By Tom Still

MADISON – That beer-bellied guy who wears a plastic cheesehead during Green Bay Packers games is a Wisconsin “brand,’ albeit one we wished didn’t appear on national television. A brand we treasure is “America’s Dairyland” – but don’t get me ranting about that cow on the quarter. And although the advertising slogans might switch from time to time, Wisconsin’s brand as a year-round tourist destination is another winner.

What about branding Wisconsin as one of the nation’s “greenest” places to do business?

 That’s green as in the color of money, of course, but also green as in helping the environment. The implementation of Wisconsin’s new “Green Tier” law offers the state a chance to build upon a historic reputation for environmental stewardship – while signaling to business that it can be done without sacrificing profits, productivity or innovation.

 Green Tier is a precedent-setting law administered by the state Department of Natural Resources. Developed over five years with a lot of give-and-take, Green Tier was approved by the governor and the Legislature in hopes of setting a new regulatory level – or tier – for environmentally responsible businesses.

For a business that qualifies, Green Tier offers a new way to work with the DNR in a process that is more flexible and goals-oriented for the business while achieving superior results for the environment. It’s also potentially better for the taxpayers, because Green Tier can replace the costly “command-and-control” process that often breeds bureaucracy, litigation and environmental results that only meet minimum standards.

Green Tier had its coming-out party this month with six announcements of business agreements by the DNR and a concluding conference run by the non-partisan Wisconsin Environmental Initiative. The agreements – which should be the first of many – involve Holsum Dairies, MegTech Systems, the Wisconsin Builders Association Development Council, the Wisconsin Scrap Metal Recycling Industry, Serigraph, and American Transmission Co.

Natural Resources Secretary Scott Hassett, a steady force for change in Wisconsin’s environmental regulation, praised the agreements as “the first tangible steps that our community has taken in using law to routinely go beyond the legal minimum standard. It is not a law to command and control but to grant the freedom to perform.”

The old way is about government telling others “You can’t,” Hassett said. Green Tier is about government saying “We can” and freeing business to solve environmental problems in tandem with citizens and government, he continued.

Green Tier businesses will commit to making measurable environmental improvements, not just meet minimum standards. Those businesses will have a fair amount of leeway in achieving those goals, and will be encouraged to innovate along the way. Is Green Tier a replacement for command-and-control? Unfortunately, it won’t sweep away all compliance rules because not every company is committed to environmental excellence. There will always be bad apples in the barrel; Green Tier is about separating out the good apples and letting them shine.

John Imes, the executive director of WEI, describes the new approach as “doing well by doing good.” In other words, profiting economically by doing what’s right for the environment – and creating a competitive market advantage. In the 21st century, firms that achieve excellent standards in protecting the air, water and land will also gain an edge in their respective markets.

The new approach is simultaneously old. It rests on the work of the late Aldo Leopold, a Wisconsin icon who wrote “A Sand County Almanac.” In the 1930s and ‘40s, Leopold expressed a “land ethic” that valued people and the land, and which put citizen- and market-based strategies ahead of government solutions whenever possible.

 Wisconsin has the chance to seize upon a new brand, one that ties with its past as well as its future. It is a brand that could attract business from outside our borders while nurturing homegrown commerce. Green Tier is a way to leverage Wisconsin’s status as a “green” place to do business – which means, ultimately, a greener place to live.