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Once upon a time, when Earth Day was new and being in business meant making a buck at any cost, "green" businesses were an anomaly. Today, for many businesses, being green is just business as usual.
As these five small businesses testify, making environmentally responsible decisions is not always easy, but building a business based on economic and environmental sustainability is usually worth it in the end.
Hans Hess, founder and CEO of Elevation Burger, wanted to create a company that sold antibiotic-free hamburgers that tasted good and were healthy.
With that commitment to quality in mind, Hess' mission evolved into Elevation Burger. The Virginia-based company now has locations across seven states, including Florida, New Jersey, Maryland, New York, Texas and Pennsylvania.
In addition to serving grass-fed organic beef, the company takes sustainability seriously and is always finding ways to develop other green business processes through energy consumption and building practices.
Admittedly, Elevation Burger's green efforts are a continual work in progress, Hess said.
"If every menu item was organic, unfortunately, no one would buy it — because it would be really expensive. But that is slowly changing. We hope, over many years, to make more and more of the menu organic and sustainable ," he said.
The lesson for Hess is that change toward sustainable and green practices doesn’t happen overnight, but every effort is a step in the right direction.
"Being in business means you solve complex business problems and make hard decisions every day," Hess said. "There's not a bigger challenge than rethinking and re-making the way we produce and sell food, or any other product, in a way that will leave a better place for our kids."
If you've observed the waste collection process, complete with idling trucks and exhaust fumes, it’s easy to wonder why there isn't a better option in waste removal. Jim Poss, the founder of BigBelly Solar, wondered the same thing and after some research, discovered that garbage trucks in the U.S. consume more than one billion gallons of diesel each year. Drawing on this insight, Poss formed BigBelly Solar (originally called Seahorse Power Co.). The mission is simple: To eliminate the waste in waste collection.
By using a solar-powered trash compacting system, BigBelly Solar reduces the frequency of trash collection vehicle trips, leading to lower emissions and fuel usage.
"The cleanest gallon of fuel is the gallon you don’t have to burn at all," said Richard Kennelly, vice president of marketing for BigBelly Solar.
The compactors also reduce odors and contain litter, eliminating the common overflowing problem that accompanies traditional public trash receptacles. There are more than 9,000 BigBelly Solar units deployed currently.
Kennelly said it's sometimes hard to convince people that green isn’t just environmentally better, but more cost-effective. In fact, green solutions often have lower costs, both for the company and the customer.
Gia Machlin has transformed from a self-admitted "over-consuming, waste-producing materialist" to an informed environmentalist. Her company, EcoPlum, is a green shopping site that rewards consumers for green behavior, and educates them on how to make informed, sustainable choices.
Purchases on EcoPlum earn consumers "EcoChipz," which are redeemable for either rewards or for donation to environmental causes. Products offered on the site range from apparel to jewelry to home furnishings, and all carry third-party green certification or an equivalent eco-label. EcoPlum’s original content features monthly columns by industry experts and local green business listings, recycling information, restaurant and travel listings, eco-tips, and book and video recommendations.
"Every company can reduce the amount of waste it produces," she said.
She pointed to promotional and giveaway items, which are often made of plastic and have little value to the client, who may immediately discard the item or give it to their children.
To reduce this waste of resources and marketing dollars, she recommended companies shift to charitable giving in lieu of gifts and promotional items. This has the double benefit of reducing waste and shifting the dollars to where they are truly needed.
Iain Boltin, winemaker and owner of Eight Arms Cellars in Berkeley, Calif., didn’t expect his career to involve sustainable business or wine. Yet, both found him. A former advertiser and marketer, he started Eight Arms Cellars in 2006 seeking a career change. After seeing a few wineries emerge in his area, he sought to turn his passion into profit. After several years of study and working harvests at a local winery, he contracted with a grower for the 2006 harvest. His first wine, the 2006 Eight Arms Syrah, Napa Valley, was released in November 2008.
Boltin's initial focus with Eight Arms was simply to make great wine. But, because there was a lag time of two years between making the wine and releasing the first vintage, it gave him a lot of time to consider his marketing plan.
He became interested in socially responsible businesses and decided that he could incorporate environmentally responsible practices into his. That mission spawned Eight Arms' "Go Green Drink Red" campaign, which dedicates a portion of wine proceeds to programs that preserve, renew and protect our forests and oceans.
In its first two years, Eight Arms Cellars has donated $5,000 to such initiatives, an effort that will continue as it grows.
Realizing that as a renter of of the Eight Arms facility, he did not have control over the carbon footprint of his physical enterprise, Boltin found other ways to run a green business. He purchases energy credits through Native Energy, a leader in the U.S. carbon market, to offset carbon emissions. Even his bottles, corks and labels are sourced with environmental responsibility in mind.
Boltin urged entrepreneurs thinking about going green to take the plunge.
"It's easy to do and there are a lot of resources out there. I have found it really easy to find suppliers who share my same vision and in this economy, it's great to support other local businesses," he said. "Be genuine about it; don’t use the greening of your business as a marketing strategy. Customers will appreciate that you are making the effort to run a business that is good for the environment and for the community you live in."
In 2007, Jacqueline Linder became aware of the immense environmental impact and the safety concerns around the use of plastic. To reduce its impact in her family’s life, she vowed to eliminate their use of plastic products. That’s when the real challenge (and opportunity) emerged. Faced with confusion around which plastics were safe, and continually searching to no avail for plastic-free alternatives, Linder realized that others were having the same problem.
She started selling LunchBots, stainless steel lunch-and-snack containers that are plastic-free, online in 2008. Linder estimated that LunchBots have eliminated the use of more than 25 million plastic sandwich and snack bags to date.
Linder said companies toying with the idea of going green should involve everyone in the company in implementing small changes over time. The possibilities are endless and the impact is substantial, she said.
For example, have everyone bring their own coffee mug and refillable water bottle to keep in the office and go paperless as much as possible.
Linder also urged entrepreneurs to dispel thoughts that green operations are more expensive to implement.
"While it can be more costly to purchase recycled materials and use organic and natural products, there are also tremendous cost-saving opportunities," she said.