Greenifying the Workforce

March 9, 2010

I wish I had comforting things to say about business on this blog this week.

I'm sure everyone reading here was pained by last week's unemployment figures that showed the country's unemployment is holding steady at 9.7 percent. Some of you live in places where things are even worse, as high as 12 or 13 percent. A few are in places where things aren't as tough, but still painful indeed. Very few Americans at this point can say that their lives haven't been touched by the unemployment of a family member or friend, or perhaps they themselves are struggling with it.

All of us are interested in green business practices, but these days, it seems that the greenification is coming from workers who are having to do more with less. They are doing it to try and give their employers the best chance of staying in business, and thereby, hoping to avoid unemployment themselves.

We already know that there simply isn't an easy way out of the tight spot that we've worked out way into. If there was, we would have already gone for it and be in a happier spot already.

So instead, I'm going to suggest that we take a minute at the start of each day to consider how we can best help each other that day. Take a moment to consider how you, as a green business owner, can help your employee feel better about their job and more secure. Stop and think if there's any way you can bolster a neighboring business or someone whose services you may use. Ponder for just a few seconds as you go through the week on the question of what your best, greenest goals for your business will be in the future.

I can't promise that any of this will solve your problems. But if it helps you stay in business one little bit longer or encourages the person in the shop next to you to provide better, more marketable services or helps your employee to feel a little more confident, maybe that's helpful. And maybe that's all the “better” your business can afford this week.

I'm hoping to be blogging about more upbeat topics to Greenify soon. But until that “bright light appears on the horizon,” perhaps just trying to imagine the attitude that goes with those, for as many minutes as we can, will help lighten the load a little.


Good, Clean and Green

March 4, 2010

Have you ever seen those household products labeled "all natural" and wondered "what's really in those bottles?" I know I have. I recall my mother's attempts to make homemade laundry soap a few years back (rendered animal fat and lye?) and I am unsure about how that will affect my clothes and my skin.

There is good news on this front. The Natural Products Association (NPA) is starting to certify home care products that meet its standards; a certification that will bring a new level of consistency to the marketplace.

You may remember this group from two years back when they started to certify products. They began with personal care products like body washes and soaps. Over 340 personal care products carry the group's seal, and it expects home care products to start showing the seal in the coming months. Now they are expanding to include household products like laundry soap, surface cleaners and dish detergent.

In order to earn natural certification for products, a full 60% of a company's products have to meet the NPA's definition of natural, even if only certain products are to be certified. That may make things a little tough on some businesses, but think of the benefits of encouraging such certification in businesses.

The NPA standard certifies product as "natural" if 95 percent of its ingredients are all-natural or derived from natural sources (flora, fauna, mineral), while the remainder, up to 5 percent, can come from a list of allowed synthetic ingredients.

Products cannot contain any ingredients that are suspected of causing human health risks, and non-natural ingredients can only be used when commercially viable natural versions are unavailable. Animal-based materials created in situations where animals are harmed and byproducts of animal rendering are also not allowed. (I must admit, my mother's "Natural" laundry detergent wouldn't qualify, but at least she was trying not to waste resources.)

Companies can only use specified processes, and none that significantly or adversely alter natural ingredients. They cannot engage in animal testing unless it is required by law. And they must fully disclose all ingredients.

This sounds like a lot, doesn't it? And Greenifying can be a comprehensive undertaking at times. But I know I will be looking for these types of certifications in products that I purchase in the future. And I'll be buying them with a lot more respect.


Greenified Business Opportunities

March 2, 2010

Looking for more ideas for Greenified businesses? They are out there. Some are obviously "side businesses" and others will take awhile to grow, but that's the nature of all green things, isn't it? Here are some ideas just to get you thinking:

What about starting a business for "green maid services." This is a small, home-based business idea involving having cleaning personnel go to a home or office, but only use all natural cleaners for their customers. The appeal is great because many people are becoming sensitive to chemicals, perfumes and other aspects. This is an idea whose time has come.

Along the same lines, natural pest control. If you are already in the business of pest control, then you know how important this is. It's time to open up the doors on pest control, and either go for it fully with all natural pest control involving no chemicals (always preferred) or at the very least, begin selling those services in a special offering. We've seen here at the Green Business Alliance that consumers will pay more for green services and this is one that would undoubtedly sell.

Green Dry Cleaning? Same goes for these customers. Using safer solvents and advanced technology for non perc (a dangerous carcinogen affecting industry workers and too often, the properties where these chemicals are used) is an attractive alternative. It's a big selling point, particularly among those of us who have known people in the dry cleaning industry. It's a lot safer for everyone.

Lite packaging consulting services. If you've ever consulted, this may be an area where companies are reconsidering. You could provide information about greener packaging to save money and landfill. Information services require extensive research, but the information is out there and available. If you are the one providing it to businesses, you could recoup some of the money you help those companies save on their packaging.

Car sharing. Community car time share. "Zip Cars" are very handy alternatives to full time vehicle ownership and maintenance. If your community doesn't have them, then maybe there's an alternative that you could organize. Not everyone needs a full time car, but sometimes, they need access to a handy vehicle. Consider the options in your community and whether that could put you into a green business of your own.

Greenifed business opportunities exist, and with a little thought, effort and hopefully, a tiny investment, they could be something that would benefit you and the community around you.


Recycling 101

February 25, 2010

You've never seen people so grateful to see sunshine as those who live in the city of Washington, DC this week. I did exactly as I said and waited for the sun to melt the snow around my car. But after ten days, I confess I got a little impatient. I searched out the house shovel, walked the half mile to my car and shoveled for about ten minutes before I was able to easily drive off.

We have a beautiful planet. It may be a little cold and wet at times, but it's a gorgeous, beautiful and amazing place to live. And while I've been locked up in the house this past bit, I had a lot of time to look at some of the garbage that we carelessly toss around it.

That's because, of course, I was locked up with my recyclables. When the city shut down due to the heavy snowstorms, we lost garbage service.

I've always tried very hard to recycle everything that I can, from used soda bottles to the cardboard rolls inside of toilet paper. (How many crafts did I imagine as a child?)

I grew up on a rural farm where all of the kitchen refuse was collected and fed to pigs. Anything that he could, my father would burn and toss into a compost pile for use in fertilizing a flower bed behind the house. The rest, after careful sorting (Dad hated to throw away so much as a button that could be reused) and washing, was sent to a landfill about 15 miles away.

This past week, I could see on a Capitol Hill listserv that a growing number of my neighbors were becoming very uncomfortable with their garbage. Because I recycle so much, I was just fine.

I bought a small “step can” (purchased at Goodwill) that is lined with a plastic bag where I put wet garbage. I'm convinced that the majority of the items put out in “regular waste bins” are probably recyclable, if I clean and sort them properly.

I've got a couple of large bags of clean recyclables that are blocking off a corner of my kitchen while I wait for full services to resume. There is a sizable box of nonrecyclable items (mixed plastic and paper containers, a few single use batteries and a little bit of this or that) and my tidy, sealed ziploc bag of wet garbage.

I'm looking forward to the city coming around for recyclables this week. Now that I've lived with my garbage in my small apartment for three weeks, I've got a much healthier respect for it. I could put my garbage, unsorted, out for the collection services, but now that I know what it's like to live with it, I don't want the planet to have to live with it either. I'm more excited than ever to recycle and keep my part of our world as green as possible.

By the way, have you chosen a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm to buy your produce from this summer? It's that time! We'll talk about that next week.


Recycling, Freecyling and Upcycling Shipping Containers?

February 23, 2010

I have to share this idea with you. I caught wind of it (oh, that's a good pun in recycling circles, isn't it?) online and am totally caught up imagining it. Picture old railcars, stacked in two's, side by side and two deep. That's right, the hottest trend in eco-building is recycling old shipping containers.

I don't want you to think I am making another joke. The cars themselves are actually air-conditioned, with stylish bamboo cabinets, two bedrooms, two and a half bathrooms, ENERGY STAR appliances and low-flow showerheads, too. Definitely green all over!

Consider the consumer-driven economy we've had in this country for the past decades. We've bought everything that we wanted, used it for a bit and tossed it aside without any regard for landfill or consumption levels.

These days, we're reforming. Our new creedo is “eat it up, use it up, wear it out; anything but throw it out. We're finally slowing down the all consuming greed for stuff. One thing we may have left overs on is shipping containers.

Think about it: durable, mobile and definitely economical. Can you imagine anything built to last longer? They are plentiful and comparatively inexpensive. The only thing you can't do is move right in, of course, because until the developer goes over them, they're quite basic.

“We thought they would be a great platform for us to start from since they are extremely durable and are designed to be shipped with heavy loads and to withstand the rigors of ocean travel,” Ashton Wolfswinkel of Upcycle Living adds. “And because the shipping containers are so plentiful, we are able to get them at a reasonable price, thus allowing us to shift costs, to improve quality and make our homes more sustainable.”

Upcycle Living in Phoenix, Arizona, develops the houses that I glimpsed, but other companies have been making use of the containers for housing for some time. Upcycle's new angle is developing them clean, green and ready to shine out for the economy minded house hunter.

Maybe that's our future: green, recycled and altogether indicative of a Greenified, smaller carbonprint.


10 Days of Shut Down: What We Can Learn from Snowmaggedon

February 18, 2010

I have mentioned that I live in Washington, DC. Unless you've been living under a rock, you are probably aware that Washington has recently endured a record setting series of snowstorms, dumping 40 inches of the white stuff on Dulles Airport in the last week and a half. An additional one to four inches are expected this week and no one here is looking forward to it.

But there are lessons here to be learned.

For the last ten days, my car has been parked on a side street adjacent to Pennsylvania Avenue. I drop by to look at the snow surrounding it every few days. I keep hoping that the snow will melt off and I'll be able to get in and drive it away with only a minor effort. But in the meantime, you know, I'm not really suffering.

Let me admit up front that I stocked my pantry well before the storm hit. But other than that, I haven't given it a second thought. I don't need to drive around that much, and beyond a trip to various stores that aren't quite as convenient with my car, I'm doing just fine. If I gave it some consideration, I could park my car and quite happily drive only every other week or so.

If all of Washington gave similar efforts, our Beltway wouldn't be so legendary for its traffic problems.

A lot of people have been telecommuting, too. Road crews took days to clear out the first round of snow before the second round hammered down. To be honest, I'm being quite generous when I say “clear out.” (There are still dangerous amounts of ice and piles of snow on the street, blocking views and obstructing traffic.) I've actually envied a lot of those telecommuters; they seem to have the best situation of all.

Area children have one more day off. Schools are closed for the holiday, but opening on Tuesday. One last thing that is greener about this community (in this case, I mean green as in tax dollars) response in school districts: officials in two area jurisdictions have issued appeals, asking residents to help their school systems in their efforts to reopen.

In Fairfax County, officials called for volunteers to clear paths so classes can resume Tuesday after being closed Monday for Presidents' Day. "Your community needs you," Braddock District Supervisor John C. Cook was quoted as saying in the Washington Post as he issued a call for shovels and those with the backbone to properly use them. Arlington County also issued a similar call and reminded property owners to clear their sidewalks.

I think most residents would have done almost anything to clear the walkways, but it is always better to use human strength, rather than strong chemicals.

Washingtonians learned a lot about themselves and dealing with Mother Nature these last few weeks. Undoubtedly, nature always has something to teach us, including about Greenifying.


Greenifying In A White-Out World

February 15, 2010

I am considering what I can do to Greenify this week from a very confined corner of the world: Washington, DC.  In case you didn't see the news this past week, the nation's capital was directly in the path of a huge winter storm.  It struck with the force that hasn't been seen in more than 50 years. 
 
It started at mid-morning on Friday with tiny and widely scattered flakes.  By mid-afternoon, there were several inches on the ground.  And before it was done snowing around 6pm on Saturday, there were more than 20 inches of snow on the ground.  Washington, DC is getting a dose of "how to conserve resources" this week.

The city is shut down.  The federal government is mostly closed, except for "essential personnel."  I had to go in (I'm not very important, yet somehow, I was considered "essential") to work and because I knew things might get difficult, I went to work on Friday night with an overnight case and pillow. 
 
In spite of regular treatment with plows, sand and chemicals, the streets were soon blocked by snow and impassable.  Only the main thoroughfares of town got plowed immediately (and even they had to be plowed repeatedly).   The buses shut down.  Metro, the famed federal rail service also closed wherever the rails were exposed aboveground.  Trash pickup and recycling services also are out of commission.  So what's to do?

For many people, it was still a day of work by telecommuting.  Thousands of federal and other workers went to work in their pajama pants and sweaters.  They "ordered out" from their own refrigerator.  They got their work done without wasting the time, gas or other resources of commuting. (Commuting in Washington, by the way, can add an extra ninety minutes on each end of the day.)  Studies have shown that many people are happier, more relaxed and more productive when they telecommute.  And employers like it better, too, because they don't have to provide office space. 
 
Tomorrow, a lot of Washingtonians will be doing the same.  Maybe you should consider it, too.  Talk to your employees about telecommuting.  Talk to your boss about telecommuting.  Consider whether the work that is being done in your office could legitimately and more reasonably be done at home for one or more days per week.  You may be quite happy with the results.
 
As for me, my car is just off Pennsylvania Avenue, under about 2.5 feet of snow.  I'm not going to dig it out.  I'm going to let nature take its course.  Which means tomorrow, I may have to "telecommute" to the gym.  That's my new name for my pilates workout DVD. 


Van Jones: Green Entrepreneur

February 9, 2010

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I recently attended  "The New Green Economy" conference organized by the National Council for Science and the Environment.  The conference was held at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington and welcomed 1,000 attendees at this year's gathering.  I worked with the team providing the event coverage and was fortunate to meet and interview Van Jones.
 
You may remember Van Jones.  He was nominated by President Barack Obama to be his Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation.  Although ultimately, Jones withdrew under a cloud of controversy, he is widely regarded to be at the forefront of innovation on environmental jobs and entrepreneurship.  He was a little reluctant to be interviewed, but he did want to get his message out as widely as possible.  I asked him what that message would be.  His response:

"The main message is the tremendous opportunity that we have to make a difference.  The desire that is still there in the country to make a real difference with green solutions.  People in the country are concerned about the economics and jobs and America's strength for the long term.  We need to help them understand that there are green economic solutions for all of that; that you can save money and make money and not just spend money with green solutions."
 
That is the sound of positive thinking at work.  It's also what we believe first and foremost here at the Green Business Alliance.  Right now, a lot of people are thinking the worst about the economy, but those people are wrong.  We've always turned things around in this country and we're likely to do the same again.  And even though things can seem a bit bleak right now (it is difficult to be positive, with the unemployment rate at 9.7% this month, but consider that's up from 10 percent in the final month of 2009), the reality is that the American economy has started to grow again.  The gross domestic product grew at 6 percent in the final quarter of last year. 
 
There really is a lot of good news out there for us.  Sometimes, it can be hard to focus on the good things that are going on.  At such moments, it can be even harder to make good things happen for ourselves and the planet.  But Van Jones seems to think it's the best of all times to do exactly that.  Click here to see more of his interview. 
 
(You can click on his photo to check out his interview or watch all of "The New Green Economy" conference coverage.)


Greenifying: One Soda at a Time

February 4, 2010

Have a Coke and smile. You are Greenifying. As we have often discussed here at the Green Business Alliance, going green is a good thing for the environment and for business. And one of America's biggest names in business apparently realizes that. That's right, the world's biggest maker of beverages, Coca Cola, has begun using new bottles made partially of plant-based materials, making them biodegradable. The new bottles are only 30% made of plant-based materials, but Coca Cola sees it as a step in the evolution of packaging.

As we all know, plant materials like corn and sugar cane are renewable resources. The U.S. currently uses over 200,000 barrels of oil per day in production of plastic. The old Coke bottles that we've all grown accustomed to required 17 million barrels of petroleum per year to produce. The new bottles will decrease that amount and with it, Coke's carbon footprint in packaging falls an estimated 12 to 18 percent.

The move is part of a new nation-wide movement away from petroleum-based products. The motivations behind it are three-fold: concern about the price of oil and our dangerous dependence on it, safety concerns about chemicals in plastics production and of course, our growing worries about the amount of plastics we are putting into the environment. Instead, the newer plastics are dependent on corn, wheat, sugar beets, sweet potatos and rice to make an alternative to plastics called polyactic acid, or PLA.

Other companies that have already starting using such bottles include Newman's Own (which has been one of the companies at the forefront of the green movement), Wild Oats, WalMart and yes, Coca Cola's nemesis in the beverage market, Pepsico. And if you're drinking soda, you might as well have a few chips. Sunchips are also in a new bag which is made of 33 percent polyactic acid, with plans to increase that amount to 90 percent.

Keep in mind, consumers still need to recycle the packaging itself. PLA is wonderful stuff, but tossed along the side of the road, those bottles and wrappers will likely still be there in a few years. And it's not perfect: products shelf-life isn't quite as long using the PLA packaging. But the manufacterers are working on that as well.

But isn't it amazing to see how important and vital to their industry (and marketing!) greenifying is? They consider it a key part of their strategy. It's the direction they want to go and they want others to see them heading that direction as well.

The new bottles were unveiled at the recent Copenhagen Climate Summit. Drink up! And if the soda you're drinking tastes greener, maybe that's because it is.


Space Heaters: Energy Efficient?

February 2, 2010

Are space heaters energy efficient? Or are they sucking the life out of your energy efficiency plan, one outlet at a time?

When I was growing up, my family lived for a year in a small two bedroom house. It wasn't a shanty in the Appalachians, but a farm house on a family ranch in the West. There was no central heat or air and not even a window unit in the summer. But winter was the time that things got really tricky. The house was heated by a black coal-fired pot-bellied stove in the front room.

Most people like sleeping in a chilly house and this one certainly accomplished that handily. My father arose early every morning to restart the fire and get it blazing for when he woke the rest of the household. And when it was time to get cleaned up, the bathroom was in the farthest corner of the house. It was cold in that bathroom! So we had a space heater.

Dad guarded the use of that space heater with his life! He would turn it on low while we were in the tub, and allow the highest setting only as we got out to shiver while drying off. We only lived in that house for about 10 months until a new home could be built for us. And these days, of course, heaven bless my college professor father for teaching his children to be frugal about both energy and money. But I also wondered if that old space heater was really the expensive consumer of power that he said it was.

Modern space heaters can actually be extremely energy efficient little machines. If you live in a large house and don't use parts of the house during various times, or if you have an employee who is always colder than the rest of the staff, then you know how helpful these little gadgets can be, if you purchase the right one.

With central heat, you lose a large amount of the heat into the system of ducts and vents weaving in and through the house. With a space heater, you can individualize the heat. You can turn the temperature down in the rest of the house or office, while applying heat directly where desired. Think of all the times you've been blown through a business' front door and wondered how the person at the front desk ever tolerated the wild shifts in temperature that came with the arrival of every customer. It was likely that they had a space heater just below the front counter, trained on their knees.

Space heaters often use between 900 and 1500 kilowatts. This can be quite a lot of heat, but if you only need to supplement one smallish area, they can be a lot more energy efficient than using central air to heat the entire house or building to a desired temperature when only one (or perhaps two?) rooms are needed.

Should you try to heat the entire house with a space heater? No, that would be overuse and in fact, could overload the electrical circuitry. (You'll need to make sure your outlets, fuses and circuitry can handle the full 1500 watts) But dropping the temperature to slightly below the comfort zone in most of a house or business and using space heaters in one or two rooms could see an 8 percent savings on the fuel bill.

And that would be good Greenifying on for both the environment and the home or business expense.


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