This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Evanston startup helps small firms go green

Most small business owners wouldn’t naturally think about swapping out their exit signs for more eco-friendly ones as an obvious place to start greening their workplace.

But that’s what an Evanston startup is banking on as one of the initial services they’re offering other small businesses, schools and organizations that are too busy to green up on their own. Since February, Go to Green LLC has replaced more than 500 exit signs for businesses and schools in Chicago and Evanston. More than 100 were sold as part of a group offering to eco-Andersonville, a program of the Andersonville Development Corp., which offers a variety of initiatives to its members to encourage them to be more environmentally friendly.

Paige Finnegan, a co-owner of Go to Green, estimates the retrofit to signs using LED light bulbs saves businesses about $868 in energy and maintenance costs over the lifetime of the new sign, or about 10 years. Companies that sign up also get a $20 per-sign rebate from Commonwealth Edison and Ms. Finnegan secured a waiver for the permit fee from the city of Chicago for the retrofit.

Some of the small businesses already signed up for retrofits include Green Genes, The Runner’s Edge, Toujours Spa & Salon, and In Fine Spirits. Other organizations include the Unity Lutheran Church and Swedish American Museum, both in Andersonville.

Go to Green is also partnering with local gas utilities to offer restaurants and other food service operations free low-flow, pre-rinse sprayers to replace older, less-efficient ones. The Rinse & Save Campaign, only available till the end of May, is expected to save participants about $500 a year in natural gas and water savings, says Ms. Finnegan. She’s hoping the program will be extended beyond the end of the month.

Caitlin Dorsey and Paige Finnegan

Ms. Finnegan and co-owner Caitlin Dorsey intend to add more services over time, including water conservation opportunities.

Crain’s met up with Ms. Finnegan to learn more about this niche green-service provider.

Crain’s: Can you describe the concept behind Go to Green?

Ms. Finnegan: We’re trying to be one source that small businesses can come to for sustainability projects. We can bundle services together and give companies looking to go green a tremendous return on investment, sometimes in areas they might not be thinking about.

Take exit signs, for example. They’re on 24 hours a day and they use incandescent bulbs that have to be changed four times a year. With a retrofit, the new LED (light-emitting diode) bulbs last 10 years and can save a business about $868 over the life of that sign. ComEd offers rebates for a whole assortment of energy reduction projects and companies can go directly to ComEd to get this money, but it’s a process. We’re a partner with ComEd in a trade ally program so we’re able to do this process smoothly for companies that don’t have the time to bother. We’ve converted about 10% of those exit sign projects into a bigger lighting retrofits. Exit signs are the gateway drug to sustainability.

In the end, we want to make sustainability acceptable for small business through low-cost investment, high savings opportunity and bundle that with public relations benefits.

How does the public relations piece of it work?

In our work with eco-Andersonville, we can aggregate the reduction in energy use, reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and spread that across the community. Instead of one small business making a change, it can be part of something bigger and get a PR boost out of it. Eco-Andersonville set a goal to get 200 new exit signs installed across many businesses, schools and other organizations. If they hit that goal, they’ll be able to achieve a 500,000-pound reduction in greenhouse gas emissions over the 10-year life of the bulbs. That’s more compelling than one small business doing it alone.

The aggregation extends beyond the positive environmental impact. We can bundle the purchase of the exit signs and the installation so the overall price drops and the entire community that’s participating gets a better deal. Even individual business owners not part of the eco-Andersonville program can let consumers know about the green changes they’re making since many are now looking to spend their money on green businesses wherever possible.

What kinds of businesses are you targeting for your services and what neighborhoods of the greater Chicago area are you focusing on?

We like storefronts, local independently owned businesses that will benefit from improvements in the local environment and get economic and PR benefits from these programs. The larger chains aren’t much of a target for us.

Because of where we’re located, we’re doing a lot of business in Evanston, but we have a relationship with eco-Andersonville and others, including the Belmont Central Chamber of Commerce. We’ve worked with the Wicker Park/Bucktown Chamber of Commerce, which has been sending out information to its members. We’ve had some interest in Bronzeville and we’re talking to people in Logan Square right now, too.

What other programs are you offering?

In Evanston, there’s a new program called Every Drop Counts. It’s an effort to retrofit bathrooms with faucet aerators and toilet tank diverters. You can do this with any existing fixture a company or building owner already has. So far, we’ve had lots of luck working with sorority and frat houses. They’ve grown up with the environmental ethic and they don’t have to be told it’s the right thing to do.

Water is the next big issue. We take advantage that we live next to this huge pool of water. It’s hard for people to see what an issue water is, but every year water prices go up and there’s a finite amount of water on our planet. Here, we pay for water in three ways: when it comes in, then the sewer cost for when it goes back out, then we pay electricity to pump the water. If you’re using hot water, there’s the cost to heat that water, too. So any reduction in water use reduces those costs. Water issues already are contentious on the West Coast and it’s on the cusp of becoming a much larger discussion, even locally.

Why aren’t more smaller businesses implementing some of these easy retrofits?

While what we’re doing isn’t that expensive, it’s still a cost to businesses. They’d need to do a lot of research to find these programs and how to get access to them. Most people never even look at their exit signs unless there’s a write-up from the fire department.

One of our biggest challenges for our work is how do we get a business owner to fix something that might not be broken? Unfortunately, not all businesses are doing this because it’s environmentally sound. But when they see a compelling economic savings and the performance of the equipment is the same or better, they’re usually sold.

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This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Clean-tech entrepreneurs gather to explore Illinois growth options

Leaders of Illinois’ “clean energy” movement gathered in Chicago yesterday and called more coherent state legislation and better financing opportunities as essential ingredients to attract growth in the renewable energy sector here.

More than 100 clean-tech entrepreneurs, finance executives, policy experts and a sprinkling of government officials met at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business at the Gleacher Center to learn about trends, financing options and state and federal policies affecting the sector’s ability to prosper in Illinois.

Several speakers pointed to the state’s mandate that 25% of all energy provided by electric utilities and alternative regional electric suppliers must come from renewable energy sources by 2025. Conference participants, including Susan Hedman, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 5 (which includes Illinois), agreed such Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) encourage new investment in clean-energy projects.

Ms. Hedman, who oversees Superfund sites and other contaminated areas in her region, encouraged entrepreneurs to check out those locations as potential locations for new clean-energy power plants. “The EPA has developed methods to help entities acquiring properties that are contaminated to be insulated from prior liability,” she says. “Renewable energy facilities are particularly good choices for these sites, and easier to develop than if you wanted to build an elementary school or residential area there.”

Many speakers and attendees worried about the logistics of achieving the 25% RPS goal because of piecemeal state legislation that isn’t clear-cut. Furthermore, market forces and a burdensome regulatory process make it difficult for alternative energy companies to attract affordable financing for them to build locally, says Barry Matchett, co-legislative director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, a Chicago-based environmental advocacy group and a co-sponsor of the clean-tech gathering.

Some clean-tech business leaders say they’re going to set up shop or expand in states that attract them with the best incentives and most secure long-term state policies. Declan Flanagan, CEO of Lincoln Renewable Energy, maintains the solar and wind energy firm’s headquarters in Chicago, but its recent growth is occurring elsewhere. Mr. Flanagan says he’s been opening new offices and growing operations in New Jersey, Denver and Austin, Texas, because those states have set clear objectives in their renewable energy policies.

“The RFP (request for proposals) process is way too complicated in Illinois and businesses have to jump through too many hoops to make things happen here,” he says. “I’m glad Illinois has an RPS, but we need debt to buy the equipment we need and Illinois has the most complicated, risky contracts that aren’t financeable because of the way the Illinois Power Agency is set up. It’s too hard to build anything here.”

Mr. Matchett urged everyone in the room to call their state representatives in Springfield and demand they create a more hospitable environment that encourages more investment in clean tech. The industry has not been good at letting legislators know the ripple effect of investing in wind and solar, he argued.

“When you bring money to rural communities in a new wind development project, it creates jobs locally,” said Mr. Matchett. “It pays for librarians and school teachers and a new swing set for the local park. You need to tell this to your politicians.”

Indeed, the clean-energy industry is still in its infancy when it comes to lobbying at the state and national levels. Peter Duprey, CEO of Broadwind Energy, a wind-power company based in Chicago, noted the coal and petroleum lobbies are on the same page and have great influence among legislators. “The renewable group isn’t as well focused and many have different agendas. That makes it difficult to get a clear message across.”

While the pool of venture capital financing in Illinois has grown for alternative energy start-ups and later-stage companies looking to scale up, companies should seek out financing options that sometimes wed public and private funding sources, advised Amy Francetic, executive director of the Clean Energy Trust, a non-profit that offers technical assistance and other services to emerging clean-tech companies in the region. She encourages entrepreneurs to explore alternatives that include grants or other pools of money from the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense.

On the public financing side, the Illinois Finance Authority has the ability to provide credit enhancement for renewable energy and energy efficiency projects, but hasn’t yet closed any such deals, said Christopher Meister, IFA’s executive director. The closest the agency has come to financing green energy projects was in connection with issuance of municipal bonds for a hospital and a college in the state that borrowed money for energy efficiency and capital improvement projects.

He asserted that Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn supports the clean-energy sector and is  working with the General Assembly to enact a comprehensive energy plan that will improve financing mechanisms for renewable and energy efficiency projects. He conceded that, until recently, it’s been difficult coming up with state-backed financing tools that help wind and solar power firms and protect taxpayers at the same time.

“The best intentioned public policy sometimes comes up a little short for entrepreneurs, like the ones in this room,” Mr. Meister observed.

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This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Field Museum spotlights sustainable design

The Field Museum is kicking off a new exhibit Friday that will feature items made from sustainable materials and created by 10 designers from the worlds of fashion, furniture, textiles and home products. The designers, including fashion icon Isaac Mizrahi, architect Maya Lin and graphic designer Abbott Miller, were asked by The Nature Conservancy to take raw materials from specific parts of the world and craft items out of them with conservation in mind.

The exhibit, “Design for a Living World,” marks the first display in the new Gary C. Comer Family Gallery within the Field Museum. Going forward, exhibits in that gallery will focus on environmental sustainability, conservation of biodiversity and climate change.

The current exhibit includes finished samples of the designers’ creations, video installations of the creators explaining the process of their work, and drawings and samples of the raw materials tapped for their assignments, explains Janet Hong, the Field Museum’s project manager for exhibitions.

An Isaac Mizrahi dress made from tanned salmon skins

As you enter the gallery, one of the first items in view created by Mr. Mizrahi is a stunning white dress and matching long jacket made of thousands of tiny paillettes, hanging on a mannequin. A glamorous pair of high-heeled shoes made from the same material and studded with rhinestones are enclosed in a nearby glass case. Behind the dress is a wall of large, close-up photos of salmon and water flowing in winding rivers and streams. Upon closer inspection, visitors may be surprised to learn the dress is made of tanned salmon skins from fish caught in Alaska, explains Ms. Hong.

Other items in the show are drawn from more familiar sources, like sheep’s wool for a rug, but rendered in a new way to be more mindful of its origins, says Ms. Hong. Dutch textile designer Christien Meindertsma used organic wool from sheep living on a farm in Iowa. What’s different here is Ms. Meindertsma knit separate large patches of wool from individual animals and labeled the backside with their names before stitching the pieces together into a rug. Photos of the sheep and samples of their wool are displayed alongside the patchwork rug in the exhibit.

The designers also include Yves Behar, Ted Muehling, Paulina Reyes, Ezri Tarazi, Stephen Burks and Hella Jongerius. Some of the materials were sourced from protected areas of nature from as far away as Australia, Bolivia, China and Costa Rica, and as close by as a prairie preserve outside of Rockford, notes Ms. Hong.

In connection with the exhibit, the museum’s annual Comer Symposium on May 19 will feature a free lecture on climate change and the future of sustainable design given by local architects Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill, as well as designer Mitchell Joachim. Mr. Smith and Mr. Gill’s namesake firm is known for its high-profile eco-design projects, including the green retrofit of Willis Tower currently under way in Chicago, and their design of one of the largest buildings in Masdar City, a net carbon zero city under construction in Abu Dhabi. Mr. Joachim is known for his futuristic designs, including a car made of plastic and Fab Tree Hab, a living tree house.

The Design for a Living World exhibit, which travelled to Chicago from the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, will be at the Field Museum through November 13.

The museum’s Ms. Hong gave Crain’s a sneak peek at the exhibit before opening day and talked about its potential impact on local designers.

Crain’s: Can you describe the purpose of the exhibit?

Ms. Hong: The Nature Conservancy matched up different raw materials with different designers and asked them to produce something new with it or make something in a way that hadn’t been done before. One of the main goals of the exhibit is to raise awareness among consumers and other designers of where materials come from and how paying attention to sustainability doesn’t have to compromise the beauty or usefulness of the objects created.

This exhibit also demonstrates how people who think about the supply chain can take one more step and take items from sustainable sources, like wood from a forest where clear-cutting isn’t taking place.

What kinds of materials were used in some of the designs?

Mr. Mizrahi used salmon skin, which is often thrown away as a by-product of the fishing industry. It can be tanned to create a leather that is naturally a creamy white color and, by the way, doesn’t smell like fish. Salmon leather is actually stronger than that made from cowhide, and the process to tan leather does not use lime — a potentially toxic chemical — since fish scales are easier to remove than hair. It’s not something that can easily be replicated, but it shows the possibility of a beautiful product that can be made with something that most people throw away.

One of my favorite items is a cocoa grater for making hot chocolate that was created by Swiss designer Yves Behar. It’s a simple tool made from sustainable wood on a farm in Costa Rica. It’s shaped like a twig and has a metal grater attached at the end of it. It can hook nicely onto a cup and is something that a manufacturer could see and possibly be interested in making. It also comes with an organic cocoa patty from the same cocoa farm in Costa Rica. It has its own little pouch that Behar designed to look like the jute bags used to ship the cocoa to Switzerland and other countries.

Cocoa grater by Yves Behar

Some works in the exhibit are more experimental. Hella Jongerius used chicle latex (pronounced cheek-lay) harvested from chicle trees in the Yucatan Peninsula and experimented with it to make vases and other things. It was very challenging to work with and she made many attempts to create objects or uses that didn’t quite work out. It’s up to others to take that material and work with it to see what kinds of things they can come up with. Think of what’s happened to bamboo over the last 10 years. Initially we saw chopsticks made from bamboo and not much else. Now there are so many things: clothing, flooring, home products. The same could happen with chicle latex.

Were any of the items on display derived from local sources in the Midwest?

Yes. Christien Meindertsma created a book with each of the 49 pages of paper made from a different native prairie plant found in the Nachusa Grasslands, a prairie preserve outside of Rockford. She also knit a huge rug from organic wool that came from sheep on a farm in Iowa.

How can local product designers (and manufacturers) be inspired by this exhibit?

This exhibit can show that there are probably so many things we throw away that could be used to make more products. And there are more raw materials that we can think about using, too.

In the Field Museum, we know that native peoples knew how to make so many things from sources in their environment and they developed the techniques to make them. Now we’re looking back at what some native peoples used in the past to see if we can make new things out of them today.

Isaac Mizrahi in his video interview talks about the economic benefit of thinking about the sources of the products he creates. If he had to balance ecology and glamour, he says he gives them equal weight. You shouldn’t have to sacrifice one for the other. There’s a reason why he’s built such a successful empire.

What do you envision as the potential long-term impact of a show like this on product designers, manufacturers and consumers?

It can encourage designers and manufacturers to think of the front end of the process. Materials don’t have to be organic to come from natural sources. So when you use a tree not taken by clear-cutting a forest, the manufacturer is making products that come from sustainable sources.

Many educated consumers already think about where their food comes from. By seeing this exhibit, consumers might begin to ask the same questions about where the materials come from in many other things they buy for their home or in their clothing.

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This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Incentive plans reward consumers who recycle, cut energy use

Two pilot programs launched in Chicago over the last two years are encouraging city dwellers to improve their green-lifestyle behavior by awarding them points redeemable for discounted coupons at local retailers, restaurants and cultural institutions.

Recyclebank hit the Chicago market in August 2009 with a partnership program with the city of Chicago that gave residents of three wards the opportunity to win reward points for recycling. The pilot ended last month, but Recyclebank hopes to initiate a permanent recycling incentive program after Rahm Emanuel takes over as mayor of Chicago later this month, says Atul Nanda, Midwest region vice-president and president of Recyclebank’s Canadian division. The New York-based incentive company has similar programs in 300 municipalities across 29 states in the U.S., with recent expansions into the U.K. and Canada.

A second pilot program, in partnership with the non-profit Citizens Utility Board in Chicago, was rolled out last June to encourage Commonwealth Edison Co. residential customers to cut back on their energy use. It’s modeled after its already-established recycling incentive program, and Recylebank executives hope to expand their concept into the energy-conservation arena.

So far, about 11,000 local Chicago residents are signed up. They get one reward point for every kilowatt hour they save. Recyclebank has the same three dozen or so Chicago businesses and organizations offering discount coupons to these participants as the ones on board for the recycling program. The pilot is expected to wrap up next month.

Crain’s caught up with Mr. Nanda to talk about the programs’ objectives and how local businesses are benefiting.

Crain’s: Can you describe how the recycling rewards program works?

Mr. Nanda: The pilot program targeted 7,200 homes in the 5th, 8th and 19th wards in Chicago. We had all the blue carts on the street retrofitted with radio frequency ID tags. When trucks go by and pick up the recycling, they weigh the carts and read the ID tags to let us know which households are participating in the program so we could record the weight of those carts. We measure that against a baseline that’s collected on those tagged carts before the program starts. We picked a mix of recycling habits among the wards that participated. Generally, there were higher recycling rates in the 19th ward (before the program was launched) and lower recycling rates in the 5th and 8th wards.

Atul Nanda

The program encourages people to take a look at their daily actions and we try to incentivize them to recycle more. Overall, during the course of the pilot, we were successful in doing that. For every pound of recycling, people were rewarded with 2.5 points, which they could redeem for coupons with Chicago businesses and cultural institutions that signed up as partners in the program.

Is it a challenge to get businesses to sign up and offer discounts to consumers through Recyclebank’s program?

It’s been a very easy sell. Businesses realize the value of partnering with us. They understand people will be happy to redeem their rewards because they got them by taking green actions. Of course these businesses want to increase traffic, but they also want to align themselves with green initiatives. We see that with small businesses and large Fortune 500 companies too.

So did you get a lot of businesses and organizations to participate?

We got between 30 and 40 local businesses and organizations to join and offer gift cards. Ideally, businesses within those wards were the best candidates, but then we looked at others with regional flavor. There was no fee to join and they were allowed to promote their business on our website. In exchange, we asked them to honor the rewards they post in our system.

Some of the participants include Treasure Island Foods, Aldi Foods, Leona’s Restaurant, Carson Pirie Scott, the Chicago Children’s Museum, the Shedd Aquarium, Lookingglass Theatre Company and more. Some of the rewards included $10 off a $50 purchase at Carson’s or $5 off $50 worth of groceries at Treasure Island.

We have a lot of national partners that consumers in Chicago could get rewards points towards as well. Some of those include Ziploc, Coca-Cola, and Proctor & Gamble products. Even though the pilot just ended, people that signed up can still use their points they accumulated for 12 more months at all participating businesses.

How did Chicago participants do in increasing their recycling rates during the program compared to other municipalities?

Overall, we realized a 35% increase in recycling rates in those pilot areas from the baseline. We generally always see an increase in recycling. In Chicago, there was a well-established recycling program in those wards so we layered it with an incentive program. In other cities, they may not have had curbside recycling before we started, so their baseline tends to be lower and we may have a higher impact when we come in.

There aren’t a lot of communities in the Midwest with recycling carts already in place, but they may have big bins or boxes. In areas where there were carts already on the street, we’ve generally seen about a 20% to 30% increase in those cities, so Chicago did better than its peers.

How does the energy conservation program work?

We partnered with the Citizens Utility Board and had Efficiency 2.0 measure the energy usage of people who are participating. Efficiency 2.0 is a New York firm that tracks and measures results for energy efficiency opportunities. People have to sign up through CUB’s website.

It’s been going quite well so far. Our 11,000 participants have their monthly bills evaluated and they get a point for every kilowatt hour saved. Our data shows that so far over 1 million kilowatt hours have been saved among those signed up compared to their (energy) usage in previous years. We may even extend the program if the trending continues to look this good.

CUB also last month launched a campaign in Evanston with seven of the larger employers in the area competing to see who can save the most energy. There’s a tie-in to Recyclebank because employees who can save the most energy among those businesses by the end of the campaign will get points that can be redeemed at businesses on our website. Those employers include St. Francis Hospital, Rotary International, Northwestern University and North Shore University Health System.

Do you think Recyclebank’s incentives can really change individual behavior patterns?

Yes. We’re trying to create a sustainable future by rewarding people to take green actions. We’re trying to encourage the world that by taking small steps like recycling and conserving energy, our Recyclebank members can earn rewards from businesses and also make a difference in the environment. That’s the core of our business.

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