Today you’ll hear from three leaders shaping some of those solutions in food, fashion, and transportation. First, my colleague, Jonathan Capehart, will sit down with Rob Rubba, a James Beard Award-winning chef behind the largely plant-based restaurant, Oyster Oyster. Next, Bina Venkataraman will talk to Anne Marie Johnson about her sustainable clothing line. Then Bina will speak with Ali Zaidi, Assistant to President Biden and National Climate Advisor, about the ways government is incentivizing Americans to drive electric vehicles.
Before we get started, I’d like to thank today’s sponsor for this event, Waste Management.
We want to thank you again for coming. My colleague Jonathan Capehart will take the stage after this short video. Thank you.
MR. CAPEHART: Good morning, and welcome to The Washington Post. I’m Jonathan Capehart, associate editor at The Post.
Joining me on stage, winner of the 2023 James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef of the Michelin-starred restaurant, Oyster Oyster. Rob Rubba, thank you very much for being here.
MR. CAPEHART: So I made an admission to you backstage that I’m very provincial. I rarely leave Northwest when it comes to my culinary habits. So I’d never heard of Oyster Oyster, and your reaction was rather surprising. You were like, “That’s great.”
MR. CAPEHART: “I’m so happy to hear that.” Why? Explain why.
MR. RUBBA: Yeah. We’ve won a lot of accolades. We’ve got a lot of recognition, but to still hear that there’s individuals out there that haven’t been to the restaurant or have any idea what it is gives us an opportunity for new guests to come in and experience what we do and open the doors to sustainability for them.
MR. CAPEHART: So what was the catalyst for opening your restaurant? Because you’ve worked for several Michelin-starred restaurants in New York and Chicago, Las Vegas, Philadelphia. So why open your own restaurant?
MR. RUBBA: You have control to make the change you want and you want to see. I worked in a lot of those restaurants for years, and the status quo was what it was to be a Michelin star restaurant, to be a restaurant of excellence, and through some time of researching and looking at things, I realized those restaurants were far from sustainable. That was something that was very close to me, and I wanted to implement, and it’s hard to do that with other people pulling the strings.
MR. CAPEHART: Mm-hmm. And so then talk more about your focus on sustainability. What’s the driving force behind that?
MR. RUBBA: Ah. Permanence. I love restaurants. I think they’re fantastic, and what we’re seeing happen with the climate crisis that we’re going through, restaurants are a conduit for the whole food system, right? Like, we deliver that to our guests. We’re the people that kind of are the tastemakers of what is happening.
When I started thinking about this, I thought I would probably just quit and not cook, but I realized this is my soapbox. It’s the only thing I know how to do. So let’s do it correctly. And I love restaurants, and I want there to be restaurants in the future. So I feel like we’re approaching the restaurant in a way that is a stepping stone to what restaurants will be in the future.
MR. CAPEHART: Mm-hmm. So explain, though, sustainability. How are you defining sustainability, and how does it manifest itself on your menu?
MR. RUBBA: Yeah. Sustainability can be a greenwashed word or something we don’t know what it means. To us, it’s about being a very responsible restaurant. We look at everything we do from the ground up and what’s important about that, whether it be who is actually farming our food, what is the life like for the individual who’s picking the vegetables. Is that sustainable? Are they spraying with chemicals? No. We’re going to buy regenerative organic produce. And then that’s one thing to just get it through the door, but it’s how we actually create it now. Like, there’s one thing, I could buy all these organic local ingredients and then cook them with commodity butter or on a bunch of fire, gas, and all this and kind of have these effects. So it’s very important how we do it. We use like very little extensive water use. We don’t really have a water issue here in D.C., but we see droughts all over. So we want to work with that mindset of conservation of water use in a restaurant.
We use primarily induction cooking and electric cookware there, really big on kind of no waste, really focusing on an ingredient, saying what parts of it can be reused? Can we make something interesting out of that?
We had like excess of bread at the restaurant for a while, and we were like, well, we could turn this into breadcrumbs or croutons and all these things. And we ended up turning it into a miso exactly a year ago, and now we have this beautiful fermented product that we can use on our menu now and kind of tell this story.
And then we’ve pushed it really far most recently. We got rid of all single-use bottles and cans of like beer and cider at the restaurant, and the only thing that was still around were bottles of wine because people enjoy drinking at a restaurant, right? We like those libations. But we still had bottles, and we know recycling exists, but there’s a high percentage that doesn’t even ever make it to a recycling facility.
So we partnered with a local ceramic artist, and with Ruinart Champagne. They were making this really new, awesome champagne. So we bought a bottle crusher. We now crush our wine bottles, turn it into sand basically, and then our local ceramic artist, Material Things, turns that into plateware for the restaurant.
So we’re closing loops, finding ways to reuse everything, and make it more sustainable.
MR. CAPEHART: Can I bring you back to–you talked about waste, and this jumped out at me, because the EPA reports that 30 to 40 percent of the U.S. food supply is wasted annually, with more than 11 tons of waste per year coming from the restaurant industry alone.
MR. CAPEHART: When it comes to reducing waste, does that translate into reduced portion size?
MR. RUBBA: Well, we do a tasting menu, right? So I eat that menu every day, which is kind of cool. I get to eat a Michelin meal every single day, but–
MR. RUBBA: We want to make sure that it’s–that you feel satiated afterwards, but you don’t feel an overabundance. We want to make sure you’re not leaving hungry because we don’t want that story of “I had to go get French fries or pizza after my dinner,” right?
MR. RUBBA: So we have to balance that. But it’s not really–it’s more of having a portion control, I think, and making sure the meal as a whole is satisfying, and that’s kind of the beauty of it. The way we’re doing the menu is that there’s bites of things, and diminishing return doesn’t happen. You don’t get bored of eating this giant portion of something. Yeah, that’s one way.
MR. CAPEHART: Talk more about–I’m going to bring you back to the ingredients in this in the sourcing of the ingredients that you bring into the restaurant and that you make as part of your tasting menu. Are there ingredients that you don’t use or–at all for one reason or another–or were there ingredients that you did use, but then you decided, “Eh, this doesn’t fit with our sustainability model”?
MR. RUBBA: Great question. I’ve got all the answers for you on that one.
MR. RUBBA: So we do root our cuisine in the Mid-Atlantic. So we make sure everything that we’re cooking represents where we are, a sense of time and place. So that even comes down to spices. We have a hard time acquiring a large enough amount by anyone locally. So we do source some spices from other parts of the world through a very good, good source. But we make sure that they’re native here. So we don’t have any cinnamon on the menu, vanilla. A lot of spices don’t appear on our menu. We don’t have coconut. We don’t have cashews. We don’t have almonds. These things that you would find normally in plant-based restaurants don’t exist for us. So that always became a challenge, because when I started to go down this road, you would find every recipe for a baked good has coconut or cashew cream or something like in it, and we can’t use it. So we’ve eliminated that. It’s really looking more into native and indigenous plants that are here in the wild forage realm and kind of bringing them into the forefront of spices and ingredients that we could use.
Appalachian allspice, also known as “Lindera,” is something we use in the restaurant, and that gives you perspective on what goes into the spice industry, because our team of five picked three pounds of separating this barrier and seed, which turns out when it’s dried to maybe 16 ounces. And that took us about six hours to do. So you think when you find that little five-dollar bottle of spices on the counter, who’s really behind that?
And then we are primarily plant-based. We do cook with butter occasionally, but eggs were something we always struggled with. Like, did they make sense with their food or not? And we realized with the last big increase in pricing and all that, it didn’t make sense anymore on the menu.
MR. CAPEHART: You used to have avocados–no, no, no. I’m misreading this. This says early sketches of the menu had to constantly be revised.
MR. CAPEHART: Avocados and citrus fruits aren’t found in any dishes since it’s hard to grow them at scale in the D.C. area, which we’ve kind of explained. But this is the one that just made me go, “What?” There’s no olive oil.
MR. RUBBA: No. And I love olive oil.
MR. RUBBA: Yeah. My grandmother used to massage my head with olive oil when I was a baby, you know, make sure it was nice and round. I don’t know if that worked out, but yeah.
MR. CAPEHART: So no olive oil because–well, I haven’t seen an olive tree anywhere around here. So that is the reason why.
MR. CAPEHART: So you used to be a meat eater; now you’re a vegetarian. Was the decision behind that due–was that related to climate change?
MR. RUBBA: I think that’s the tipping point for me, was that. I always was fascinated by it. Early in my career, I had kind of wanted to dabble with it, but it would be hard to keep rising up in the ranks in the kitchen if you–if you can’t eat the duck, you don’t cook the duck, right? So then around 2016, I started to look into it, and I could see what was happening. And it kind of built up, built up, and I just had to make that change from there.
MR. CAPEHART: So I’m a meat eater. Convince me why I should change course and become vegetarian.
MR. RUBBA: Well, you haven’t been the Oyster Oyster yet, so–
MR. CAPEHART: Okay. So that’s–
MR. RUBBA: That’s how we’re going to do that.
MR. CAPEHART: That’s step one. Okay.
MR. RUBBA: That’s step one.
MR. RUBBA: I think the plant kingdom is so exciting. Like, for me, I’ve cooked everything under the sun. I’ve prepared it. I’ve eaten it. And now this is probably the most exciting cooking I’ve ever done in my career. I think there’s so much you can do.
I think vegetables are generally like the side, and they’re not treated with the same attention to detail. And once you do that, I think the flavors are remarkable.
MR. CAPEHART: Let me bring you back to your conversation where you’re telling us about spices and looking for local ingredients. Is there something that you found or that your team found that completely surprised you in a good way in terms of bringing it to the menu and putting it in food?
MR. RUBBA: Oh, that’s a great one. Wow. There’s so many. I would go back to the spicebush was really a great thing. I mean, it took a lot of work, but it replaced a lot of things for us. It kind of has citrus notes to it. It has spice. It brings in that allspice-warming thing that you would get from cinnamon and really played an amazing, amazing role on our menu now.
MR. CAPEHART: You’ve said–and I’m quoting you, back to you–“Sustainability is not just about our environment. It’s also about ourselves.” You’ve prioritized working conditions and mental health, but can you explain what you meant by this?
MR. RUBBA: I came up in kitchens where you would get a pan thrown at you, screamed at all day, worked seven days a week for 20 hours a day, get paid for eight of those hours. [Laughs] And that’s not how anyone should operate, right?
And when we built this restaurant out, we wanted to kind of break down those barriers. There’s always this term, “front of the house” and “back of the house.” We consider it more one house. Servers and cooks work in unison. Our culinary team will run food and talk to guests. We make sure we’re closed two days a week, which are Sunday and Monday for us. Sunday, they get a day with their friends who work normal office hours, and then Monday is a beautiful day to have off because everyone else is at work, and you have the world to yourself. We close twice a year for a full week, sometimes 10 days a section, and that’s a paid vacation for everyone. We completely close the restaurant down. We think that’s great because it gives you a sense of relaxation. You’re not worried about someone else working your station or anything along the lines of that.
We pay everyone extremely well, above average for anything in the industry. Our porter/dishwasher is probably one of the highest-paid people in our restaurant. They are the hardest-working people in restaurants, and we want to make sure that that’s a respected position.
Yeah. It’s just, try to create a healthy culture where laughter is encouraged over being angry. Yeah.
MR. CAPEHART: So many questions I have based out of that answer, and I’m going to try to get through them in the seven minutes and 15 seconds that we have left.
MR. CAPEHART: So let me bring you to paying your employees very well. What do you say to restauranteurs who don’t follow your example, who say, “Oh no, I can’t afford to pay people what they’re worth or what they deserve, otherwise we’ll go out of business”?
MR. RUBBA: I think the model was built on being exploitive from the beginning, and I think you have to change your model to get to that point.
After covid, we saw a large drop in the workforce in general. I think there’s a lot of things. You know, we saw a lot of abuse and sexual harassment stuff prior to that, that made the industry kind of ugly. And it’s time to make it exciting and more attractive again, and I think it should–it’s something we all go and do. We love going out to eat. It’s a form of entertainment and escapism, and the people that are behind that are just as important as anything else. Whether you go see musicians play or actors, they deserve to be living a good life as well.
MR. CAPEHART: How many of you have seen “The Bear”? So when he initially started answering the question about the working conditions, how many of you immediately–as soon as he said people have had pans thrown at them and people are yelling and screaming all the time, did any of you instantly think, oh, I saw that on “The Bear”?
MR. CAPEHART: Oh, no–I mean, I see you.
MR. CAPEHART: I have seen “The Bear.” As someone who likes to eat but hates to cook, I found it thoroughly fascinating. Which came first? Your vision of what a kitchen should look like or–and how it should–how a restaurant should operate or “The Bear,” as we see it go from–the arc of going from pure chaos to this beautifully run–not machine, but you know what I mean.
MR. CAPEHART: Beautifully run restaurant where everyone’s in harmony, everyone is on the same page.
MR. RUBBA: I think it came first, wanting that and building that. We built up very slow. When we first opened, it was myself and two other cooks, and we were the dishwashers, and we were the prep team. And we slowly added individuals to the team that were going to gel and make the culture we wanted rather than try to hire a huge team and work out all those situations. So we started very small and just expanded and expanded, and now we have a very large team of 12 with our service team and our back-of-the-house team, now kitchen.
MR. CAPEHART: So then what’s your advice for the next generation of chefs of–or restaurateurs who also want to prioritize the culture that you’re talking about, but more importantly, this mode of sustainability that you’ve brought to Oyster Oyster?
MR. RUBBA: Yeah. One, don’t waste your time at culinary school. It’s very expensive.
MR. RUBBA: And they’re going to probably teach you things that aren’t going to be relevant. I’d say find a good mentor and somebody–do some research about the restaurant. Find out if they’re doing things in a sustainable manner, if they’re thinking progressive and looking towards the future, and work under that person and that team. And gain as much as you can.
Read. Read a lot of books. Don’t just read cookbooks. There’s so much good literature out there about climate crisis, sustainability, et cetera, that will really guide you in the direction you need to go in this career.
MR. CAPEHART: Oh, I forgot to ask one more thing about–at Oyster Oyster, do you add the tip into the price, into the check, or is tipping allowed at your restaurant?
MR. RUBBA: It’s allowed. It’s not necessarily encouraged. But if someone is like, “I had an amazing time. I want you all to have a little extra,” they can go ahead and do that. But it’s already added in when you make your reservation into the fee. Yeah.
MR. CAPEHART: Last question for you. As I mentioned earlier, you are the winner of the 2023 James Beard Outstanding Chef Award. You got your Michelin star last year. What do these recognitions mean to you?
MR. RUBBA: To me, it’s satisfying, but I think for the work we’re doing at the restaurant, it means a lot more. I think, one, cooking primarily plant-based food, kind of in this relaxed environment that we’re doing and this culture that can seem lackadaisical at times to get these accolades is very rewarding and encouraging for others that they can do this too, right? Like, if you’re chasing these goals, that you can achieve them and have a good time too.
MR. CAPEHART: I’ve always wondered, with the Michelin star, is that something you apply for or someone just–someone from Team Michelin shows up, and suddenly, they’re there in your restaurant, and then you find out months later that you got this star?
MR. RUBBA: Yeah. It’s like a Santa Claus type of thing.
MR. RUBBA: Yeah. You don’t–they keep it very unwrapped who’s who, you know. I mean, you can find out who critics are sometimes for different publications. But this, I have no idea who they are, and then you find out months later.
Last night, we were in New York City for the unveiling of it, and I took a very early train this morning to be here, so–
MR. CAPEHART: Which makes me wonder. I’ve seen lots of stories in the last couple of years about restauranteurs who have had Michelin stars, and they give them back. They say, “I–No, I don’t want this because the standards are so high,” which means you have to jack up the prices on the menu, and sometimes the prices go beyond the community that the restaurant is in. Do you worry about that?
MR. RUBBA: That’s great. I try not to let that pressure get to us. I think I always want to keep our eye on the prize of working every day to be a better restaurant, a more responsible restaurant, a better place to work at, a better place for our community, as well as a restaurant that’s going to be better for the future. And I think that’s always our goal, and if it doesn’t fit into these boxes over time, that’s fine because that’s priority number one.
MR. CAPEHART: So for someone like me who’s never been to Oyster Oyster, give me the 42-second pitch.
MR. RUBBA: Oh, that’s why we didn’t get many investors. I’m not good at this.
MR. RUBBA: Okay. So we cook a seasonal menu, Mid-Atlantic ingredients. It’s a tasting-menu format, and you’re going to really taste what is at the peak of the season with a beautiful wine selection of biodynamic and organic wines that can be paired with your meal as well as some house-made juices that are curated in-house as well for nonalcoholic pairings. At the end of your meal, you will be presented with your menu, because a lot of people don’t like certain vegetables, and we don’t want them to have something already going up here.
MR. RUBBA: So we give it to you at the end, and that menu is printed on recycled paper with wildflower seeds. And in the spring and summer, you can plant your menu and grow pollinators for the region.
MR. CAPEHART: For someone who’s not good at pitching, you did an amazing job.
MR. CAPEHART: Rob Rubba, winner of the 2023 James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef of the Michelin-starred restaurant, Oyster Oyster–I love saying that–thank you very much for joining us.
MR. RUBBA: Thank you. Yeah, it’s a pleasure. Thank you.
MR. CAPEHART: My Post colleague, Bina Venkataraman, will be on stage with Bitter Grace owner, Anne Marie Johnson, after this video. Stay with us.
MS. VENKATARAMAN: Welcome back. For those just joining, I’m Bina Venkataraman. I’m a columnist at The Washington Post, and I’m pleased to be joined here today by Anne Marie Johnson. Anne Marie is the founder of Bitter Grace, a D.C.-based clothing store and lifestyle brand.
MS. JOHNSON: Thank you. Good morning.
MS. VENKATARAMAN: So let’s start at the beginning. Your business is about three years old, Bitter Grace, and tell us what the catalyst was for building this business.
MS. JOHNSON: I’ve always wanted to build a space or create a space that nourishes the mind, body, and spirit, a space that fosters creativity, innovation, connection, and community, a space that reminds us of the infinite possibilities that’s available for us. And we sometimes forget that clothing is form of self-expression, and I believe that if we took the time as people to leverage clothing intentionally and deliberately, we would see it as a valuable tool that helps us connect with ourselves and other people in meaningful ways.
MS. VENKATARAMAN: So is this a community center or a clothing store? Explain how does this work.
MS. JOHNSON: It really is this lifestyle environment and the space that allows you to connect with who you are and who you want to be. We truly want people to be able to express themselves authentically, and this is why really clothing comes to play. We want people to see clothing in a different way, and I know you and I are going to talk about how that plays into how we do things, why we do things a certain way, and what sustainability means to us.
MS. VENKATARAMAN: So what does that look like? You know, I sort of tend to agree with you that clothing can be a form of self-expression, but when I walk into Bitter Grace, what does it feel like?
MS. JOHNSON: It feels like home. It feels familiar. It feels like a space where you can feel like anything’s possible, that helps you connect with your own capabilities, that helps you reimagine things differently. And that’s really about how we build our store, how we curate our products, and how we sell and how we interact with our customers. So it’s really very much it infuses the way we do things through how we interact and how we conduct ourselves as a business.
MS. VENKATARAMAN: Okay. I might need to probe that more, but for now I want to ask you, because it’s the theme of the day. You’ve said your business is rooted in sustainability. Explain–that’s sort of a term that’s been thrown around quite a lot, not just in fashion but in all sorts of industries–tell us what that means for Bitter Grace.
MS. JOHNSON: Yeah. This might be a long-winded answer, but I do think it’s important to bring context around this, because sustainability, especially in fashion, is such a widely-used term that gets thrown around so easily.
And while our mission extends beyond sustainability, sustainability is a–was born out of our commitment to integrity, which is one of our core values. It’s one of my greatest values, and what that means to me is doing the right thing when no one is watching.
And I never wanted to build a business just for profit, just to sell clothes. I wanted to build a business with meaning and purpose and serving with significance.
And so I’ll tell you one story that sort of led us down this path of sustainability and specifically being a conscious brand, and it was three years ago when we were building our first brick and mortar store in Capitol Hill. And a customer inquiry came through that seemed to be fairly simple and straightforward: Where are your materials from, and where are your clothes made from? And at the time, we were selling other brands. We were not producing our own clothing.
And so I asked the question. I had great relationships with our brand reps, and what seemed to be a fairly simple question or information to obtain was the exact opposite. And it really rattled me inside because at the core of my being, I never wanted to–
MS. VENKATARAMAN: Can you be more specific? What was it? What was not exactly what you thought it was going to be or–
MS. JOHNSON: The inability to provide adequate information about where the clothing is made from or where the materials are coming from.
MS. VENKATARAMAN: Got it.
MS. JOHNSON: And I would say that experience really revealed the hidden layers of fashion, what goes behind the scenes, and perhaps the intention of clothing companies to keep their sales and manufacturing departments separate from each other, and so that was really eye-opening.
And the inability to communicate that to my customer didn’t feel good internally, and it really–it led me down this path of getting curious around sustainability, and what is sustainable fashion? How can I define it in my own way that makes sense to me that I can easily apply in my day-to-day?
And we also wanted to be more inclusive. We wanted our clothing for everybody, and so it led me down the path of investing in our own development and the production of our own clothing, our in-house clothing line at Bitter Grace, which has been certainly a journey, because that started in 2021. So it’s only been a couple of years. It’s been a journey of learning opportunities, challenging constraints. And what I’ve learned is that there is this complex global ecosystem that far extends a clothing company, that involves so many key stakeholders, from fabric mills to dye houses that have been conditioned to operate a business model, that perpetuates this overconsumption, that is volume-based, that is incredibly–that drives every, you know, consumer behavior, pretty much.
MS. VENKATARAMAN: So how does it–how does the Bitter Grace model differ from that? So what do I know when I hold a piece of Bitter Grace clothing about either the materials, the labor, where it’s from? What can you tell us?
MS. JOHNSON: Well, for us, sustainable fashion is really about wearability, and what that means is, how can I leverage my garments as much as possible? So it’s not just something that’s meant for now. It’s not something that’s meant for one season. It’s not what’s–you know, it’s not something that’s meant for one event, and being able to really intentionally leverage it regularly throughout your everyday life. And longevity is the other factor. How can my garments evolve with me through time, through different chapters of my life?
So at Bitter Grace, we’re very consistent, and the way we do things, part of it is garment care, educating our customers in our community, how to properly care for your garments, because it is–it plays a key role in how your garments carry with you through time, through multiple washes, through multiple wears, and also just having clarity on who you want to be. Who do you want to be, and what do you want to stand for? Because I think with that enhanced awareness creates more thoughtful and conscious consumers.
So this is really how we educate, is through transparency, bringing people into our process, sharing with them our challenges, and with the proper knowledge, hopefully, it can help them make different choices.
MS. VENKATARAMAN: Okay. So help me out here. Educate me. So I am a conscientious person when it comes to the environment, or I tend to think of myself that way, but I also like fashion. And you’ve sort of hit the nail on the head when you’ve talked about the environmental impact of fashion comes a lot from our overconsumption. We’re continuing to buy new things, and you’re hoping your consumers understand, you know, how to care for something so it lasts. So buying something that lasts, that has that longevity, versus the self-expression of renewing one’s self-identity, wearable art over time, which is this sort of impulsive fashion to meet the new season, meet the new chapter of your life with new looks, how do you reconcile those things? What kind of advice would you give to a shopper about that kind of thing?
MS. JOHNSON: Well, for us, again, going back to education, it’s really about–not so much about the quantity but the intention behind your consumption. It’s about asking yourselves–yourself questions like, for instance, do I see myself wearing this again, before you hit Purchase? Am I embodying the person I see or the person I want to become through what I wear regularly?
I think we don’t get curious enough as people, and I think–I truly believe curiosity begets change. If we took the time to ask ourselves those deeper questions, I think we would make different choices, and the only way to sustainable change is through empowered consumers. I truly believe that. It begins with personal responsibility, and it begins with us.
And back to your question about how we create our clothing collection, we focus on craftsmanship versus volume. We focus on natural fabrics and plastic-free materials and making sure that no fabric is wasted, so those things are repurposed, reused for any leftover scraps.
But our commitment to sustainability goes beyond just our clothing production. Everything that we do and how we operate and conduct business in our store is very much with that in mind. It’s always with intention and integrity in mind.
And we reused our candle jars, for instance, to create nuance, because we offer other stuff in our store other than clothing. We use Blueland as our cleaning products, for instance. We reuse our garment bags over and over again so nothing is wasted, and we built our store using repurposed building materials.
MS. VENKATARAMAN: And how do you think about climate change since that’s the issue of the day, the carbon footprint of your products and the supply chain?
MS. JOHNSON: It’s certainly challenging because there’s so many variables that come to play when it comes to garment making. You know, you have the raw material, which is–you know, can come from anywhere. It really depends on, you know, the supply, and you might get cotton from this region one year, but they won’t be able to supply that the next year. So it’s–it really is such a complex–like I said, this complex ecosystem, and you do the best you can.
And for me, doing this for just a couple of years, we were–I will always choose the better option as much as possible with the knowledge that I have, because I don’t have all the answers, but I’m always learning along the way. And I think, most importantly, we–I’m conscious about choosing the right partnerships or engaging in the right partners that really align with our values and our ethos, because I do believe in the social impact and the opportunity costs at stake when it comes to investing in other parts of the world and specifically women and communities in other parts of the world where there are implications for future generations.
So our first collection that we launched in 2021 is our Athleisure Collection, and because we’re building longevity, it’s very much the essence of what sustainable fashion is for us. Our designs and the way we curate our products is always tied to comfortability, functionality, easability, and is it interchangeable? Is it something that can easily transition through different seasons? Because again, it shouldn’t be something that’s just meant for the now, for today, or for one season, which is what we’ve been conditioned to consume as people, and so–
MS. VENKATARAMAN: So you talked about accessibility of this clothing, and there’s research from McKinsey, the consulting group, that shows that sustainable apparel tends to be bought by higher-income consumers. How do we go about making this kind of apparel accessible to more people?
MS. JOHNSON: Yeah. I think that is the paradox that we–the challenge that we’re faced with, because the clothing-making business today is very much about the volume. How many units can I produce in a short period of time in the most cost-efficient way possible? That is the business model today, and that’s why time and time again, you see the quality of clothing declining over the years.
So for many decades, this is how brands and companies have operated is by volume, and you think about stores and even thrift stores today, the amount of inventory exceeds–far exceeds what they actually sell.
And so for me as a business, I struggle with that, because I never want to be part of that. I never want to be part of the overconsumption, the overproduction of things. And so because everything’s by volume, it’s by–you know, unit cost depends on how many–how much you can produce, and so that is the challenge that I, as a small business, as a conscious brand who’s trying to do something different, we’re faced by, because it’s hard to compete with the prices that’s set by other national brands, because it comes down to cost.
MS. VENKATARAMAN: Yeah. Fast fashion is quite accessible and quite affordable.
So we’re running out of time, but I do want to ask you one final question which is, where do you think the fashion industry needs to go from here? How could it become more sustainable in the future? What’s your vision?
MS. JOHNSON: I believe transparency is key, but going back to empowered consumers, that begins–change begins with us. It begins with personal responsibility. And that’s why education is really important to us.
But what I would like to see–and we are moving toward that, that trend, and it would be really fascinating to see how the next 10 years will look like. But I would like to see better regulations on the production of clothing when it comes to volume. I would like to see progress and intensive research around PFAS, and what that means is–it stands–it’s forever chemicals, and it’s known as forever chemicals because it retains in your body for forever. And they’re typically in synthetics. These are your polyesters and your rayons, and they’re derived from petroleum or fossil fuels, which in itself has its own health implications and environmental implications. One, they end up in landfills because they don’t decay. And then on top of that, that’s why you see people burning clothes in landfills, because they don’t decompose. And the toxins that gets released in the air from that is incredibly damaging. And so I would like to see some research around the use of synthetics and how that affects our bodies and our health long term.
And thirdly, I would like to see a collective shift in our collective perception around clothing, our value proposition on clothing, and what value do we place on clothing, because the truth is when you are unwilling to–or when you are only willing to pay for when things are on sale, you’re unconsciously subscribing to the perpetuating belief that value–that clothing holds very little value. And that is to me the biggest thing to change and alter and in society right now, the with the way the businesses are, you know, managed and run.
MS. VENKATARAMAN: Anne Marie Johnson, thank you so much. You’ve given us a lot to think about.
MS. VENKATARAMAN: And, everyone, please hold on. We’re going to have another guest joining us soon. But thank you so much.
MS. JOHNSON: Thank you, guys.
MS. KOCH: Good morning. I’m Kathleen Koch, a longtime Washington correspondent.
Did you know that on average, the average U.S. resident throws away or puts into the trash, produces 4.9 pounds of trash every day? It’s almost 5 pounds every 24 hours. That is three times the global average, and of course, all of that waste doesn’t have a good effect when it comes to climate change.
Well, here today to talk with me about how we can reduce the harmful effects and really boost sustainability is Tara Hemmer, and Tara is the chief sustainability officer of WM. Welcome, Tara.
MS. HEMMER: Thank you so much for having me.
MS. KOCH: Well, I think it’s just fascinating. When you crunch these numbers and maybe horrifying, the U.S. produces some 292.4 million tons of garbage a year. I mean, it’s hard to even comprehend, right?
WM is the leading company in the U.S. of managing that byproduct of Americans’ daily lives. You’re also the largest recycler in North America. So how does one help you deal with the other?
MS. HEMMER: So first of all, I love the way you framed the question, because we get asked this all the time, and at the end of the day, all of that waste that gets produced, it’s not produced by WM. We’re really responsible for finding solutions for all of our customers, and if you really think about what we collect on our trucks, it’s material. And we have to think through what is the best way to manage that material.
In some cases, it does go to landfills, but in many other cases, it goes to recycling facilities. And we are North America’s largest residential recycler. We run close to a hundred recycling facilities where we take those materials. It could be a cardboard box from an online retailer or a soda bottle, and we find it its next best life. And those are the types of solutions that we’re really trying to drive longer term.
MS. KOCH: I understand that you have also invested a great deal in the beneficial reuse of landfill gas. Talk to us about what you’ve done there and the kind of impact that’s having.
MS. KOCH: Yeah. So we operate, you know, well over 200 landfills across North America, and one key element of the landfill process when waste decomposes is landfill gas is generated, and that landfill gas, we collect. And we can turn that landfill gas–and we’ve been doing that for over 40 years–into electricity.
Increasingly, one of the things that we’re able to do–landfill gas at its heart, 50 percent of it is methane, and that can be used to be converted to renewable natural gas, so taking that landfill gas, taking the methane, and using it as compressed natural gas. And so it’s a great way that WM is closing the loop.
We’re able to do that, and we run the largest fleet of compressed natural gas vehicles in North America. So that waste that might have gone into one of our landfills can fuel our trucks in the future.
MS. KOCH: That’s incredible.
When you talk about food waste, I know I’m a very avid home composter, so I know that food waste is critical too. What are you doing in that space, and how is that working?
MS. HEMMER: Well, it’s so interesting, especially given our prior speaker, the chef of Oyster Oyster, and this is something that we work very closely with so many different customer types. So if you think about large supermarkets or food warehouses and distribution centers, we, of course, want to work with them to figure out how to waste less food in the first place, but we also know that in some cases food is going to be wasted. So how can we find different solutions for that food? And there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. That’s something that’s really fascinating for some communities, and customers composting is a great solution. Another great solution that we’ve developed in New York City is called our “Core Technology” where we take food waste and it looks like going in–pushing it into a large blender. I know that sounds super–
MS. KOCH: It’s to be a pretty big blender.
MS. HEMMER: –interesting. And if you look at pictures of it, it is not a shake that you would want to drink.
MS. HEMMER: But that that product can go directly to an anaerobic digester, so think your wastewater treatment plant, and be used to produce energy, and we’re doing that in New York City in partnership with the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, and then the energy that produced goes through national grid. So it’s a great example of bringing together really unique partnerships to solve tough problems.
MS. KOCH: So what is WM doing outside of those direct investments that you’ve just described to help your customers, whether they be companies, communities, the federal government even, make progress in sustainability, and what do you consider when you’re creating these sustainability solutions and plans for each one?
MS. HEMMER: So, you know, on the direct investment side–and I didn’t really talk about this earlier, but when we think about building solutions for our customers, a key piece is just making sure that we understand what are their needs today. What are their needs going to be in the future. And so that is one of the reasons why we’ve embarked upon a pretty significant investment strategy where we’re investing in over 40 recycling facilities across North America, investing over a billion dollars to automate those facilities, and also invest in new markets. So a great example of that is in Fort Walton Beach in Florida, where there wasn’t a whole lot of access to recycling as a service. We’re building a brand-new, state-of-the-art recycling facility, and it will unlock opportunities for more communities to recycle. We’re doing the same thing on the renewable natural gas side, where we’re building a bunch of renewable natural gas plants, close to 20, across North America to, again, take our landfill gas and convert it to a renewable fuel. That’s the investment side.
Beyond those investments, what we really do–if you think about our customer base, our customer base is so wide and vast. If you think about the local pizza shop to the federal government to municipalities and large big-box retailers, we serve all of those customers and everywhere in between. And so the solutions that we need to build for those customers are going to look very different.
MS. KOCH: So you really tailor-make a plan for them to put them on a better road towards sustainability?
MS. HEMMER: Exactly, exactly.
So, you know, if you think about the commercial property industry and large office buildings, the types of materials that they produce versus a supermarket are going to be fundamentally different. And so understanding what’s important to those customers, not just from a traditional waste service, for most of our customers, the number one thing that they want is reliability. They want to make sure that their material is picked up every day, because it doesn’t stop being produced.
MS. KOCH: It’s pretty important.
MS. HEMMER: That close to five pounds per person per day.
But beyond that, then understanding, okay, every customer is on their own sustainability journey. So how do we custom build solutions for them based on where they are to help them go where they need to in the future?
MS. KOCH: So the number of chief sustainability officers has really started to grow in recent years, and I know you are the first CSO, right, for WM? Why do you think–what’s behind this growth, and why is it important to have someone representing the sustainability issue in the C-suite? I mean, you report directly to your CEO, right?
MS. HEMMER: Yes. So I report directly to our CEO, Jim Fish, and as you mentioned, I’ve been chief sustainability officer now–it’s coming up on two and a half years–and was the company’s first chief sustainability officer.
And I think there’s a number of reasons why you’re seeing more chief sustainability officers and also a shift where we’ve had companies that have had them, but they might–or they might be changing their chief sustainability officer. And I think the biggest trend that we’re seeing is so many chief sustainability officers now come from the business.
I came from the business and worked in operations most of my career, and I think why that’s important is most companies are realizing if we’re going to make progress, we need to find ways to embed sustainability into our businesses deeply. I’m a firm believer in some of the biggest challenges that we have in the world today. There are people within our organizations who can help us solve them, and we just need to untap that.
So if you have chief sustainability officers who understand the fabric of those organizations and can figure out ways to tap the individuals that exist within our companies that will drive a huge, huge amount of value long term.
MS. KOCH: You almost have to be able to look into a crystal ball, don’t you, as a chief sustainability officer? Would you do that for us now, and when it comes to advancements down the road, what do you see coming that could really change the game in the next decade?
MS. HEMMER: Well, I think, you know, you have to really as a chief sustainability officer–and really any company today has to be looking at–what does the future hold? And it really comes down to a couple of key areas.
For us, one of the things that’s a key focus is circularity, because at the end of the day, one of WM’s superpowers is we are world-class transportation and logistics company. I like to say that we pick up packages each and every day. We just don’t know how much is going to be out at the curb.
MS. HEMMER: But there’s real power in that, because there’s material that’s in those bins, right? And so how do we find ways to take that material and pull it apart, and that’s something else that WM is really, really, really strong at is sorting material.
So understanding where there might be other technologies that are on the horizon. We do a lot with technology scans. We have a group within our company called “Corporate Development and Innovation” that really looks at those technologies or startups that might be doing interesting things in our space, so, you know, keeping your finger on the pulse of what might be happening in the future, but also understanding what solutions need to be built today and navigating that is important.
MS. KOCH: So clearly, sustainability is a huge priority for WM, could eventually become your main financial driver, right? But for people in our audience, those watching at home, what advice could you give them to embed sustainability, if they’re business people more squarely in their business strategies or if they’re Feds more in their agencies or if they’re individuals in their lives at home?
MS. HEMMER: I think for so many people–and I’ll start at the individual level, and we were having this conversation yesterday that most individuals have no idea where their waste goes.
MS. KOCH: Chuck it and forget it.
MS. HEMMER: Yes. So if you ask–and I encourage anybody who’s listening and anybody in the audience, if you don’t know yourself, ask. Ask questions. Ask your neighbors, do they know where their materials go, and just educating yourself around what happens to the materials that we produce but also just making sure that we position ourselves. Recycling is a great example where on the recycling side, we have so many examples where people don’t understand what happens to their recyclables or think nothing happens to it. And that’s one of the biggest myths–
MS. HEMMER: –that I think needs to be busted if you–
MS. KOCH: So they think you just take it away and bury it somewhere?
MS. HEMMER: Yes. And the reality is there’s so many rich examples. If you think about water bottles or soda bottles, we–for WM, one of the fantastic things that we do is when we collect those and they go to one of our recycling facilities, those water bottles and soda bottles get converted back into our employee uniforms. And there’s no greater story of circularity and the pride that our employees have when they’re wearing something that they might have picked up maybe a month ago.
So I think on a personal level, changing behavior is difficult, but it starts with driving conversations and driving conversations just like this.
MS. KOCH: So what about businesses and the federal government?
MS. HEMMER: Okay. So on the business side, I think sometimes it comes down to people believing that it’s hard, and sometimes taking the smallest steps can have the biggest impact.
And I talk all the time at WM, a CSO’s job–and it’s probably true of any CSO–is to be an educator, an integrator, and an influencer, and there’s power in those three things, because once you describe and explain to people what their role is and how they can have impact, you’d be shocked at how quickly things can move.
I saw that firsthand at WM 18 months ago. We embarked on this journey to really reduce our emissions and in a one-year time frame, reduced our emissions by 10 percent, which is the most that we’ve ever been able to do, and it was because we, again, made sure that people understood the type of impact that they could have and what they needed to do. So having conversations is so powerful.
MS. KOCH: Well, Tara Hemmer, chief sustainability officer for WM, thank you so much for a great conversation.
MS. HEMMER: No, thank you. Pleasure to be here.
MS. KOCH: If you would like to chime in, feel free to tweet #PostLive, and now stay tuned. My friends at The Washington Post will be right back.
MS. VENKATARAMAN: Hello. Welcome back. I’m Bina Venkataraman, and welcome to Washington Post Live. For those just joining, I’m a columnist at The Post.
And I’m delighted to welcome our next guest, Ali Zaidi, who is the White House National Climate Advisor and Assistant to President Biden. Welcome, Ali.
MR. ZAIDI: Thank you. Good to be here.
MS. VENKATARAMAN: Well, there’s a lot to talk about, particularly with climate.
So in the U.S., we know that transportation is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and President Biden, you, have championed the Inflation Reduction Act–we’re going to talk about it as the IRA from here on–and it made a substantial commitment to transitioning us to electric vehicles. And that’s where I want to start. How is that going? We’re a year after enactment. How has that transitioned, the tax incentives that are supposed to get people buying mass amounts of EVs, get those carbon emitters off the road? Where are we?
MR. ZAIDI: I think we’ve seen massive progress in the United States over the last two and a half, three years on electric vehicles. You think about the number of models that are available. Double the number of models available today relative to when the president took office, and by the end of next year, that number will double again. So we’ll have about a hundred EV models, a variety of makes, utility types, et cetera.
We’ve seen a massive expansion in our ability to make that stuff here in the United States, 15 gigafactories announced. And if you want to conceptualize what that means in terms of the number of batteries that we’ll be able to produce, the U.S. has on average sold about 15-, 16 million vehicles every year. By 2030, if you just take the battery capacity that’s been announced, we’ll have about 10- to 13 million EVs’ worth of batteries being manufactured in the United States of America. So that’s a massive transformation after years of sort of punting the ball to other countries, China and others taking the lead.
And then we’ve seen a massive expansion in the deployment of these vehicles as well. The number of charging stations has doubled. All 50 states now have planning processes underway to build out EV charging infrastructure, thanks to the infrastructure law. And we’re also seeing deployment take off, doubled once, now on a path to double again. We’ve seen number of months where EVs have made up 10 percent share of sales, parts of the country where it’s twice as high, so really, I think, profound momentum in the right direction.
MS. VENKATARAMAN: So the math geek in me, when you say it’s doubled, it’s doubled, over where we were, right, relative to where we need to get on emissions, we still know we’re not there. And Kelley Blue Book has shown that EV sales growth is–while there’s still growth, the growth is declining or flattening. We hear about the effect of inflation and interest rates on consumers’ capacity, even with the tax incentives, to purchase these electric vehicles. Are you worried about meeting the emissions targets and the amount of sort of investment or, let’s say, dependence on the EV growth in the plan to reduce emissions?
MR. ZAIDI: Well, let’s talk about vehicle sales more broadly, right? We had–because of, I think, a massive supply-chain vulnerability that came out of underinvesting in the U.S.–had a chips crisis in the U.S., which, by the way, the president was able to pass a bipartisan CHIPS law that puts us on a path to manufacturing a technology pioneered here in the United States, back in the United States. But because of that, we saw real pressure on sales broadly, vehicle sales come down, constraints on plants. Plants were being idled, internal combustion engine and otherwise.
So I think what we’ve seen is the confluence of a number of supply-chain issues really manifest themselves over the last several years. In the vehicle space more broadly, we’re coming out on the other side of that with lithium battery pack prices down globally, those EV prices coming back down, and then the tax credits kicking in. So folks can now access a $7,500 credit.
And by the way, it’s not just a tax credit that you have to file. Thanks to the way the president has approached the tax construction this time, we’re able to have that tax credit on the hood of the car, which behavioral economics suggests is worth 1,500 bucks just of ease in terms of the incentive power of being able to access it on the hood of the car.
So I think things like that are helping make these vehicles incredibly affordable, accessible for a broad set of Americans.
On the question of whether we need to go faster, I think the answer is absolutely yes, whether it’s on electric vehicles, whether it’s on electrification, cleaning up rail and marine, whether it’s the future of sustainable aviation, biofuels, hydrogen, electric, every single mode, every single segment of transportation. And by the way, that includes increasing choices for transit, micro transit, and being able to live closer to where you need to work and go.
MS. VENKATARAMAN: We’re still a car-centric culture. So to an extent, this focus on EVs, I think, is a very American approach to this problem in transportation. Though, to your point, there are obviously other forms of transportation we should be thinking about. But even with the growth in infrastructure for EVs, for a lot of folks, this is a sort of second car question, right? If you are a two-car household, maybe you can get an EV, because you need the range to drive, right, to visit your relatives, but you need the range to drive for your commute. You may not have–you may not have the plug-in infrastructure where you work. You may not have the infrastructure where you live. So how is that affecting the uptake of EVs? Is it relative to projections? Where is infrastructure? Is the infrastructure for this rate-limiting right now, or is it the affordability that’s rate-limiting?
MR. ZAIDI: Yeah. Look, it’s important not to gild the lily on infrastructure, be really transparent about where we stand. I think there are–that the answer to that question is felt differently in different parts of the country. The private sector in the sort of first wave of EV infrastructure build-out built out in the places where they thought they could make the most money, in the dense urban places, and we saw an underinvestment in EV infrastructure in rural communities, in particular. That’s why the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, with its massive investment in a coast-to-coast EV infrastructure focused on those rural areas, stitching together the national infrastructure, so that you can, in fact, go coast to coast, go the whole distance using electric vehicles. That build-out is taking place. All those 50 states have plans. Only a few of them have started to put the steel in the ground, and it will take the next few years to build that out fully. But I think that will be transformative in terms of the user experience.
In terms of what are the projections showing relative to the investment that’s been announced, not just the public, but the private investment as well, the National Renewable Energy Lab, which is our data crunchers at the Department of Energy, has looked bottom-up at announcements from Walmart and McDonald’s, the utility companies, and investors and states and the federal government, stacked it up and sees over a million chargers being installed by the end of just this decade. That supports the level of deployment we need to see. So I think charging will keep up.
MS. VENKATARAMAN: What’s the distribution of that kind of charging? Like, ae we going to see that mostly on the coast, to your point about rural America? Where are we going to see that charging?
MR. ZAIDI: I think what we’re seeing is that that next wave of capacity is now building out and filling out. There’s a recognition that that sort of urban-use case, where maybe people charge at home, drive 15 miles, 15 miles back, that has a lot of infrastructure to support it now and continues to have a lot of infrastructure packing in behind it. But to achieve the level of sort of ubiquity that we need to get to, we need to build out that broader national network. That’s where things are filling out, and that’s where the public investment also is really helpful to backbone in the places private dollars probably wouldn’t go otherwise.
MS. VENKATARAMAN: Okay. We have an audience question that’s sort of on a different angle of this, more worried about what happens when we do have a lot EVs. This is from Kathleen Duggan, and she asks, “With a growing increase in electric vehicles and chargers, how is the power grid keep up in the coming years with the highest demand it has ever seen?”
MR. ZAIDI: You know, that’s a great question, and it makes me reflect a little bit on the topic of today’s conversation, more broadly at The Washington Post, about the choices consumers can make. There are a lot of choices consumers can make, right? They can go to the new car lot or the used car lot, and they can decide whether to buy an EV or not to buy an EV. They can make a choice during the middle of the day whether to jump in a passenger vehicle or to jump in public transit. They can’t make choices about the grid. They can’t make choices about where the hundreds of billions of dollars are being invested. That’s where public policy comes in, and that’s where corporations come in.
I think on grid investment, we’re moving in the right direction, but we’re not all the way there. When it comes to supporting the charging infrastructure for light-duty vehicles, these passenger vehicles, the amount of grid upgrade that’s necessary is relatively modest. And I think the grid rules have kept up with being able to make that investment, because the upgrades are not as substantial.
But when it comes to things like school buses or transit buses or those long-haul, heavy-duty vehicles, I think the grid infrastructure really needs to step up, and what that’s going to require is state public utility commissions. It’s going to require utility companies, and it’s going to require catalytic funding from the federal government, which we are providing to help boost that capacity along.
We have, for the first time, really, in my experience, the folks who work on the grid in the federal government and the folks who work in transportation in the federal government spending a whole bunch of time together to help do the planning of where those upgrades need to take place, how much that’s going to cost, how to think about who pays for it, and to support public utility commissions and utilities in making those decisions.
But this is the time when the utility companies and the auto companies need to be spending a lot of time together. They increasingly are. That’s going to unlock and enable the level of deployment, especially in the heavy-duty fleet going forward, which we absolutely need to achieve.
MS. VENKATARAMAN: To your point about where individuals have agency at local and state public utility boards are places people don’t usually think about getting involved–
MS. VENKATARAMAN: –in local politics, but you make an interesting connection there.
So while we’re still talking about cars, I want to ask you about the tentative agreement between the United Auto Workers and General Motors, and of course, this deal was not just about labor. It also involved an agreement for greater investment in electric vehicles and increased wages for workers, including at battery facilities. Is the Biden administration satisfied with this deal?
MR. ZAIDI: Look, this is unambiguous, unequivocal, unalloyed good news when we’re investing in the workers that have gotten us this far and will be critical to getting us the full distance.
You just sort of rewind the clock, two years, two and a half years, and folks said, “Hey, we’ve got a history of disinvestment in the United States on batteries. We’ll never be able to make those here.” We’re making massive investments in batteries, 15 gigafactories announced. Folks said, “The D three, the big autos, they’re going to not be on board with this EV transition. The auto industry is standing together unequivocally in the direction of decarbonization, and they’re investing in making those vehicles here in the United States.
There was a question of, are those EVs going to be made in the United States, or are they going to come from somewhere else? EVs are more likely, the EVs on the road in the United States, to be made in America than their internal combustion counterparts, because the U.S. is taking a leadership track.
And then there was this question of, well, what is it going to mean for workers? And I think thanks to the incredible leadership of the UAW and a president who has had their back, who’s walked the picket line with them, that answer is very clear as well, 30 percent increase in wages, cost-of-living increases, benefits, meeting the workers where they are, and I think that’s absolutely a critical part of this transformation. It’s got to be a worker and community-centered transformation.
There is no question in my mind that whether it’s on the grid or in the transportation sector or anywhere else, that we are going to be most successful in driving deep decarbonization. If we do it with our workers at the center, with good wages, good benefits, the right to organize, being central tenets, not just of the labor movement, but of the environmental movement, I think we’ve seen that vividly.
MS. VENKATARAMAN: So folks who are fans of this deal and agreement have noticed that it seems to be driving change among the non-union automakers as well. But there could be another side of this, and I want to know, are you concerned about costs being passed along to consumers of electric vehicle manufacturing because of these increased wages and improved conditions for workers in EV development?
MR. ZAIDI: No. I mean, look, you see this in the power sector where–I’ve got friends at the IBEW who got called to bail out a non-union job because corners were cut, and they came in to help steady the operations. We’ve seen union workers in the building trades step up time and time again to deliver projects, not only on budget, but under budget and early. We’ve seen the world’s most skilled workers help boost the competitiveness, not just of the vehicles themselves, but all of the inputs into them, right? You got folks like the UAW members in Butler, Pennsylvania, who are making the grain-oriented steel that goes into these EVs.
I think this is an investment in innovativeness, in competitiveness, in the resiliency of the workforce that will be critical to driving the solutions that we need, and that’s why I think you see companies who aren’t in collective bargaining drive to the same place, because I think this is about the talent, a competition for the talent that will be critical to delivering on our clean energy goals.
So I think this is unambiguously good news for the workers, for the communities that they support, and for the products that they deliver, which are just simply good products.
MS. VENKATARAMAN: So you’ve been heavily involved in the design and carrying out of the Inflation Reduction Act, which, as we know, despite its name, is the biggest climate legislation, climate investment that’s ever been made in this country. It’s about a 10-year plan, and the goal is to implement these shifts, major shifts in the clean energy economy as quickly as possible, because of the race against the clock with climate change and the need to cut emissions quickly. But one of the things that we’re seeing–you talked about rural deployment of EV infrastructure, but I think there are many more examples with clean energy projects that would feed the grid with cleaner energy, where permitting and obstacles to actually getting things built at the local/state level have been significant, and even some of the tools that have been used to stop in the past fossil fuel projects from being built and infrastructure being built are being wielded now to stall or basically prevent even clean energy projects from being deployed. What is the Biden administration doing to overcome some of those obstacles to getting those projects permitted, and is it going to happen on a fast enough timeline?
MR. ZAIDI: We’ve got to figure out ways to go faster, but we’ve also got to make sure that we’re traveling together on this journey. I think community engagement, community participation, transparency, thorough and rigorous analysis informing these decisions is critical.
We can look back at the history of federal policy over the course of decades, and we have the imprints of environmental injustice, of corners cut, of people excluded, and the product of that is weaker decision. So I think we’ve got to have that integrity, and we need to figure out how to travel faster. And you might say, well, how are you going to load up all those values and still deliver on the pace and speed? I think it’s pretty easy. We got to be inventive in this moment, like the American people always are.
I think about this massive project in the Midwest to build out a transmission line, and they’re using the right-of-way of a rail line. So instead of disrupting some new place, they went where there was already a right-of-way, and they’re connecting now what will be 20-plus billion dollars’ worth of renewables into places where the power is needed.
It’s creative solutions like undergrounding in certain places to, again, avoid some of these conflicts, and part of it is making sure that we’re not being stingy in terms of making sure folks share in the economic upside. You know, there are renewables projects where they’ve gone out of their way to make sure they’re hiring local. You walk around the parking lot, and the license plates are from nearby. That boosts the political economy of doing the work that you want to do. When you’re working in the spaces where agriculture has traditionally been and you’re working in partnership with the ag sector, everyone shares in the upside.
Offshore wind, as that’s gotten built out, we’re seeing ports that had been long idled turning back on, becoming hubs of economic activity, factories that were shuttered opening up again. That sort of investment, that mindfulness about how am I driving prosperity that is shared, how am I running a process that is transparent, how am I making sure that we’re moving fast, but we’re doing it with integrity and doing it together, if we’re thoughtful about those things and we’re funding the capacity at the ground level to demand this stuff, we’re creating the conditions on dollars flowing from the federal government to promote this, when we do that–and take the tax credits as an example. If you want the full tax credit from the federal government to deploy solar, 50 percent you could get, you have to buy your content domestically, which means factories starting up to support those projects. You have to get 10 percent of your labor hours from apprenticeships, meaning you’re creating a workforce that will have high union density. You have to pay prevailing wage. You have to locate in places that have been left behind. If you do all that, you get the full tax credit. That’s the kind of policy that partners with that kind of vision to deliver the results that we need, which is to go as quickly as possible and do it together.
MS. VENKATARAMAN: Unfortunately, this is all the time we have today. Ali Zaidi, thank you so much for joining us.
MS. VENKATARAMAN: And I want to thank our audience.
MS. VENKATARAMAN: Thanks to all of you who are here in person and everyone who joined us online. To see more of our upcoming programs, go to WashingtonPostLive.com. I’m Bina Venkataraman. Thanks so much.
MR. ZAIDI: Thanks, Bina. Thank you.