Mayor Daley and his top aides–and by extension most aldermen–are big on the idea of making Chicago the greenest city in the country. In fact, some seem to believe it’ll be true if they simply say it enough. The incantations are now uttered at just about every city event remotely linked to an environmental issue—it doesn’t take much except a nearby trash can and accompanying blue recycling bin—and Tuesday’s joint meeting of the City Council’s finance, environment, and economic development committees was no exception. One after another, aldermen and business leaders described their city as green and getting greener: “one of the world leaders in the green and sustainable economic market . . . “; “the premier green market for the world . . . “; “a model for the world . . .”; “a huge success . . .”; “a leader in the environmentally friendly green cities in the world . . .”; “building on the reputation we’ve already developed . . . “; “more in Chicago than any other city . . . “

Amid the environmentally friendly backslapping, though, a serious and complicated discussion was slowly getting started: Aldermen were talking about a resolution, introduced by the First Ward’s Manny Flores, that called for a hearing to create city standards defining a “green business.”

“What is considered ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’?” Flores asked. “Barack Obama’s talked about creating five million new jobs in clean technologies—well, how do we determine whether or not these companies we might be allocating public dollars for are indeed ‘clean technologies’?”

The issue, Flores went on to explain, is that city leaders widely agree that Chicago’s economy will increasingly depend on recruiting and supporting green businesses—those that make a minimal impact on the environment as well as those that help others do so, from wind turbine factories to banks that lend to sustainable startups. But there’s no way the city can responsibly and effectively offer tax breaks, grants, or other incentives to sustainable businesses without first determining which ones truly are. Flores said that’s why the city should gather business leaders, academics, developers, legal experts, and environmental advocates to draw up measures of what “green” means. Voicing support, administration officials said they believed Chicago would be the first city to set these kinds of standards. 

And what might the standards be? There the discussion enters a bit of a gray area. Working out of energy-efficient buildings? Developing sustainable energy sources? Promoting “social equity”? Perhaps an ever-evolving list of these things and others, according to several experts who testified, including George Nassos, director of the environmental management program at IIT.

“We should move on this and move quickly,” he said. “If we have a standard like this in place it will draw the companies here that are truly environmental so they don’t have to compete with companies that are just greenwashing.”

Others agreed, while warning it may not be so easy to lay out clear definitions. “This is a crucially important issue to the city,” said Peter Nicholson, founder of the Chicago Sustainable Business Alliance. “That said, it’s an enormous challenge. . . . What may be green today may not be green later. It’s a process, and it has to be updated regularly.”

That process wasn’t going to get much further at this particular meeting—aldermen weren’t about to start hashing out the city’s “green matrix” in their first public conversation about it, and in fact they recessed without any formal decision to do it at all. But it would have been hard for them to miss the message from their expert witnesses.

“We risk losing our advantage to other countries and to other regions,” said Nicholson, “if we do not move and move aggressively on these issues.”