For the small business owner at a loss about how to adopt greener business practices, the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) Thursday held a panel entitled “Green Solutions For Small Businesses,” sponsored by Con Edison.
The panel was moderated by Debera Johnson, the director of Pratt Design Incubator for Sustainable Innovation, and the Academic Dean of Sustainability at Pratt. Panelists were Catherine Barton, founder of NYIRN’s (New York Industrial Retention Network) Spec it Green educational series and member of Green Depot’s advisory board; MaryEllen Etienne, managing director of Reuse Alliance New York; and Paul Mankiewicz, director of Gaia Institute.
Presentations by Johnson and the panelists were followed by a question and answer session. Some of the themes most emphasized by the group were investigating and thinking about the entire life of a product, reusing unwanted materials and investing in green technologies.
Johnson spoke about Pratt’s recently launched Center for Sustainable Design Studies (CSDS), which educates students about sustainable practices, provides innovation workshops and helps launch start-up businesses from alumni. One of those start-up businesses, Johnson said, creates household items out of discarded pieces of wood.
“This is a really interesting model, I think it’s relevant to every one of us in terms of rethinking the life cycle of products and services,” she explained. “We have to think about what happened before it got into my hand and what happens after it leaves my hand... it’s a really great decision making tool of how you bring products into your environment.”
Barton touched on this theme as well, giving the example of a company that supplied building materials for the Bank of America tower in Manhattan, which is on track to achieve LEED platinum certification. Because of this goal, the packaging from the building materials would have to be diverted from a landfill. In response, that company created reusable packaging crates that they now use exclusively. The $14 million they were spending to take care of the packaging waste turned into $2.5 million maintenance costs.
In addition to choosing products after examining their entire life cycle, it’s also important to make sure products are what they claim to be. Barton spoke about greenwashing and emphasized truthful business practices.
“Be clear and truthful, both with yourself and the people that you represent your products and services to about who your company is and what your goals are,” she said. “Really try, if possible not to overstate.” Many companies that produce green products sometimes use heightened language to describe them. A good way to weed out those products is to educate yourself about the different certification processes and labels. Barton explained that Greenseal, Rugmark, FSC, Greenguard, Energy Star, Watersense and LEED are all trustworthy labels.
Being aware and knowledgeable about the products you use in your business is good, but reusing those products and materials is even better. Etienne is the program director of an online service called NY Waste Match, where members post materials they don’t want anymore, giving it to someone else who might need it.
“Businesses find homes for things they no longer need,” she said. “It’s a very valuable thing for start-ups.” This “matchmaking” system, as she called it, is beneficial because it saves businesses money and diverts waste materials from landfills.
One NY Waste Match product is OROE, the Office of Recycling Outreach and Education, part of CENYC (the Council on the Environment of New York City). “We outfitted them with an entire office,” said Etienne.
“Always reuse first,” she added. “Where you can’t, try to find a place to recycle.”
Mankiewicz, as director of the Gaia Institute, works with the relationship between humans and the environment, developing soil for green roofs and increasing the number of community gardens and trees in the city. While new green technologies, such as green roofs and solar panels, are pricey right now, he said, “the horizon is good. The technology is just getting there... the more we build, the better off we are.”
Small businesses taking steps like these will have an impact on the environment. Diverting waste from landfills will reduce greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere, and increasing the city’s tree canopy and green spaces will also reduce emissions.
“It will drop the body temperature of the city,” Mankiewicz said. “We will see this almost immediately.”
“There are tremendous opportunities in the green economy,” Barton said. “I like to think of it as the triple bottom line: the social benefits, the environmental benefits and the economic benefits. I encourage you to look for conversations about sustainability because it’s really more than just the environment, it’s about the whole community.”
Photo above left to right: panel moderator Debera Johnson, director of Pratt’s Design Incubator for Sustainable Innovation; panelist MaryEllen Etienne, managing director of Reuse Alliance New York; Stuart Leffler, manager of Economic Development at Con Edison; and panelist Paul Mankiewicz, director of Gaia Institute.