Peter Nicholson started Green Drinks in Chicago in 2003 as a way for anyone interested in sustainability issues to network and learn about green business and environmental issues.
From those humble beginnings, Nicholson launched Foresight Design Initiative, an organization that offers workshops for careers in the green economy and consulting for green transformation design. The green business piece of the non-profit is the Foresight Sustainable Business Alliance, formerly known as the Chicago Sustainable Business Alliance. That arm provides sustainability expertise to businesses on a variety of topics. The alliance is about to expand beyond its initial goals of networking and education.
Nicholson, who has a background in design and music, lived in the Netherlands in the mid-1990s, where he caught the urban sustainability bug long before most Americans.
Aside from his current dual role of heading up Foresight Design and the business alliance, the 42-year-old in the last year led small groups of business owners and others on educational trips to Amsterdam and Vancouver — cities considered further along in their quest for sustainability compared with Chicago. He also moderates panel discussions for international sustainable business conferences in Chicago and he is soon off to Singapore to participate in an educational seminar organized by the Social Innovation Exchange.
And those Green Drinks meet-ups? They’re still taking place monthly. Lately, it’s been standing room only upstairs at the Jefferson Tap & Grille in the West Loop. At a recent gathering, attendees had a lively discussion with Suzanne Malec-McKenna, Commissioner of the Department of Environment for the City of Chicago.
Crain’s talked with Nicholson recently about the business alliance’s new efforts and why companies pursuing green ideas and practices need a new road map that’s not readily available.
Crain’s: Why did you see a need to form the Foresight Sustainable Business Alliance? Are there networking gatherings aside from Green Drinks that focus more directly on businesses?
Mr. Nicholson: Through our Green Drinks events, I started introducing people to one another and suggesting they do business together. The volume got to the point where it was becoming inefficient for those folks to connect through me. I realized there needed to be a separate entity that connects these people together.
The alliance has quarterly networking events called Foresight Nexus that are specifically targeted to people with sustainable business interests. Those events have shorter presentations that talk about business transformation and how companies need to evolve in order to create a more resilient economy. You don’t have to be a member to come. It’s for people who are curious about sustainability and want to learn more or for others who are already well on their way. The next one will be in October at Haworth, Inc., a furniture design company in the Merchandise Mart.
Crain’s: How big is the membership base at the business alliance and what kinds of companies typically join?
Mr. Nicholson: There are about 160 members and they range from large Fortune 500 companies like USG Corp., down to new companies like Two Mothers Foods, sole proprietors, and entrepreneurs that have an idea they’re pursuing to start a new company. The majority of members are mid-to-small sized businesses, with up to $50 million in revenue. They tend to be B-to-B companies or service-oriented. We also have some retail members, but we’re open to everybody.
Crain’s: What’s the biggest draw for businesses to join the alliance?
Mr. Nicholson: I think it’s great to be in a community of like-minded people. That’s good for pure moral support, which is important because a lot of times when you’re in a sustainably-minded business you’re going against the grain and you have to do more work in order to achieve your sustainability goals as well as your profitability goals. It’s also good for connecting with like-minded businesses to do business with one another.
Sharing knowledge is an important reason to join too. Being a sustainable enterprise means doing things in a new way and the problem with that is there’s no road map. We have to make up those new ways. You can do it on your own, but it’s so much more efficient and fun to do it with other people and benefit from their knowledge, their mistakes and their experience.
Crain’s: Until now, the business alliance has been known for its networking opportunities and educational workshops. What are the new initiatives being unveiled in the coming months?
Mr. Nicholson: Our new efforts will focus on “Do” and “Advocate”. The doing part is going to start with an anti-greenwashing initiative. We’ve launched the first code of ethics that’s peer-based. If you’re making claims about the environmental attributes of your products or services — they’ve got to be accurate. We have a review committee so if anyone has an issue with another member, they can submit a complaint. It’s like whistle-blowing, but it’s being done in a constructive manner. It’s so important because there’s so much misrepresentation going on around these green attributes.
We’re also going to begin some advocacy work because so much of what will determine our future is happening at the policy level. There are few, if any, organizations that are advocating on behalf of members who share our values. We’ve formed a member-based committee, and as an ordinance gets proposed by the city, we’ll chime in and try to work collaboratively and collectively with alderman, city bureaucrats, and whoever else is involved.
We’re also forming relationships at the state and federal levels. While we may not be directly involved in those issues, given our resource limitations, we’re communicating what’s going on to our members so they can see what’s happening and they can potentially get involved if it’s relevant and urgent to them.
Crain’s: How many times a day do you use the word “sustainable”?
Mr. Nicholson: On average? About 45.
But we really tend to focus on the tangible benefits and activities related to this pursuit. Sustainability is fundamentally about recognizing that there is more than one kind of value in the world (i.e. economic), and that if the pursuit of one type is prioritized over others — such as social and environmental — trouble, like climate change, can occur.