This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: City launches Version 2.0 of Green Office Challenge

The city of Chicago on Thursday kicks off round two of its Green Office Challenge — a program designed to inspire commercial building property managers and tenants to shrink their carbon footprint and save some money in the process.

Last year, Chicago’s Department of the Environment teamed up with a non-profit that developed a program that invites commercial tenants and building property managers to become more green at the end of the competition period compared with where they started.

Participants submit baseline data in many categories, including energy and water use, recycling and purchasing. Awards — in the form of recognition from the mayor — are given to companies that reach one of the established benchmarks of improvement, says Amy Malick, manager of the Climate Protection Program at ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability USA, the Washington, D.C.-based organization that’s running the challenge. ICLEI helps municipalities nationwide become more sustainable.

The idea for the challenge grew out of some startling findings about Chicago’s buildings when the city released its now-famous Chicago Climate Action Plan in 2008. The report, which calculated carbon dioxide emissions from the usual suspects — buildings, transportation, industrial waste — found that buildings in Chicago produce about 70% of all of the city’s carbon dioxide emissions (39% of them are commercial structures). Finding creative ways to encourage building owners and their tenants to slash emissions was a high priority, Ms. Malick says.

In the first round, 106 tenants and 39 property managers participated and all made improvements by the end of the challenge last summer, she notes. And property managers that completed the first round of the challenge saved a total of $5.1 million, Ms. Malick says.

This time around, organizers developed better online tools to make it easier for firms to participate and track their progress.

The Chicago program received such favorable reviews last year that ICLEI was asked to replicate it elsewhere. So far, the non-profit has rolled it out in six other municipalities, including St. Louis, Charleston, S.C., Houston and San Diego.

Crain’s met with Ms. Malick to talk about how companies and the city of Chicago can benefit from this program.

Crain’s: Why should commercial tenants or building property managers consider getting involved in the program and how does your staff help them?

Ms. Malick: Our goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from commercial buildings, and we’re hoping to engage the commercial sector in the implementation of the Chicago Climate Action Plan. The program is set up to lead businesses down the path of better environmental performance.

Amy Malick

We provide training resources, tools, quantification methodology and benchmarking data tools to allow them to understand where they are when they start the program. We benchmark their data using the Environmental Protection Agency’s Portfolio Manager system, which is a free online software tool that’s a universally accepted benchmarking tool. Building managers share that data through that software program and we take a look at it and verify it over the course of the year. We work with them to set goals for improving things like energy and water usage and recycling rates. At the end, we rate them based on their achievements.

Crain’s: What’s different about the program this time around compared to last year’s initial launch?

Ms. Malick: The first time around we were really only measuring electricity in terms of buildings’ energy usage. This year we’re measuring natural gas and electricity. We’re beefing up the transportation track of the program, too. We’re trying to work with businesses to get better commuter benefits up and running. We have more corporate sponsors this year so we’ll have a lot more training resources.

The tenants who participate aren’t rated on their actual energy or water usage. We have a Green Office scorecard which has 50 different strategies over five categories with a series of yes-or-no questions about policies the office may have in place for things like green purchasing, transit benefits and green leasing strategies.

Crain’s: How are you going to audit commercial tenants if you don’t have verifiable data like energy bills to review?

Ms. Malick: We’re using the honor system, but we conduct site visits to every single company over the course of the year. We’ll ask them to demonstrate what they’re doing when we go there in person, as well as what they tell us on the scorecard. They also have to give us some information about how they achieved a certain strategy.

Crain’s: Is a reward of recognition from the mayor’s office enough incentive to encourage businesses to sign up for the program?

Ms. Malick: The Chicago Department of Environment developed a comprehensive green business strategy and they found businesses really want recognition from the city for their efforts to go green. It’s a low-cost badge of honor the city can provide and it shows they’re a green partner to the city. They even get a sticker to put on their front door. The city didn’t want to develop a third-party certification program that would compete with LEED or Energy Star because it’s too difficult to manage and it would cost too much.

Can this type of challenge have a lasting impact on how companies act sustainably once it’s over?

Ms. Malick: We certainly think so. In fact, almost all the companies from round one have signed up to continue the challenge this year to improve their performance.

One of the central goals of the Climate Action Plan is a 30% reduction in energy use across commercial buildings, so it will take more than one year for a building to meet that kind of improvement. We want to work with them until they reach that goal.

Crain’s: Do you expect the next Chicago mayor will continue to support this program?

Ms. Malick: I think our next mayor has no choice. The people of Chicago are concerned about climate change and the environment. Mayor Daley has clearly made his mark as one of the greenest mayors of this country, and I don’t think this issue is going away.

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This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Rethinking the use of paper

Companies looking to green their operations often place reducing paper consumption and buying from sustainable sources near the top of their priority lists.

Recycling the paper that companies use is important, but many try to take their greening efforts further by analyzing how they can use less paper and buy products in a more eco-conscious way. InnerWorkings Inc., a Chicago-based outsourcer of print and print-related services, aims to help clients achieve those goals. Many businesses find they also can save money in the process.

When InnerWorkings takes charge of a company’s paper procurement process, it can offer greener paper choices. InnerWorkings has relationships with 8,000 suppliers to meet the paper needs of its 4,500 business customers. About 1,000 of those suppliers are certified either by the Forest Stewardship Council or the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, or both, says Ryan Cox, InnerWorkings’ director of strategic sourcing and supplier relations. He estimates about 170 of the top 200 most widely used suppliers on its roster are FSC or SFI certified.

In the last five years, Mr. Cox notes, more businesses each year have been seeking sustainable options for paper purchases. Those items include boxes and other packaging materials, as well as business cards, direct mail campaigns and promotional displays. InnerWorking’s clients include Fortune 500 companies, small businesses and sole proprietorships.

Offering a deep pool of eco-friendly products has given InnerWorkings its own boost. Annual revenues for 2010 are expected to be about $500 million and the publicly-traded company has posted annual sales growth of about 20% in recent years, except for relatively flat sales in 2009, during the darkest days of the recession, Mr. Cox says.

Crain’s met recently with Mr. Cox, 31, to discuss some of the best ways companies can green their paper supply chain and save a few bucks along the way.

Crain’s: What are some of the most wasteful paper practices among businesses?

Mr. Cox: Sometimes procurement departments are being wasteful when they’re buying from the supplier around the corner or from their buddy when those may not be the best choices.

Ryan Cox

Many products are made on equipment ill-suited to produce it. The creative people come up with ideas that sometimes don’t translate well on the production side. Once a company brings us in, our people are there at the creative concept and they can help redesign the equipment to reduce waste in their print manufacturing.

We also find a lot of companies are printing large quantities of paper goods, bringing it to a warehouse and putting it on a shelf that sometimes stays there forever until it’s thrown away. We consult with them to make sure they only print what they need.

What are some of the best strategies you deploy to help companies achieve their sustainability goals?

There’s two main ways we’re helping our customer go green. The first and foremost is our business model. It only exists to create efficiency, eliminate waste and minimize shipping. We identify the most efficient suppliers to produce those pieces. When we procure on a company’s behalf, they get this great environmental lift as a byproduct of what we do.

Then we can take the next step and partner with our customers’ goals with regard to FSC certification. We can identify environmentally friendly substrates and inks and we can institute a variety of other sustainable business rules while we’re sourcing for them.

Why are some businesses reluctant to buy items made of recycled paper products or sustainable in other ways?

Many people think if you use recycled stock it will cost more money and that’s not necessarily the case. Manufacturers that use FSC-certified paper don’t always carry with it a robust cost increase. These forests have been sustainably maintained for generations, we’re just monitoring it now and getting them certified.

How can you be sure your suppliers that are supposed to follow sustainable practices are in fact doing that?

We audit our suppliers, but we can’t say all the magenta that goes into the fountains of a certain product is soy-based every single time. But we monitor the trades (magazines) and newswires to make sure there aren’t any hiccups.

The FSC certification process is new for lots of suppliers so some may be not as well-versed in the strict rules of printing, but we haven’t seen any egregious acts. The print community is as committed to sustainability as their customers are. They know degradation of public opinion will only hurt their business.

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This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Turning green-minded Chicagoans into potential policy-makers

A citizen-driven website focusing on policy solutions for Chicago’s green economy and local sustainability issues just got a face-lift.

The website, Green Economy Chicago, was launched in May 2009 by then-1st Ward Alderman Manuel Flores and Mike Bueltmann, a technology specialist at Clear Content, a technology and business process consulting firm. Mr. Flores, who is currently chairman of the Illinois Commerce Commission, was inspired to create the site in response to his constituents in the Bucktown, Wicker Park and Logan Square neighborhoods who were clamoring for the city to be more active on the sustainability front.

Initially, the website was envisioned as a gathering place for Chicago residents and business owners to post ideas about how to boost the city’s green profile and reduce its collective carbon footprint, says Stephanie Katsaros, a member of the website’s current board of directors and a principal of Bright Beat, a Chicago sustainability consulting firm.

There were more than 3,500 unique visitors to the original website and 65 ideas were posted. More than 500 people collaborated on those ideas on the site. The digital community included green-minded Chicagoans, business owners and supporters from various organizations including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Stuart School of Business and Baum Realty Group, to name a few.

The site recently was revamped to provide a stronger framework for encouraging individuals and businesses to turn their ideas into policy initiatives, Ms. Katsaros says. The souped-up version employs a voting platform created by IdeaScale, which invites people to post ideas and asks participants to vote on their favorites in a competitive process. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set up a similar format for generating citizen-driven ideas.

Ideas being discussed now on the Green Economy Chicago website

The person whose idea wins the top spot at the end of each quarterly voting cycle will be matched with an advocacy group or lobbyist to guide him or her in introducing that idea as an ordinance to the Chicago City Council, Ms. Katsaros says. A kick-off party to get the word out about the updated website is planned for Jan. 19 at Jimmy Fig’s Tavern & Restaurant.

Crain’s met with Ms. Katsaros to find out more about how business owners and others could benefit from participating in the 2.0 version of the site.

Crain’s: What’s the main purpose of the revamped website?

Ms. Katsaros: We’re hoping for participation and community engagement with a focus on being able to take ideas and move them to action by creating this policy suite. Instead of just having a platform for discussion, we created a tool that individuals and industry leaders can use to identify and refine good ideas that our policy suite will hopefully bring to action.

Crain’s: Can you describe the process of how a green policy idea posted on the site could potentially turn into an ordinance for the City Council to chew on?

Ms. Katsaros: First, you have to go to the website, register and submit your idea. Then comments are made by other members of the community. Some comments could include links to what people are doing in other cities; we don’t need only local answers to our issues. We also ask the NRDC and others to share information that specifically strengthens or informs certain ideas posted on the site.

Stephanie Katsaros

At the end of each quarterly voting cycle, the three most popular ideas win. Then the board will determine the idea that has enough support and the most likelihood of getting somewhere (legislatively). We’ll then have an empowerment session, give that person a one-on-one session with a lobbyist and coach them how to introduce their idea as an ordinance to the City Council. Any Chicago citizen has the right to do this.

Crain’s: What are the chances of an idea that originates on this site to actually turn into an ordinance that gets passed by the City Council?

Ms. Katsaros: That’s completely dependent on the ideas and the legislators and how it’s considered a priority among other issues we’re facing. We can look at other cities and look at ordinances that have been passed, for example recycling in San Diego and NY City. We’ll strategize with partners that have found success in other communities.

One good example of a strong idea was suggested by the Chicago Council of Carpenters during our first round of discussions on the website. They have ongoing efforts to grow the energy audit market here. They had an idea about requiring energy efficiency ratings on the sale of homes. We summarized the benefits, we know it could create jobs for home energy auditors, installers and others, and in the long term could reduce the cost of energy for homeowners. That would make a great ordinance.

Crain’s: How can the Chicago business community benefit from this site and participate?

Ms. Katsaros: Sustainable businesses or those moving in that direction can listen in on the discussion. Businesses that are working in sustainability should submit ideas because they’re the ones who know the benefits of being green. They could encourage the city of Chicago to put reforms in place to make it friendlier to be a green business, such as more energy efficient building codes or tax incentives.
Right now, the Midwest region doesn’t have a singular leader in the sustainable economy and green initiatives. There’s a huge opportunity in Chicago to bring industry here that supports sustainable business. This website has the potential to help make that happen. We have a reputation of being a green city. It would be nice to live up to that reputation.

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This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: A New Year’s wish for greater corporate sustainability

In the year ahead, Chicago companies paying lip service to sustainability ought to make a resolution to get on with the hard work of implementing its principles into their daily operations.

That’s the New Year’s wish from George Nassos, director of the Center for Sustainable Enterprise at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Stuart School of Business. Mr. Nassos, 71, has been inspiring Chicago-area companies to embrace the principles of sustainability for more than a decade by demonstrating to those interested in listening that it’s good for their bottom line and good for the planet as well. He’s also taught courses on the subject at IIT as an associate professor.

George Nassos

Mr. Nassos describes corporate sustainability as developing, extending or maintaining a competitive advantage by achieving environmental integrity, social equity and economic viability.

He knows a thing or two about practicing what he preaches. Before turning to academia, Mr. Nassos spent more than three decades working in the corporate world in the chemical and environmental services industries, including 16 years at the Chemical Waste Management subsidiary of Houston-based Waste Management Inc.

Crain’s met with Mr. Nassos as 2010 was coming to a close to get his views on what opportunities lie ahead for Chicago companies intent on greening their operations.

Crain’s: How would you describe the current state of sustainable business activity in Chicago?

Mr. Nassos: There are a few large companies in the Chicago area that have looked at sustainability and implemented it. They include McDonald’s Corp. and Baxter International. They’re working with their supply chain, developing incentives for those companies to be sustainable as well. However, there are many local companies that aren’t doing anything.

Almost every company today has someone on their payroll with sustainability in their title. Nine out of 10 of these people have no idea what that is. You also need key people in each department so they can work together on sustainability. Most companies don’t have that either. That’s not going to happen unless upper management understands it and embraces it. It has to come from the top.

I have a former student who graduated (from IIT) and is now sustainability coordinator at a large, local company. She called me recently and said, “nobody here understands what I’m trying to do.”

Crain’s: Why are so many companies reluctant to pursue sustainability programs, such as making energy efficiency improvements or reducing water consumption?

Mr. Nassos: In poor economic times, corporations are afraid it’s going to cost them money and they don’t want to spend to implement sustainability unless they’re convinced it’s going to help their bottom line. If companies get into sustainability they will find it will help their bottom line. But they don’t know enough about it.

Crain’s: What can Chicago companies do in the year ahead to move toward becoming more green?

Mr. Nassos: Corporations don’t have the luxury, time or money to send their key people from each department to our school or other schools that are starting sustainability programs. It makes more sense to have someone knowledgeable go to their facility and do a training program at the executive and management level. Then they could bring in a consultant to help implement and integrate sustainability in their process or product line. It would be more cost effective that way.

Crain’s: What are the obstacles preventing company executives from pursuing these goals?

Mr. Nassos: They don’t really understand the benefits of sustainability and they don’t understand the severity of our environment. When I give talks, I go back to the creation of the Earth and I show how much damage we’ve done in such a minuscule amount of time. We are consuming the future.

The city of Chicago sold the future earnings of the Chicago Skyway and parking meters to get money today. We’re doing the same thing environmentally. We are consuming 1.4 times the natural resources of the earth today and taking it away from future generations. We need corporations to be aware of this so they can take action.

Crain’s: What’s the biggest opportunity for the next mayor to encourage companies to adopt sustainable practices?

Mr. Nassos: We need every company doing business with the city of Chicago to be required to become more sustainable so the city can truly say they’re green, even beyond their own operations with the Chicago Climate Action Plan.

How do you do that? You start out with companies that provide products and services to the city and you give them an incentive to become more sustainable. When companies bid on new city contracts, the city could give them a discount on their bid if they demonstrate they’ve adopted sustainable practices. The city can use that discounted bid as an edge against other companies competing for the same job. If you’re awarded the contract, you’ll get paid the full amount of your original bid and the city will eat the difference. Wal-Mart is forcing its suppliers to be more sustainable and the city of Chicago should be doing the same.

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