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Without quality, sustainability is unsustainable
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AT THE CORNER of Meeting Street and Hasell Street in downtown Charleston is a restaurant called FIG (Food Is Good). It's generally considered one of the finest restaurants in the country. Executive chef Mike Lata recently won the coveted James Beard Award for best chef in the Southeast.

The sustainable foods-based menu at FIG changes daily, according to what's available from Lowcountry farmers and fishermen. Your server will gladly and intelligently explain the restaurant's philosophy while making recommendations.

The food, of course, is perfect and perfectly prepared in every way.

Meanwhile, on a corner in downtown Savannah is a restaurant that's considered one of the hippest and most happening top-tier restaurants in town. Your server reads the specials haltingly off her notes.

You have to send your seafood entree back because it's cold in the middle - and you didn't order sushi.

Price of your entree at FIG: $29.

Price of your entree at hip, top-tier Savannah restaurant: $29.

What's wrong with this picture?

I know you're tired of hearing about how Charleston is a step or two ahead of Savannah in most things. But it's time to hear it again, because it's no less true than the last time.

The question is in how to respond. Is it enough to enjoy our honeymoon period and constantly remind each other about how much more progressive and vibrant Savannah is than it used to be in the bad old days?

Or is it time to stop patting ourselves on the back over cocktails and really do the hard work necessary to deliver value, not just promise?

To make sustainability, well, sustainable?

These aren't rhetorical questions. To answer them correctly means jobs and a better future. It's not enough to talk. You have to do.

The Home Depot understands this, which is why it just picked Charleston as one of only three cities in the country to participate in its new Sustainable Cities Institute pilot program. Charleston's share of the grant money will fund a local office to retrofit 200 single-family homes for energy efficiency.

Gulfstream's recent announcement of a 1,000-job expansion in Savannah is great news, as the Boeing 787 plant was great news for Charleston last year. Because the South has low wages and few unions, we will always be better at attracting what little manufacturing is left in this country.

But those plums, welcome as they are, are few and far between. In the meantime, restaurants and small businesses and private households have the more sweeping - and in the long run, important - task of making our own "Sustainable City" a reality.

Savannah is still a city where only 48 percent of taxpayers make use of the new curbside recycling bins. This is a state-of-the-art, single-stream system which makes almost no demands on the citizens who use it (and paid for it) -- you barely have to sort anything.

But still, less than half of us use them. Incredible.

For those wishing to put their money where their mouth is, the new edition of the Savannah Green Events Guide & Directory is now available. Subtitled Your Local Resource For Hosting a More Sustainable Soiree, the book - published by Tommy Linstroth of the Trident Sustainability Group and edited by Summer Teal Simpson of the Georgia Conservancy - is a compendium of LEED-certified venues like the Charles H. Morris Center, commercial recycling services like Blue Meets Green, solar firms like Solar Smith, coffee roasters like PERC Coffee, and other local green firms and services.

View it at

It's all well and good, of course. But it will all be a waste unless people on the front lines start taking the concept more seriously, i.e., actually cooking that sustainable seafood all the way through when they charge $29 for it.

Like the concept of sustainability itself, it seems like such a simple thing. But, as with building airplanes, the devil's in the details.