There may be no more greater issue facing the legal cannabis industry than the need to cultivate sustainability. Though the end of prohibition can positively impact our economy, public health, and the way we approach social justice, we must recognize the environmental challenges a large-scale cannabis sector presents: tremendous energy and water consumption, physical waste from packaging materials, and more unhealthy chemical pesticides. As parents who think about our children’s futures, we’re acutely aware of the consequences of recklessly depleting the earth’s resources. We want a cannabis industry that works to find innovative solutions.
Cylvia Hayes saw early on that the cannabis industry could set an example of how to successfully navigate the changing environmental landscape and be an important force in the shift to renewable energy and sustainable practices. She launched 3E Strategies, an environmental consultancy firm, “to accelerate the transition to a clean economy that works for everyone,” and she wants cannabis to lead the way. We chatted with her on the phone about why the cannabis industry needs to put the earth first and how consumers can push for sustainable choices at their local dispensaries and beyond.
(Questions and responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.)
Jenn Lauder: Let’s talk sustainability. How did this come to be a passion and area of expertise?
Cylvia Hayes: It really started for me with a natural affinity for animals, always. I was raised a rough little redneck farm kid, not at all with the values you might expect for someone who went into my line of work. Eventually I became a first-generation college grad, but I was in a tough place after high school: running heavy equipment, working all kinds of different hard jobs.
In my 20s, two things were happening. I was having my own spiritual awakening – I had been raised fundamentalist and rebelled against that – and my spiritual-seeking side activated again. I’d worked hard as a kid, and at this point I wanted to do something more meaningful.
Then I started community college. I was going to Bellevue Community College at night, and I enrolled in the environmental studies program. I soon learned that we were hemorrhaging species at a rapid rate, and, from that moment I was hooked on the environmental cause. I thought I’d become a wildlife biologist or take up endangered species issues.
I wound up at Evergreen State because I was offered scholarships. But it was a great experience, divinely inspired. I really learned to learn, and it was there that I realized I was a systems thinker. I wanted to impact things, make change, on a larger scale. And I saw the necessity for us to live, travel, and do business in ways that don’t put species in danger in the first place, rather than fighting these fires after the fact.
The incredible diversity of life on our planet is sacred and worthy of protection. It’s up to us to protect it, and that’s my work.
JL: What brought you to cannabis? And why is sustainability a particularly important consideration for this industry?
CH: It’s my personal mission to help us move towards an economy that restores the planet and gives people the chance to better their lives, no matter what part of the economic spectrum they’re on. Cannabis is going to be a huge economic driver, and it can either go in a positive or not so positive direction.
As an environmentalist, I’ve been very supportive of hemp for many years. We know it can reduce demand on forests, our reliance on plastics. I also have family members who have really benefitted from medicinal marijuana, especially my brother, who has a tremendous epilepsy seizure challenge.
It feels like now it’s time to step in, time to be one of the folks trying to shape the industry in a more environmentally and socially beneficial direction. Cannabis has the potential to do an awful lot of good, as an economic driver especially. It’s amazing what it can bring to communities, to tribes. But it’s going to be necessary to keep sustainability at the forefront.
It’s crucial for the industry as a whole, and, for individual companies, there’s a real opportunity to distinguish themselves. To come out of the gate early as a socially responsible enterprise. The industry already has big supporters and big detractors. It’s wanting to position itself as a green industry, but the energy consumption, water consumption, and sometimes pesticide problems fly directly in the face of that. This industry in particular would benefit greatly by really getting serious about both reducing its environmental footprint and also doing things like establishing corporate giving and community reinvestment programs.
JL: What do you hope to accomplish with your work in cannabis?
CH: I was on the forefront of the green building movement many years ago and with renewable energy, especially in the western US. I would feel really good to be able to say, ten years from now, that I had played some sort of useful role in helping this industry to be socially and environmentally beneficial on a large scale. If it gets serious about efficiency and renewables, it can be a huge force for good. Like data centers years ago, driving renewables. They were ginormous energy consumers, and now they’ve helped shift the market in a positive way. This industry can do it too, and I hope that I can help it.
I understand that there are so any pressing issues – moving beyond cash-only, the shifting regulatory landscape – there’s so much to contend with. But I think of Confucius, who said: “We are so busy doing the urgent that we fail to do the important.” We can’t lose sight of the important.
JL: Can cannabis consumers nudge the cannabis industry in the right direction? How can we help cultivate attitudes of earth stewardship?
CH: There’s a real opportunity for conscious consumerism here. For LOHAS – lifestyles of health and sustainability – to help businesses understand what that market is and what it wants. You have the power to shape that: ask product suppliers what their sustainability and social responsibility platforms are. Let them know their consumers care about this. Then really thank them, support them, and shout them out.
JL: Is there anything else we all – parents, cannabis consumers, industry members, policy shapers and makers – should keep in mind going forward?
CH: This all feels a bit like the wild west. There’s an “if you grow it they will buy it” mentality. But it’s a missed opportunity to go with that flow and not try to be really intentional and build this industry as something that is a multilayered, positive contribution to communities and the economy from the get go. It’s not often that you have something this potentially big. It’s super, but we have to be careful.
For more information about sustainability in cannabis, take a look at resources here.