Eco Enterprise

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Published in FirstMonday magazine, By Sarah Sekula

By the time 29-year-old eco-preneur Julie Norris cruises into work at 10 a.m., her café is buzzing with activity.

She briefly ignores her extensive to-do list and pulls up a hand-painted, secondhand chair for a quick bite to eat. While nibbling away on a Curty Pie — organic apple slices topped with cinnamon, cream cheese and cranberries held together by a toasted English muffin — she passionately explains her unusual business plan.

Step 1: Open a funky, Shrek-colored green urban teahouse. Next, fill it corner to corner with business professionals, hip-hop artists, grandmotherly types and, of course, sprinkle in a few green-minded folks. Kick in a Co-Op America Green Certification (a distinction held by only 81 businesses in Florida), and Voila! you’ve got Dandelion Communitea Café on the outskirts of downtown Orlando.

The standout eatery is a bona fide eco-sensitive business, from the biodegradable corn- and sugarcane-based take-out containers to the energy-efficient appliances to the fair trade sugar packets and the Florida-grown food. The restroom soap is nontoxic and dye free; the granite tabletops were donated. Even the decorative Christmas lights beneath the tented ceiling of orange and red-striped fabric are LED (lightemitting diode), gobbling up much less energy than the alternative incandescent bulbs. What’s more, Norris’ 14 employees (or “tribe,” as she calls them) all ride their bicycles to work, where bike racks and a shower are available.

“Our goal is to become a zero-waste company,” says Norris. And by the looks of her super-duper compost machine, or Vital Vermi-Converter, which is the size of a minidumpster, she’s off to a good start. The self-contained unit is solar powered and houses thousands of red worms that munch on the coffee grounds, tea leaves, leftover veggies, lawn clippings, napkins and cardboard, converting the waste into fertilizer in a few day’s time.

Surprisingly, the wiggly invertebrates chomp up about 10,000 pounds of green waste a year, so none of it has to be hauled off to the dump. The product’s creators, an Apopka-based couple, first realized the composter’s potential on a trip to Australia, where residents using a similar product reduced organic waste going to landfills by 65 percent in a four-year period.

Less Is More

Beyond Norris’ ambitious zero-waste goal, she plans to incorporate more green elements in the future, like a solar water heater, rooftop solar panels and a bicycle delivery service. When it comes to lightening her energy footprint, “It’s primarily about what I don’t do,” says Norris. “I’m always thinking, How can I eliminate something?”

As green-centric as she is now, it’s hard to imagine her any other way. Yet, it wasn’t until 2001, on a post-graduation backpacking trip through Europe that it clicked. After tasting organic food for the first time, she says, her palate led her to the environmental movement.

Turns out, her relatively new love for all things natural is paying off. At any given lunch or dinner hour, the café line is out the door. Perhaps it’s the tofu-topped “Henry’s Hearty Chili,” loaded with sweet corn and super-secret spices that draws a crowd. Or maybe it’s the art openings and poetry nights that the homey hideaway hosts. Or, it could be the green businesses that are sprouting up around it, together creating a cozy bohemian-style atmosphere, complete with medicinal herb garden, green spa and nearby yoga studio.

Whatever it is, it’s working. And it is proof that the organic movement is not just for Sierra Clubbers and Ed Bagley Jr. types anymore: U.S. sales of organic food increased 22 percent to $17 billion in 2006.

The environmental and sustainability industry is gaining steam, too. What Norris has embraced over the past four years is nothing new to the Silent Million, a group of businesses that, back in the 1950s and 1960s, began adopting business strategies that met the needs of the enterprise while protecting, sustaining and enhancing the human and natural resources that would be needed in the future.

These innovative businesses certainly were true greens, although the now ubiquitous term hadn’t sprouted up yet. “It’s just who they are and how they do business,” says Mary Panks-Holmes, president of Lake Mary-based Climate Culture, an environmental consulting firm. “They are our foundation and our pioneers in the sustainability movement.”

Climate Champ

Panks-Holmes’ business, which she founded in October 2007, was dubbed green by Co-Op America last year forseveral reasons: She chose to nix office space entirely to reduce her ecological footprint; she’s a member of the Action Network for Concerned Scientists and is one of only a thousand people rigorously trained by all-time eco-maniac Al Gore last May to serve as a Climate Project presenter; and she knows a thing or two about the environment.

Her eco-roots can be traced back to childhood days in Michigan, where summer mornings were for tree planting andtending the organic garden. “I went back a few years ago, and we walked around and counted all the remaining trees we planted,” she says. “There were 400. It’s something to be proud of.” These days she passes her lifelong ideals along to other businesses, advising them on green policies and concrete ways to follow in her low-impact footsteps.

Her clients learn to embrace the use of renewable resources and hold themselves accountable when it comes to the environment and human rights. They must also operate on a triple bottom line — social responsibility, environmental sustainability and profit. The results: more efficient operations and increased profits.

Not coincidentally, as federal laws on greenhouse gases (which will require all businesses to report emissions’ levels) hover on the horizon, more businesses are following the specially handcrafted trail carved out by the Silent Million. Locally, to stay ahead of the regulations, Orange County Mayor Richard Crotty is developing a Climate Change Implementation Plan, with a benchmark of reducing greenhouse gases by 15 percent by 2010. “We are trying to change the behavior of the county,” says Lori Cunniff, manager of the Orange County Environmental Protection Division. “It’s going to drive the community in the right direction.”

Growth Spurt

The new regulations and a heightened sense of awareness are catapulting the growth of the U.S. marketplace for goods and services focusing on health, social justice, the environment and sustainable living. In fact, this booming industry hit an estimated $209 billion in 2005. And that number will likely double in the next decade. Plus, there’s also a reported $2 trillion “social responsibility” industry.

“The market is evolving rapidly,” says Panks-Holmes, “especially when you get to the Fortune 100 and 500 levels. Investors and consumers are both pushing back on the companies to become more environmentally and socially responsible.”

When it comes to the Central Florida marketplace, she says, it is just beginning to really embrace sustainability as a market. Those who have already embraced the concept — like the Orlando-based Frito-Lay manufacturing plant off John Young Parkway — have found that eco-measures can have a huge bottom-line impact.

In 1999, Frito-Lay implemented a conservation program to reduce resources needed to make products such as theall-time popular snacks Cracker Jacks, Doritos and Cheetos. And today sustainability touches all functions within the company, from marketing to engineering to research and development.

More recently, the company launched a Zero Landfill initiative. “Our goal is to reduce our landfill waste from the plant to less than 1 percent by weight,” says Gregg Roden, Frito-Lay’s vice president of operations, Florida region. “We are already at less than 10 percent. To get to our goal, we are working with our vendors and our team members in the plant to change habits.”

To extend their impact beyond, plant executives have also implemented a supplier outreach program, encouraging partners to develop and execute energy-efficiency programs. They even offer an energy audit for co-packers and suppliers.

“As a company, we are fortunate that we have been focused on this for a number of years,” he says. “We have made significant strides in our environmental journey.”

Is it all paying off? Apparently. “Compared to our 1999 baseline performance, our efforts saved more than $55 million,” says Roden. “These savings can then be reinvested into more innovative programs that allow us to continue to drive our sustainability efforts.”

Since 1999, the Orlando plant has reduced its water usage by 60 percent, electricity usage by 27 percent and natural gas usage by 58 percent. Annually, that’s enough water to supply 1,125 households, enough electricity to supply 300 homes and enough natural gas to supply 1,050 northern homes. And the efforts don’t end there. Frito-Lay officials set another goal back in 2004 — to reduce greenhouse gas emission by 14 percent per pound of product by 2010 — and they are well on the way to reaching that lofty goal.

Overall, Roden, says, these conservation efforts have no doubt had business benefits and created a culture that is sensitive to the impact the plant has on the environment.

Panks-Holmes commends the company’s gung-ho attitude and urges her clients to look at it this way: Everything your business does that emits carbon dioxide — power, water, gas — costs you money. Solution: Reduce your carbon dioxide emissions and put money back in your pocket. “Sometimes I wish I could put a price on CO2,” she says, “just because there’s such a significant profit margin.”

Because of the profitability factor, many businesses are jumping on the green bandwagon in a makeshift manner and are not up to true green standards. Rather, they see sustainability as a passing trend. And it’s true — the overused and undermanaged term going green will no doubt disappear from the headlines and the 6 p.m. newscasts. Businesses that have gone green, however, will likely continue to operate that way. “Sustainability is here to stay. [Those businesses] are not going to go back to the inefficient way of doing business. It’s going to become part of their identity and who they are,” says Panks-Holmes.

Smaller Footprint

Take Universal Parks & Resorts, for example. The company has adopted sustainability as a core business value. The fist major step was switching all mobile engines and water taxis, even the Jaws Ride boats, to run on biofuels. The result: The theme park estimates it will reduce CO2 emissions by 158 tons per year for its vehicles now using biodiesel and 101 tons per year for its ethanol-run vehicles.

One of the theme park’s key eco-initiatives is spreading the sustainability messages to its 13,000 employees through eco-fairs and a weeklong Earth Day event. The person-to-person approach raises awareness among employees and, in turn, with guests. Talk about a large platform from which to spread green ideals.

What’s next? The new Simpsons Ride incorporates green technologies, including variable-speed motors and energy-efficient lighting. In addition, reclaimed water is used for landscape irrigation, cleaning products are being replaced with nontoxic equivalents, and recycling and green sourcing policies are ramping up. Park officials say the many new programs make sense financially.

“There’s definitely a link between sustainability and profitable business practices,” says Panks-Holmes. “We work with businesses that upgrade their facilities with energy-efficient technologies. These types of steps reduce operating costs and liability, and boost profits.”

Boosting Your Eco-Cred

When it comes down to it, greening your business can be daunting if you look at the big picture. “Don’t focus on the millions of things you can do,” Norris says. “Focus on what the immediate problems are and determine the most authentic changes you can make.”

The first step is to measure your ecological footprint. Then set your boundaries and goals for reducing it. Consultants, who will analyze your company’s true environmental impact, come in handy.

“The best advice that I can give any organization looking to start some type of green initiative is to start with your ownership and secure the support that you need,” says Panks-Holmes. “From there, you want to start identifying your climate champions and create a sustainability team.”

She stresses that it requires a total corporate commitment to green any company’s products and services. “It needs to be founded on a thorough greening of the entire company,” she explains.

The bottom line — or the triple bottom line in this case — is this: There are long-term benefits to having a sustainability strategy both for good business and for good graces with Mother Nature.