff members, executive director Dan Geiger, the Green Building board, and the national office, Ms. Talberth got six companies to commit to her project: Google, Zynga, Genentec, SAP, Prudential Real Estate Investors and Adobe.

She also spearheaded an effort to win support of the Best Buildings Challenge by the Clinton Global Initiative. Former president Bill Clinton founded this initiative in 2005 with the goal of inspiring global leaders to find innovative solutions to the world's most pressing problems, from poverty to pollution. The initiative selects companies or projects, and issues "commitments" that bring together leading company executives and "gets them to commit to doing good things," she said.

The California Best Buildings Challenge was selected by the Clinton Global Initiative as a 2012 commitment. It was officially launched on June 11 at a Clinton Global Initiative event in Chicago.

Although Ms. Talberth did not join the Green Building Council CEO, Rick Fedrezzi, on stage with President Clinton at the event, the president did come by to "chime in" on a breakout session that she attended earlier in the day.

"This has been a huge step in my career. I've always kind of had this theme of the connection between business and sustainability," she said. "This has really taken it to a whole new level."

Now she is working on building momemtum in this area for a Greenbuild conference in November when she says 40,000 people are expected to show up at Moscone Center in San Francisco.


Visit tinyurl.com/Best-626 for more information on California's Best Buildings Challenge. Here are links to videos on the Challenge:

> tinyurl.com/Green-803

> tinyurl.com/Green-804


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