Rochelle Routman is the kind of person who, upon reading the Living Future Institute’s website a while back, realized that she had finally found her tribe. “The intensity of my feelings about the environment was finally shared by this group of people,” she told me when we spoke on the phone in September. “It was kind of like an epiphany for me.”

It’s this complete and total adoration for the environment and those that work to protect it that led Routman to not only receive one of our inaugural Women in Sustainability Leadership Awardslast year but also become the chair of the alumni group (which, with the publishing of this issue, now has 20 inspiring new members).

Routman has now worked in the sustainability sphere for more than 30 years, and her impressive resume includes gigs at the Georgia Environmental Protection Division and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Sustainability Division. Today, she is the VP of Sustainability at Mohawk Industries, working to establish continuity in sustainability programs across the commercial, residential, international, and hospitality sectors and to continue to position the company as the flooring industry leader with regards to sustainability. 

She is fiercely passionate, endlessly curious, and truly committed to making the world a better place. Here, we talked about trudging through the mud and loving it, the importance of women in this field, and “all the possibilities that green building presents and how important it is in our mission to have a sustainable future.”

PART 1 Course of Nature

gb&d: When did your interests in this field and this topic start and what sparked this career path for you?

Routman: I was always trying to seek and experience new places and new environments. I grew up in western Pennsylvania in a community that was surrounded by parks and forests, and I was so enamored with nature that I would spend hours hiking with my dog. I was always the kid out there with muddy feet looking under all the rocks and examining all the amazing little creatures that lived in the mud. I was just fascinated with the natural world. In fourth grade, I had an earth science teacher named Mr. Hall—I still remember his name—and he took us on a field trip and basically what we did was park on the side of Ohio River and climbed up a very steep hillside. We got incredibly muddy and he gave us each a little eggshell carton and he said, “By the end of the day I want each of you to fill each little egg compartment with a fossil.” And I thought, “My, gosh, this is going to be really strange because here we are on top of this hillside. What kind of fossils are we going to find?” And mostly what we found were seashells. It made such an impression on me to learn that this land that was now a firm ground, a hillside leading up to all the mountains surrounding Pennsylvania was at one time under the water. It just inspired me in such a way that I was so curious about trying to understand and learn about this.

I started taking geology classes and we started going on these fabulous field trips and I thought, “So this is what geologists do? They get to travel and experience all these new and exciting places?” So I ended up studying geology, and in my senior year went to Montana and I won a scholarship to go to field camp and all geologists have to go to field camp, it’s a requirement, to get a degree in geology, and you learn how to create geological maps. That was a wonderful experience.

gb&d: Did you know going into college that you wanted to study something along these lines and work toward making sustainability part of your career?

Routman: My father was very, very interested in the environment and we spent many hours every Sunday hiking together. He basically had me out there before I could even walk, and I distinctly remember him pushing me up and down hills. What we were learning was biomimicry. Now I know what it was, but back then he would say to me, “This mossy ground is just like your mattress in your bed, and this is where we’re going to take a nap.” He did have a huge impact, so yes. When I went to college I was trying to combine my interest in art and earth science together and geology actually was a place I could do that because within the field of geology a lot of it has to do with reconstructing what’s known as paleoenvironments for understanding the landscape before humans even arrived on the planet, and there’s certainly an art to geology. It’s one of the more creative sciences in that we don’t know all the answers. Even now people are trying to understand climate change and the impact on the earth by taking carbon out of the earth’s crust and releasing it into the earth’s atmosphere. There are still a lot of unknowns. So a lot of geologists have that right brain-left brain aptitude because it really takes both. I was very happy when I entered UGA. And that was back before we had so many environmental laws and regulations. It was back in the ‘80s but I saw with the information that I was learning in that course how critically important it was to all of us. 

gb&d: How did you get your start out of college?

Routman: I went to go work for the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, and there I was doing compliance work and specifically working with various regulated companies and waste management companies assisting them in avoiding any detrimental environmental impact from their operations. There was a lot of legal controversy and a lot of negativity in the relationships between the state agencies and the different companies because there was always a concern about whether or not the companies could afford to do these cleanups when there was a contamination that had taken place. And I started to question that point early on if there was a way to avoid these negative impacts in the first place. I started to see the bigger picture and started to think maybe sustainability is a key, as opposed to going through these lengthy lawmaking processes and having to withstand all this debate where it can take many years to reach a resolution.

At that point, an electric utility company, Georgia Power and Southern Company, hired me, and I developed a very strong understanding of energy and how it is generated and how it is distributed to homes and businesses. I guess I didn’t really know anything about the building industry other than when I was working at Southern Company, and something very monumental happened. I presented a proposal to get our building recertified. This was kind of my entrée into green building. It was a LEED existing buildings project. I was able to make the case to senior level management there to get the building recertified and as we pursued the project, I became more and more interested in green building. At that point, I studied and became a LEED accredited professional with a focus on operations and maintenance. That really opened my eyes to all the possibilities that green building presents and how important it is in our mission to have a sustainable future. We spend 90% of our time in buildings and buildings use the majority of the electricity at 40%.

PART 2 Meshing with Mohawk

gb&d: And when did Mohawk enter the picture?

Routman: Well, meanwhile, Mohawk had contacted me, and it was a very serendipitous situation where as I had just talked to a friend about this, Mohawk was looking for someone to head their sustainability mission and create a new strategy for the company.

Then I attended Greenbuild in 2012, and I heard the former executive director of the International Living Future Institute speak. I sat in the front row, and he asked if there were any manufacturers in the room. I was the only one who raised my hand. After his presentation, I went up and asked him if he was working with any foreign companies, he said he was not and asked who I was with and I told him Mohawk. He said, “We need to talk.” So for several months, we did talk. We all got together with the institute team and realized that we had more in common than we realized. The thing that really made all this possible was that we had very similar cultures. Mohawk is a very progressive, entrepreneurial, fast-moving company where we are always looking for a better way to do things. We were their first “Angel Sponsor,” and then we enhanced our partnership and now we’re their “Gaia Sponsor.” They actually created a new category for us. And Gaia, of course, is Mother Earth from Greek mythology.

gb&d: What has that partnership looked like?

Routman: What we’ve been doing is providing some financial support, however the main focus of our partnership is on educating people and establishing what is known as Living Building Challenge Collaboratives across the nation. Living Building Challenge Collaboratives are groups of people that are supporting the Living Building Challenge, learning together, and registering Living Building Challenge projects and pushing this whole effort forward and creating more activities and more projects that are Living Building Challenge registered.

PART 3 Women in the Field

gb&d: Do you feel women are well represented in the field of sustainability or could more be done in the name of equality?

Routman: I do think more can be done, I do think more women should be represented. It’s a tough question because I know there are a lot of men who really care about the environment also, but it’s true everywhere that in the senior ranks of corporations and even non-profits it’s traditionally been men leading organizations. And if we limit the leadership roles to men, then we’re missing out on half the population expressing their voice and contributing their talents to this. We have to change our ways so we can have a better world. I would like to see more women get recognized. What’s traditionally happened is there are a lot of women doing work and very good work but in many cases they’re not the ones getting recognized because they’re not the ones that have risen to the levels of leadership where they should be.

gb&d: Which women in the sustainability field have inspired you?

Routman: I would have to say that there are two. One of them is Rachel Carson who grew up not too far from where I did in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She of course is the author of the book Silent Spring, and it was her effort that resulted in the formation of the EPA. And the reason that she’s so inspirational to me is that she persevered even though she was under extreme criticism for her concern and her scientific analysis of the impact of pesticides on bird populations. She was just such an amazing person. The other is Dr. Wangari Muta Maathai, who started a tree-planting effort all over Africa, and has just done very groundbreaking work in Africa, which was certainly a continent that needed some representation and a voice for the environment, and she was the one that provided that.

gb&d: What advice would you give young women entering the field of sustainability?

Routman: Focus on your passion, and do not be afraid of your passion. Really speak up and speak out often, and don’t give up until you find your true role in the world. Keep going. Each step in your career is building skills that will take them to even higher and greater places where you can have more influence. We need women that are passionate about the environment and sustainability in a desperate way. Also, don’t get sidetracked.