Green Business Certfication

Download Main Street News PDF - 2009/04

The Andersonville neighborhood, while only about a 20-minute cab ride from downtown Chicago, feels like a small town worlds away from the Windy City's skyscrapers. The Andersonville Chamber of Commerce and the Andersonville Development Corporation (ADC) have spent years successfully positioning the commercial district as a haven for independent businesses. Now the neighborhood is adding environmental sustainability to its economic development strategy.

ADC, a nonprofit community development organization, set up an exploration committee in December 2007 to determine how it could help the community go green. The committee, consisting of business owners, property owners, ADC board members, and residents, with oversight from area universities, discussed opportunities for a sustainability initiative called eco-Andersonville. They decided that creating a green certification program for small local businesses would be an innovative way to promote sustainability in Andersonville. With significant marketing potential, the program would boost both environmental and economic sustainability.

"The eco-Andersonville Sustainable Business Certification Program provides business owners with resources, incentives, and technical assistance to help them adopt sustainable business practices and let their customers know they care about the planet," says ADC Program Manager Sara Dinges. "These businesses make incredible efforts, and they deserve to be promoted."

Realizing that marketing is invaluable for small business owners, the group thought that such a program could help local businesses stay competitive and attract a growing "green" customer base while helping the planet.

Dinges says the Sustainable Business Certification Program would also offer accountability, since completing a certification program means a business has adopted certain green practices. "Certification," says Dinges, "both has weight with the public and guarantees real environmental impact." Certification also gives ADC the ability to track data and record the progress local businesses are making in meeting sustainability goals.

Dinges says that "at-large experts have reviewed our program and have seen similarities between it and LEED [the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design], Green America, and others; but the difference is that our program is aimed at benefiting small, local, independent businesses"

Testing the Waters

To make sure they were creating a meaningful initiative, ADC conducted two surveys. A survey in February 2008 measured the current state of green business practices in Andersonville. It asked business owners how they already practice sustainability, their motive for adopting green business practices, and what type of program would appeal to them. Many business owners opted for a certification program. ADC learned that businesses in the district were very interested in being green and wanted to know how they could become more sustainable.

A consumer survey asked 198 local shoppers about their interest in green businesses. Most participants (84 percent) said they would be likely to favor a designated green business over one that is not. Most said they would be inclined to spend more at green businesses, too.

The committee also looked at national research, which shows that one-third of Americans have a heightened interest in the environment; that 93 percent believe companies have a responsibility to help preserve the environment; and that organic retail sales in the United States have grown 20-24 percent since 1990(1). Even in the midst of economic uncertainty, consumers are looking to spend sustainably: local, environmentally responsible, organic, and fair-trade. Believing that there was sufficient interest and support for a sustainability initiative, ADC studied existing certification programs. With the help of an intern (now an ADC board member), Suzi Thackston, they compared various programs only to find that most certification programs are too expensive for local businesses or fail to address their unique practices. Consequently, they decided to design their own program. Thackston assembled a checklist of sustainable business operations that encompassed three strands of sustainability: environmental, economic, and social. Certification would be awarded for achievements made in three areas:

  • People: by creating a sustainable workplace and giving back to the community;
  • Planet: by reducing usage of energy, water, and hazardous materials; maximizing recycling and reducing waste; and improving air quality; and
  • Prosperity: by adopting best practices for business visibility, and accounting for the welfare of the planet in products sold and purchased.

Six focus groups of business owners met to discuss the Sustainable Business Certification Program. One meeting convened 25 business owners who reviewed the checklist. "We learned a lot at this working meeting," says Dinges. "Their input made us feel confident that we were on the right track and helped us make necessary and important changes to the checklist as well."

One final test of the certification criteria came when the group walked three sustainable business candidates through the process in December 2008. The process worked well and Green Genes, Hamburger Mary's, and GreenSky became the first certified businesses in the neighborhood. ADC plans to certify five businesses during this pre-launch phase before the program officially goes public on Earth Day, April 22, 2009.

Certifying Businesses

Urbanest is an eco-friendly home furnishing store in the Andersonville commercial district.

Credit: Linda S. Glisson

Andersonville businesses interested in certification must go through a two-step process. First, they must complete an application and pay a $30 fee. The application identifies their readiness for the program and collects baseline data. Tracking improvement is important so people know that their changes are making a difference. "If we don't track our progress or data, in five years, we won't have a meaningful program," says Dinges.

The application collects basic business information, including: number of employees who live within a mile of the business and how many of those employees walk or take public transit; annual contributions to community groups; monthly consumption of gas, electricity, and water; how much trash is produced and how much is recycled; and how many business dollars are spent with other local businesses. Finally, each applicant is asked to set one sustainability goal, such as "to re-evaluate supply purchasing and shift 5 percent of inventory to environmentally friendly products."

Approved applicants get a login to the eco-Andersonville website, which takes them to the online checklist. They can then indicate all of the sustainability measures they are currently using. Also, with one click, they can view a list of resources related to each criterion so they can find out how exactly they can achieve that goal. For the checklist item of "install and use energy-efficient lighting solutions in at least 60 percent of fixtures," for example, they can view a list of local companies that specialize in this work.

"We hope that this program will create an exchange of information among business owners," says Dinges. "We look to them as our teachers. They are the ones who are doing all the work to become more energy efficient, less wasteful, and more sustainable. We want to see what works for them and then act as a conduit of resources for other business owners who want to take similar actions."

Each item on the checklist is connected to a three-tiered system that certifies businesses with one, two, or three stars. One-star sustainable businesses meet the basic, yet still rigorous, requirements. The next two tiers have more robust sustainable action items, and if a business is certified with three stars, it is a "superstar" of sustainability.

Checklist items are divided into the three areas described above. The three areas have an assortment of required items at the desired tier level, as well as a variety of optional items, which would give business owners a choice in sustainable business practices when striving for higher tier levels. Some of the 171 items include:

  • People: Participate in Buy Local First campaign; establish a staff "green team" to oversee eco-efforts; contribute to medical benefits for full-time employees; promote other Andersonville businesses at your business; donate to local nonprofits; and incorporate green business practices into job descriptions.
  • Planet: Clean windows only as needed; install low-flow and high-efficiency water appliances (including auto shut-off, spray valves, etc.); use environmentally friendly, low-toxic bathroom soap; use soy or vegetable-based inks for published materials; reuse or recycle at least 10 percent of waste product by type (paper, plastic, etc.); replace memos with e-mail messages and discourage unnecessary printing of messages; replace standard fluorescent lights with low- or no-mercury fluorescent lights over time; and set thermostats at 76 degrees for cooling, 68 degrees for heating, and turn off or reduce temperatures to 60 degrees at night.
  • Prosperity: Maintain and update (quarterly) cash-flow projections and financing plans; implement an inventory control system; establish and implement a policy of purchasing goods locally if possible; and ensure that at least 30 percent of products sold are environmentally responsible (organic, recycled, reused, natural). ADC uses the Local First Chicago definition of local: within 25 miles.

"This means if you can purchase it next door, purchase it next door. If you can't, then try to get it in the next neighborhood over. If it isn't available there, look in the next town over," says Dinges. "We want people to reach for the highest level of localization because our studies show that local dollars keep the local economy more viable(2). In Andersonville, it is reasonable for people to get items within one mile because there are so many businesses concentrated here."

Once certified, businesses are given a window decal, permission to use the eco-Andersonville logo, a listing on the Andersonville website and in its neighborhood guide, and materials for distribution to the public. At the time of certification and throughout the year, ADC will promote its local sustainable businesses and market the community. It also plans to use the local chamber of commerce's social media tools such as Twitter, Flickr, blog, and Facebook to promote the program and the businesses.

Besides certification, all local businesses can benefit from other eco-Andersonville programs: green events; business district recycling; energy audits conducted through a partnership with Illinois' Smart Energy Design Assistance Center; and composting research and advocacy (currently it is illegal for businesses to have waste hauled to an off-site composting location, which many local groups and Illinois Senator Heather Steans are trying to change). The group also has other programs in the works: for example, it plans to use cooperative purchasing power to buy in bulk so that businesses can purchase items like biodegradable cups at discounted prices.

Accomplishing a Lot with a Little

It may seem like a lot for a staff of one to accomplish. Besides the cost of printing brochures and other items, the people driving this program have been Dinges, ADC interns, Andersonville Chamber staff, and the eco-Andersonville committee. "We set our sights for this initiative a lot higher than our funding allows," says Dinges. "Most of what we do is done free with intern assistance or through staff time."

ADC receives 30 percent of its funding through a contract with Chicago – ADC is one of the city's delegate agencies in the Department of Community Development. Additional funding comes from events. Dinges says ADC will explore business sponsorships once the eco-Andersonville program matures.

At the end of the day, ADC wants to help local businesses achieve sustainability for the environment, for the community, and for their bottom lines. The organization will track the practices and progress of each certified business to promote improvements such as how a business was able to save $30 on energy bills because it installed compact fluorescent bulbs. By publicizing its green program, ADC will not only help market the commercial district; it will also prove that being green has tangible benefits and that its local businesses provide a sustainability model that others can follow. 

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1  2007 Cone Consumer Environmental Survey. Adecco Survey (April 2007)., Organic Trade Association.
2  See "Andersonville: Where Local Businesses Come First," by Andrea L. Dono. Main Street News, No. 256, November 2008: pages 6-7.