George Vukasin, Jr., and his sister Kristina Brouhard wanted to put their own stamp on Peerless Coffee, the family business started by their grandfather. “We wanted to address key issues that were important to us,” says Vukasin.
They found a way when StopWaste, the Alameda County Source Reduction and Recycling Board, offered information to help Peerless go green. “We were already on the way to being more environmentally conscious, and we wanted to be recognized for doing so,” says Vukasin.
Vukasin and Brouhard invited StopWaste’s suggestions and worked to bring the business in line with the board’s recommendations. They put in energy-saving equipment and changed packaging to reduce waste. “We try to recycle everything we use,” says Vukasin. Although the process was a “hefty investment,” Peerless reduced its waste by 85 percent, earning it the 2002 StopWaste award.
And the business also earned its stamp of approval, becoming an Alameda County certified green business. “Becoming certified has changed the way we produce, roast, and package our coffee, and run our business,” sums up Vukasin.
The Bay Area Green Business program is a partnership of environmental agencies and professional organizations that work together to certify environmentally friendly businesses, making it possible for consumers to “shop” green for products and services. The program originated ten years ago in Alameda County, as officials pondered the best way to handle the county’s hazardous waste. A light bulb flashed: let’s nip this problem in the bud by reducing waste before it begins.
Waste reduction is just one piece; county officials envisioned conserving energy, reducing pollution, recycling, and managing water resources. A task force hammered out a set of standards, and businesses began to apply for certification and recognition. A small EPA grant, paired with local funding, allowed pilot counties Napa and Alameda to offer certification to auto repair shops. More than 500 businesses later, the program has spilled into seven Northern California counties and now recognizes printers, wineries, hotels, landscapers, restaurants, and home and business services that have successfully negotiated the standards. Coordinated by the Association of Bay Area Governments, the program, funded by city governments and local utility services, is implemented by green business coordinators in each of the counties. Cities such as Sacramento, Santa Cruz, and Monterey have adopted the model and are developing their own sets of standards.
Alameda County coordinator Pamela Evans says that about 180 businesses are certified green in the county. “These businesses see themselves as filling an environmentally preferable niche,” Evans says, adding that consumers want to know where they can spend “green dollars.” Evans says that “becoming certified by a third party is an opportunity for businesses to put their money where their mouths are if they’re already on that track.” The program does away with green-washing—pretending to be green while doing little to be so. The businesses don’t pay for certification, but they must adopt recommendations of agencies such as StopWaste before they can display the green certification. The program’s goal is simply to help businesses reduce their environmental footprints.
Evans spreads the word by attending events such as the Sustainable Business Alliance; recently, the chambers of commerce of San Leandro, Albany, and Emeryville launched initiatives to attract green member businesses.
Businesses that wish to be certified must perform at a minimum level in each of the five standards: energy, water, and materials reduction, and waste and pollution prevention, with different compliance requirements for each industry. “We want to make sure that the requirements accurately affect what’s safest for the specific workplace,” says Evans.
For the auto repair industry, which faces some of the most challenging requirements, the difference could mean switching from petroleum-based to water-based cleaning solvents. Repair shops often also revamp hazardous waste disposal methods. Offices switch to energy-efficient equipment; hotels use flow-restricting showerheads and low-flush toilets to conserve water, and managers are coached about how to read water meters and check for leaks. Food service facilities use energy-saving cooking equipment and compost food waste. All businesses are encouraged to practice source reduction measures by avoiding materials that are not recyclable. Businesses must also implement a minimum of six “good housekeeping” practices such as preventing contaminated water runoff into creeks or the bay.
When a business feels it meets the mark, in comes an assessment team— assembled from employees working in environmental agencies and resource conservation utilities—to verify and make further suggestions. Businesses that don’t make the cut are advised about ways to improve. “Some businesses have blind spots, or perhaps they’re not aware of alternatives,” Evans points out. “We’ll go the extra mile to help if they’re initially not close to meeting a specific requirement.” The process usually takes about three months to complete.
Approved businesses must be reassessed every three years to ensure they still adhere to the standards. All the hard work pays off: businesses receive recognition through listings on the program’s web site and in city and agency newsletters; businesses get press and promotional event coverage, window decals, and certificates, and they are able to use a Green Business logo in advertisements.
The program is educational for business owners and employees alike. “I really learned a lot by going through the certification process,” says Robin Burns of Elbow Grease Cleaning, the first eco-friendly house cleaning service to be certified in Alameda County. “It shed light on the advantages of maintaining a sustainable business.” Employers enjoy improved employee morale—there’s a feeling of pride associated with working towards environmental good—and compliance standards call for employee participation. Some businesses offer awards or recognition to employees who take the initiative to implement green practices at work.
Critics wonder about contradictions involved when green businesses are not selling green products, often the case in the auto industry. To this, Evans replies, “We’re not certifying products, we’re certifying processes in the community. A well-run business has a small environmental impact in its ongoing operations.”
Peerless is happy with its green stamp. “The process was very noninvasive, and the coordinators were so easy to work with,” says Vukasin, who declares the initial investment well worth the effort. He says that Peerless’s greening has been cost-effective in the long run and has “helped us become better neighbors in our community.”