This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Eco-minded media duo spreads green message in Chicago and beyond

If you’ve taken a cab ride somewhere in Chicago in the last week or so, you probably had a peek at one of the latest green projects by a husband-wife team that’s cutting a swath in the green lifestyles and business sector in Chicago and elsewhere.

Video screens mounted in the backseat of more than 1,000 cabs throughout Chicago are now showing a rotating series of super-short videos that feature local businesses engaged in green services or products. The Chicago Green Loop series was developed and produced by Bianca and Michael Alexander, co-CEOs of Conscious Planet Media, a media company they formed six years ago in California. The goal of the series is to showcase Chicago green businesses for tourists and locals alike. They set up a similar program recently in New York and Boston and plans are in the works for San Francisco this summer.

Michael and Bianca Alexander (photo credit Scott Council)

The Alexanders moved their own green business to Chicago from California about two years ago with the expectation of opening a green production studio in the still-pending Green Exchange on the city’s North Side. That project has been delayed and the studio space has now been reallocated for other uses, but the Alexanders say they still plan on becoming tenants when the building opens.

In the meantime, they have been busy establishing themselves in the local green lifestyle, fashion and business scene.

Bianca, 39, and Michael, 38, started the company using an Internet-based multimedia format where they began producing and hosting video segments on eco-destinations, green lifestyle issues and more. Their program, Conscious Living TV, currently is watched by about 1.5 million viewers per month on their own site, through many other websites around the world that carry their content and on other platforms as well, according to Michael.

While they collaborate as a team on ideas for their visual stories, Bianca is typically the one in front of the camera, and Michael handles the technology component behind the scenes. Before venturing into green media production, Bianca was an attorney for Paramount Studios in L.A. Michael was engaged in several California green-product businesses.

More recently, they have been producing monthly live “Conscious Living” segments on network news stations including ABC, NBC and WGN. They won an award from the Assn. for Health Care Journalists for a story on Chicago’s Food Deserts and an Emmy for their work on “Soul of Green,” a series they created about sustainability issues affecting people of color. That series currently is airing on Fox/My50 Chicago.

The duo also has been producing the Vert Couture fair-trade eco-fashion show, a green lifestyle event that recently has been part of Chicago Fashion Week. Next month, the Alexanders will moderate a panel, “The Conscious Media Revolution,” at Green Festival at McCormick Place on May 14.

Crain’s checked in with the couple to find out what’s next.

Crain’s: Where did you get the idea to start a green lifestyles media company?

Michael: We wanted to start a company that looked at how we could be more conscious about what we do and buy. We started producing news segments on ABC and NBC affiliates across the country on topics such as how to shop for organic food, things you don’t know about cleaning products and how we could live more green. I’m a classically trained economist, and I know this is about driving demand. If we drive demand for more green products, we can change how companies impact the environment. That was our big idea.

Bianca: The whole concept for Conscious Planet Media was written on the back of the napkin on a plane to our honeymoon in Bali. It took a couple of years to percolate, and then we left L.A. We went to Sedona (Ariz.) and looked within to be the change. That’s where we found the clarity about what we should be doing, and that’s how we founded our company.

With this company, we’re re-setting the buying criteria for how we identify ourselves as individuals. What is the definition of success, health, beauty and living a great life? As individuals, we can vote with our spending dollars and create the world we want to see.

Crain’s: Why did you decide to produce your green lifestyles segments and release them mainly through the Internet?

Michael: Media is the Wild West now. We launched our first multiplatform show six years ago, after YouTube was founded. We wouldn’t have been able to do this 10 years ago.

We had a way to get our message out to millions of people. Over the last five years, we’ve developed a vast international distribution network where we can get the viewership of a cable channel or a network without having to kowtow to corporate media interests. Our content is on thousands of websites around the world. And it’s allowed us to maintain the integrity with the types of messages and stories we want to tell.

Crain’s: You launched Soul of Green after arriving in Chicago to address the lack of coverage of people of color in this movement. Has that taken off yet?

Bianca: These are stories that aren’t being told. There’s a certain vernacular and cultural translation that’s missing in the mainstream green movement. When you think green, you don’t think of a black person at all, or even a Latino person or an Asian person. You usually think of a wealthy white male. Our platform is being able to translate it to the everyday person to not make them feel like we’re looking down on them. We’re not telling them you have to drive a Prius or wear eco-fashion. You can live your life exactly where you are.

Last year we were approached by Next TV, which is produced by the Chicago Urban League. We produced Soul of Green segments for that program and last year I won an Emmy for that work.

Crain’s: Tell us more about your newest platform — the Chicago Green Loop series running in Chicago cabs.

Bianca: By the summer we should have 1,500 cabs showing our series on their TV screens. Soon we expect to have hotels in Chicago showing the series, as well, in their rooms.

When tourists or locals see these short segments, they might get inspired to take a step in the green direction. If you’re going to go out to eat, why not try a vegetarian restaurant like Karyn’s. If you’re going to go shopping around Division Street, why not go to GreenHeart for fair trade and funky, tribal fashions. If you’re thinking about hotels, you can learn about the green things at the Fairmont Hotel. These are stories that show you don’t have to give up the good life to live more sustainably.

Michael: The cab companies aren’t paying for our content. They’ll have ads that run alongside the show, which is being distributed by Creative Mobile Technologies. We create and own the platform, but we split the ad revenues with the cabs. We fill the creative need, then the money follows.

Crain’s: Is the Chicago market ready for this kind of programming or are you ahead of the curve?

Michael: I always feel like we’re years ahead of the curve. I think people want sexy, and they want a great experience. Our purpose is to show them they can have all they want and they can do it with better choices that make them feel better about themselves.

Bianca: At first, it was a bit of culture shock moving to Chicago from California. But people soaked up our green information here like sponges; everyone’s so jaded in California. There’s a willingness to learn here and people are more progressive about green issues than I thought they were. The mainstream media isn’t giving them this information, but we are. We feel like we’re filling a vacuum.

Crain’s: What’s next in your plans to grow the company?

Bianca/Michael: We’re in the process of doubling distribution for the Chicago Green Loop series. We’ll be hosting the next Vert Couture fashion show in Chicago Fashion Week in the fall. And we’re developing a series about sustainable businesses called the Triple Bottom Line.

We spent the last six years perfecting the way we tell stories and creating a distribution network. Now we’re ramping up our advertising and marketing so we can continue to monetize. This has been largely self-funded so far. We’re looking for advertisers that are like-minded and understand the value of getting their message out along with powerful conscious green content.

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This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Growing Home celebrates Earth Day with new deal to farm more organic veggies

Earth Day at Growing Home on Chicago’s South Side might as well be just another day of trainees, workers and volunteers getting their hands dirty in organic soil in vacant city-owned lots.

But the non-profit will celebrate Earth Day by soon expanding its operations onto more city lots so it can harvest a greater bounty of fresh, organic produce for neighborhoods short on leafy greens — and broaden its training program, too.

In a novel deal, the city of Chicago is in the process of working out an arrangement to allocate an acre of land on a vacant city lot in Englewood to NeighborSpace, a local non-profit. The deal will allow Growing Home to work in that space for commercial use. NeighborSpace typically is awarded vacant city land in a public/private partnership to foster community gardening for nearby residents in neighborhoods across Chicago. In this instance, the parcel of land will be dedicated to Growing Home so it can boost its production and training capacity. The site is close to the near-half-acre tract Growing Home already occupies to farm organic greens in a series of hoop houses and in open ground.

The inside of a hoophouse at the Wood Street Urban Farm (image from the Growing Home blog).

When the group’s farmers begin planting in the new lot later in the growing season, they expect to eventually triple their revenues from the current output of red leaf lettuce, arugula, mustard greens, carrots and much more, says Harry Rhodes, executive director.

Growing Home is a social enterprise based in Englewood that’s focused on growing organic produce in Chicago neighborhoods lacking those  foods, and training individuals who were previously incarcerated or homeless to gain farming skills. The organization has been around for a decade and is part of a movement attempting to fill gaps in the local food distribution system, especially in parts of the city considered food deserts. Growing Home also runs a 10-acre organic farm 75 miles southwest of Chicago in Marseilles.

Mr. Rhodes founded the program in 2001 after spending 16 years in Israel, where he organized programs to promote Jewish-Arab co-existence. Though he doesn’t describe himself as an urban farmer, Mr. Rhodes, 51, says he worked in date fields for about a year on a kibbutz in Israel and has a good feel for farming the land.

Next week, Growing Home will host its 9th annual fundraising benefit dinner at the Chicago Cultural Center, featuring local chefs Paul Virant of Vie and David Rosenthal of Inspiration Kitchens. They’ll be cooking local food to celebrate the organization’s efforts and put a little cash in its coffers. Tickets for the event are still available online.

Crain’s met with Mr. Rhodes to talk about Growing Home’s expansion plans.

Crain’s: What are the challenges of running an organic, urban farming business, especially with a social agenda attached to it?

Mr. Rhodes: Farming is not a very lucrative business and we have a different model of doing urban farming. One goal is to operate a sustainable, organic farming business that will cover its costs, bring in revenue and create new jobs.

Harry Rhodes

As a social enterprise, we use organic farming to help people transform their lives and bring about change in those communities where we’re working. We’re giving people who often have had doors closed on them in the past a second or third chance to get back into the work force.

We have less than a half acre on our Wood Street urban farm in Englewood and we’re almost maxed out in growing with the space we have. Last year, we brought in $45,000 in revenues, but our costs for the farm were $80,000 to $90,000. We’re trying to show people that urban farming can be worthwhile and sustainable, but we need to scale up our business. The next obvious step for us is to get more land.

Crain’s: Can you describe this innovative deal in the works with NeighborSpace that will give you more soil to grow more greens?

Mr. Rhodes: Across the street from our Wood Street farm is a vacant site owned by the city that’s almost an acre — twice the space we have now. The City of Chicago is working on giving the land to NeighborSpace — the first time they’re taking on an urban agricultural site — and they’ll own it as a land trust while letting us use it exclusively. This is the first time NeighborSpace will be used for commercial, urban farming. The city did the environmental testing of the soil and they’ve even agreed to put a clay cap on it (to prevent leakage of pollutants into the organic soil that’s laid on top for growing).

Tending crops at the Wood Street garden (photo from the website of Medill Reports Chicago).

We believe this model of creating a hub with additional sites nearby can grow our revenues without seeing much increase in our costs. This is a model that can be used around the country.

Crain’s: If you’re struggling with finances now, isn’t it tough to expand your operation?

Mr. Rhodes: It’s important for us to expand so we can create more jobs and become profitable. We have three full-time urban farmers, but the more land we have the more people we can train and hire. This growing season we’ll train 35 people in our program, up from 30 last year. In the next three years we hope to increase that to 45 people.

We’re seeing others in Chicago and around the country who want to replicate what we’re doing. One farm can have a huge impact on the whole movement. We’ve had people come from all over the country and even from other countries, including Japan, to see what we’re doing.

Crain’s: What other local developments are sprouting to encourage more urban farming in Chicago?

Mr. Rhodes: There’s so much going on in Chicago. In 2002, we started the Advocates for Urban Agriculture, a network of urban farmers for sharing resources and knowledge and working on policy issues. Initially, 10 to 12 people would show up at our meetings. About 120 people were at our last meeting a few weeks ago.

In Englewood, we have the Greater Englewood Urban Agriculture Task Force. One goal is to create a large number of farms in Englewood. We’re figuring out how to get land to people and intermediaries like NeighborSpace who can own the land and help us out. We’re coming up with a way to encourage small farmers to get involved.

If we could have an incubator developed, we could have 2-3 acres owned by a central body to lease out small plots to small business growers. In Englewood alone there are 300 vacant city plots. If we could have 30 farms on some of that land within 10 years, that would be amazing.

Crain’s: How does urban farming fit into your view of economic growth in Chicago?

Mr. Rhodes: In the big picture, we’re changing individual lives and entire communities. We’re using urban farming as a catalyst for community and economic development in underserved areas like Englewood. If we have one farm, we can train 45 people and have five jobs for urban farming. Then you’ll need businesses to sell the produce, maybe have a garden center and some restaurants that will cook with the local produce. The big goal of the Englewood task force is to change Englewood from a food desert to a food destination.

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This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Green-biz advocates see red over new city ordinance

Local green business leaders are seeing red over a new green business certification ordinance passed Wednesday by the Chicago City Council.

The ordinance will create a green business program run by the city’s Department of the Environment that’s intended to certify Chicago-area companies that meet environmental standards and sustainability criteria. Businesses that pass muster will get to place a Chicago Green Business Logo sticker on the front of their establishment.

Even though representatives of local green-oriented business groups participated in a task force that helped craft the program, some were hoping for a tougher version than the one that passed the City Council in Wednesday’s session.

“I was disappointed to see the green business certification ordinance pass,” says Peter Nicholson, director at the Foresight Sustainable Business Alliance, a membership organization that represents Chicago-area green-oriented businesses. He worries the ordinance “potentially opens the door for citywide greenwashing, however unintentional, by allowing a business to become ‘certified’ based on criteria that may or may not be relevant to their core product or service.”

Mr. Nicholson is concerned that companies barely engaged in green practices will seek certification from the city and potentially be elevated to the same status as a business working hard to adopt eco-friendly standards throughout all segments of its operations. He was among the three dozen members of the task force that met a handful of times last year.

Suzanne Keers, executive director and co-founder of Local First Chicago, a non-profit that supports locally owned independent businesses, says the ordinance is flawed because it doesn’t place any value on the companies’ overall environmental or social impact in their community.

“A business owner could encourage employees to ride their bike to work, but they might also be creating a product full of pollutants that’s harming our community and could still be a certified green business under this ordinance,” she says.

To qualify for a Chicago Green Business designation, the program stipulates businesses must adopt a handful of practices in several categories and take a pledge promising to adhere to the ones they say they’ve implemented. For example, businesses must show they’re reducing harmful carbon dioxide emissions by following four steps among a list of 14, including: encouraging workers to get to the office using bikes, trains or car pools; handing out bike maps and posting transit schedules, or allowing employees to telecommute.

In the energy conservation category, companies must show they’re being energy-efficient by incorporating a minimum of 12 steps among a roster of 34, including: monitoring and recording energy use; posting light switch reminders to alert workers to shut off lights; replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent lights, and planting native shrubs or trees near windows for shade. Some of the steps are more rigorous, such as converting water heaters to instantaneous on-demand systems or replacing inefficient or broken windows with double-pane, energy-efficient ones.

Alderman Margaret Laurino (39th), a co-sponsor of the ordinance, expects the criteria will be amended over time. “It’s only a first step and a voluntary program,” she says. “We fully expect municipal code to evolve as environmental technologies and business practices change with the times.”

Other co-sponsors of the ordinance are Alderman Virginia Rugai (19th) and Alderman Ed Burke (14th).

Another task force participant, Dan Rosenthal, chairman of the Green Chicago Restaurant Co-op and owner of the Sopraffina restaurant group, fears consumers will be misled by the program and may patronize businesses that aren’t as green as the logo on their door might claim. The co-op is a group purchasing organization for local eateries seeking sustainable products and guidelines.

“This program will do nothing more than confuse people who are really trying to use businesses that are sustainable,” says Mr. Rosenthal, who asserts the standards for acceptance are too weak. “Under this ordinance, all a business has to do is fill out a form, sign an affidavit, send in a hundred bucks to the city and poof! It’s now a certified Chicago Green Business. This is the very definition of greenwashing because there’s no third-party audit.”

With no funding mechanism to pay for an auditing process, critics worry there won’t be any oversight and there will be no way to know whether businesses certified under the program are maintaining the standards they’ve pledged to keep and improve.

The Green Chicago Restaurant Co-op, which has its own Guaranteed Green certification program for food establishments around town, requires restaurants that are applying to have their sustainability claims validated by either the Green Restaurant Assn. or Green Seal, a third-party green certification group.

While Mr. Nicholson and others oppose the plan that just passed, he is hopeful that future modifications will give the program more teeth.

“We look forward to working with members of the incoming City Council to build upon this first step,” he says.

The program goes into effect in January.

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This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: ‘Legal incubator’ aims to catapult green entrepreneurs to success

Tom Stevens, an attorney who owns a law firm in the Loop, is helping green entrepreneurs and other start-up mavericks beyond the typical pro bono work that many lawyers do.

A former Illinois state tax prosecutor, Mr. Stevens hung up that hat 20 years ago to pursue a legal career in the U.S. and in the United Kingdom. He specializes in advising small to mid-sized businesses about finance, company formation and governance. He always liked to offer a bit of free advice that’s typical of many lawyers, but about four years ago he established a separate program within his firm — called Trebuchet — to formalize some of the free or reduced-fee mentoring he was keen to provide to worthy startups.

Tom Stevens

Mr. Stevens, 46, views his own work in a small law firm of five attorneys as entrepreneurial. The goal of the Trebuchet program within his firm is to share his entrepreneurial expertise with early-stage companies that may not have the financial means to get this kind of help.

Mr. Stevens has worked with about 20 to 30 startups since the program’s inception. He’s recently expanded into the green sector. He heard a lot of green-minded start-up stories during the annual FamilyFarmed Expo last month in Chicago.

Crain’s met with Mr. Stevens to talk more about Trebuchet.

Crain’s: OK, so what does Trebuchet mean and how does it relate to the work you’re taking on in that program?

Mr. Stevens: I’m a fan of really old technology. Trebuchet (pronounced “tre-bushay”) is a Medieval catapult. At the time, it was fearsome because the technology was beyond what anyone else had. It was absurdly accurate compared to anything else. The metaphor for helping startups, obviously, is that a catapult springs things forward.

Originally, we just gave it the nickname Trebuchet, but it stuck. Now we even have a blog. We want this program to be a destination for people who could benefit from our help that otherwise might not be able to afford it at that point in their company’s formation.

Crain’s: What type of companies would be good candidates for assistance in your program?

Mr. Stevens: There are so many entrepreneurs with young ventures or ventures that have been around for a while that are suddenly faced with start-up-like activity. Oftentimes they don’t have the fiscal ability to secure help of attorneys, accountants or other mentors, especially in regulated industries, like the food industry. I met a lot of people at FamilyFarmed who need help.

Most of these people are intelligent and really motivated, and they can get a lot of information online. But some stumble a bit and many professionals look at this as billing opportunities, and that’s appropriate. At this point in my legal career, I don’t need to earn money for every single thing that I do. I formed this program to waive those attorney fees. We don’t even take an equity stake in these firms we advise. I don’t think it’s ethical.

Crain’s: What kinds of services do you provide to the selective companies you assist?

Mr. Stevens: We look to give legal services for complete projects. If someone was entertaining angel or venture-capital financing, we’d represent them in the transaction. We might help come up with agreements among co-owners when the company is being formed. Sometimes disputes arise later when the company suddenly starts making money so it’s important to get the right ownership structures in place early on. We also might advise them to be careful of regulatory violations or structural problems.

After 20 years, I’ve owned my own company and worked with many clients who own their own companies. Some have become wildly successful, and some have failed. So we want to provide mentoring and share our insight through what we’ve learned over time. Sometimes we help them identify opportunities to cultivate or corroborate their ideas to assure them they’re on the right track — or not.

I spend about 10% of my time on these activities. Part of it is hands-on, and I’m on some of their boards, which helps me look at companies at a higher altitude as well.

Crain’s: Have you worked with any local companies that you’d consider part of the emerging green economy?

Mr. Stevens: At the FamilyFarmed Expo I met a lot of owners who are on a mission to have a company that is good for their family, but one that’s also good for other people’s health, their communities and the world. I really got a sense of that passion when I was there. Since the Expo, we’re having dialogues with about six new companies involved in urban agriculture.

We’ve got a local client that’s come up with a lubricant for machinery that’s not petroleum-based, it’s a bio-based lubricant. I’ve also worked with a local renewable energy company working on wind turbine technology.

What I really hope for is that there will be a confluence of technology entrepreneurs merging with green entrepreneurs. For example, there are lots of companies trying to go paperless, which is green, and technology entrepreneurs are developing Internet-based business models to help companies achieve hose goals. Lots of tech companies are now being perceived as green. The green space is an area where we strongly want to continue.

Crain’s: What motivated you to start this program, and what kinds of rewards are you getting out of it?

Mr. Stevens: When I came out of the government as a prosecutor in 1992, there were no mentors. You either swam or sank on your own, so now I want to help others that may not have the ability pay for it.

I like the electric atmosphere of working with entrepreneurs, and I still see myself as one of them. Having a small company the way we do always gives us opportunities to innovate as well since we’re always learning from others. It keeps us agile, too.

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