This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Green biz leaders ask city, ‘What about Chicago’s recycling problem?’

Karen Weigert, the city of Chicago’s chief sustainability officer, was the main attraction at the Jefferson Tap & Grille in the West Loop on Tuesday night for a monthly “Green Drinks” gathering of local green-business entrepreneurs.

To sum up the two themes of the evening: gathering the data and recycling.

Ms. Weigert, who’s been in her new post since June and brings years of consulting and banking experience to the job, talked at length about the data that Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office is now collecting so the administration can figure out the next steps to take in broadening the city’s sustainability efforts. The crowd of about 115 mostly wanted to know one thing: When is the city going to do a better job of recycling?

Karen Weigert

Ms. Weigert’s reply: “We’ll see what the data tells us.”

There’s even a chief data officer in the mayor’s office working on these matters, she noted wryly. “We kinda like data. The mayor likes data.”

The information-gathering under way includes a wide-scale mapping of energy use throughout the city to pinpoint problem areas, Ms. Weigert said. Another example is a managed competition program the mayor launched over the summer to explore the cost differences between private companies operating the city’s recycling efforts and city workers running the program in other areas. She said data will be collected over a six-month period, chewed on for another three, and then some decision about moving forward will come after that.

The monthly Green Drinks meet-ups, sponsored by Foresight Sustainable Business Alliance, combine networking opportunities for locals engaged in the green economy, along with a roster of guest speakers. The alliance is part of Foresight Design Initiative, a Chicago firm focusing on economic development, green business and related policy issues.

In a typical conversation-style setting for these meetings, Ms. Weigert carried on a spirited discussion with Peter Nicholson, Foresight’s executive director.

On the topic of recycling, Ms. Weigert conceded: “Chicago hasn’t answered it well enough yet, and we’ve got to get it right.”

To which Mr. Nicholson replied: “First we have to get it (recycling). And then get it right.”

She said the city is exploring setting up a grid system to fill in gaps missing in the current layout of the Blue Cart recycling program. Mr. Nicholson noted somewhat in jest that would work well considering the city already has a good street grid system in place.

Mr. Nicholson jokingly warned her the seemingly friendly crowd would turn on her during the question-and-answer period about the lack of widespread recycling in a city that is trying to gain a reputation as one of the greenest in the nation. When Ms. Weigert said Chicago plans to roll out recycling citywide, someone in the audience shouted: “When?”

The ‘Green Drinks’ audience

Sure enough, some aspects of the city’s recycling shortcomings were brought up as people in the audience who raised their hands asked questions or offered remedies to improve the status quo.

Someone asked if the city would consider charging people to haul away their waste to encourage more recycling. Ms. Weigert noted that landfill costs are still relatively cheap in the Chicago area, which creates a different market dynamic than other parts of the country where it’s more expensive to dump garbage in landfills.

“It makes for difficult incentives here in Chicago, but by no means impossible,” she added.

Not surprisingly, one of the entrepreneurs in the audience offered his own company as a potential solution to some of the recycling challenges in the city. Steve Holland said he’s with a company called Free Green Can, which has been trying to give away free recycling kiosks to the city of Chicago for three years in exchange for sponsorship. He’s had success with the Park District, he said, but not so much with the city, even though they offered to pick up the recycling as well. He wanted to know how he could work with the city to finally make it happen.

Ms. Weigert replied that there are several companies trying to do similar programs. She pointed to another organization, which the city hired to put out solar trash compactors in the Loop, that offers recycling and is already moving in that direction.

Ms. Weigert focused on the positive gains the city is making in recycling and reminded the audience about a city initiative to reduce paper going into landfills and tougher city ordinances passed in recent years restricting the amount of construction and demolition debris that could be hauled to landfills.

In other matters, she touched on some of the mayor’s environmental and sustainability goals. Some of those efforts focus on improving energy efficiency and water conservation, and making it easier to get around the city on foot, with a bike, or with public transportation.

She also briefly described how the recent news about plans to dismantle the Department of Environment and shift programs to other departments is intended to encourage greater sustainability efforts within all areas and agencies of city government by “embedding it into all major decisions in different parts of the city.”

A couple of Chicago’s green-business entrepreneurs that night said they’ll have to wait for the data before deciding if this new strategy is good for the city’s future.

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This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Chicago eco-fashion designers strut their stuff for Fashion Week

By Judith Nemes

Models will strut down a green runway tonight at Millennium Park to show off the spring and summer 2012 collections from the growing field of local eco-fashion designers participating in the weeklong Fashion Focus Chicago.

Tonight’s Vert Couture Eco-Fashion Show marks the third year industry organizers are highlighting a runway event featuring local designers that create wearable art from reusable and sustainable materials.

This year’s lineup includes eight Chicago-based designers and will represent a range of styles for both men and women, according to Bianca and Michael Alexander, co-executive producers of the event and co-founders of Conscious Planet Media, a Chicago-based green television, film and event production company.

Some of the local designers and innovative materials used in the creations that will be seen on the catwalk tonight include: Brenda Abdullah’s handmade knits made from remnants and salvaged fabrics; Richard Dayhoff’s luxury men’s underwear made from recycled plastic bottle fibers; Michelle Dimitris’ clothing created from reclaimed vintage items, and  Lauren Lein, a longtime couture designer who will show her debut eco-collection of dresses made from repurposed high-end textiles. A smattering of students from local art schools will show off hat designs. And accessory designers will be spotlighted as well, featuring vegan shoes made from Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood and other items crafted out of repurposed ties and feathers.

The packed agenda of fashion shows, educational events and shopping-related festivities this week is coordinated by the Chicago Office of Tourism to showcase Midwest designers of all kinds. The concept of a weeklong series of events began about seven years ago to draw attention to the local clothing and jewelry industry — a sector that’s often overlooked by buyers, who tend to focus on the fashion meccas of New York, Paris and Milan.

Michael and Bianca Alexander (photo credit Scott Council)

Crain’s caught up with the Alexanders this week to learn more about the local green fashion scene and the challenges of making it in the business.

Crain’s: How do you define eco-fashion?

Bianca: The most eco-friendly fashion is made from repurposed or vintage materials, which eliminates use of energy and resources in manufacturing new garments. That being said, sustainable textiles like organic cotton, harvested without harmful pesticides, are made from readily renewable materials like bamboo, tencel, modal and sashawashi, which is made from seaweed.

Also under the definition of green or “eco” is fair trade fashion, an antidote to cheap, dehumanizing sweatshop labor where garment workers are paid a fair living wage for their work.

Crain’s: How would you describe the eco-fashion design scene in Chicago and what efforts are under way to build greater momentum? 

Michael: Despite being in the Midwest, nestled away from the biggest fashion markets in the world, the eco-fashion design scene in Chicago is growing quickly and expanding exponentially. While eco-fashion is still in its infancy here in Chicago and beyond, there are many established eco-designers who are here and many established traditional designers who are creating sustainable lines.

With this show, we hope to encourage other designers who have not traditionally considered designing eco-fashion to be inspired to try creating more eco-conscious collections. With each year producing the show, we get more and more applications from talented designers who seem to be coming out of the woodwork. One of the things we are working on to keep the energy moving after the show is creating a local sustainable designers’ coalition, where we can share and exchange resources on sustainability, manufacturing and small business.

Crain’s: Is there much of a local consumer market for these goods?

Bianca: We think interest and demand is on the rise and is mirroring much of the demand for green products in other industries. What’s interesting about Chicago’s scene is that we also have some great eco-boutiques like Green Goddess Boutique in Hinsdale and now Lincoln Park, which does a great job in providing fabulous options for shoppers.

Crain’s: Are any of these designers visible on the national scene?

Bianca: Chicago boasts Lara Miller, who definitely has a name on the national scene as an eco-designer. Also, Richard Dayhoff has had tremendous success nationally with department stores around the country with a women’s couture line, but that wasn’t eco-friendly.

Crain’s: What are the biggest challenges facing new eco-fashion designers trying to break into the Chicago fashion scene?

Michael: I think the Chicago fashion scene in general lacks access to national buyers. Traditionally, buyers for large department stores visit New York, Paris and Milan fashion weeks, and Chicago is not necessarily on the map as a destination for the fashion industry.

Fashion Focus Chicago was started to create opportunities for Chicago designers to sell their looks and build the local fashion industry. For example, one of our designers from last year’s Vert Couture, a fair trade line called Modahnik by Kahindo Mateene, was accepted into this year’s Macy’s Fashion Incubator program, which provides teaching, infrastructure support in expanding their line as well as some access to financing and an opportunity to sell their wares at Macy’s.



The non-profit Delta Institute is hosting the Green Economy Action Roadshow at Roosevelt University in Schaumburg on November 4-5. The business-to-business and business-to-consumer conference and expo addresses energy efficiency, alternative energy and transportation, residential and commercial green building technologies and other green topics. To register online:

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Chicago shutting Environment Department, adding eco-friendly measures to new budget

(Crain’s) — Chicago will disband its Environment Department by yearend and integrate its programs into other departments, aiming to reorganize environmental and sustainability services to help meet the fiscal challenges of a city deep in the red. Karen Weigert, the city’s chief sustainability officer, confirmed the shutdown but said new eco-friendly measures contained in the budget Mayor Rahm Emanuel debuted Wednesday will contribute toward sustainability efforts.

The reorganization is expected to save the city $3.6 million, in part from layoffs. Of the current staff of about 60, 48 will move to different departments and 13 will be laid off, according to a spokesman in the mayor’s office.

(See related story: “Rahm plugs river cleanup but may ax city’s environmental unit.”)

This week, Environment Commissioner Rich Rodriguez revealed that he’s leaving his post to take a job in the private sector at Res Publica, a media strategy firm.

Ms. Weigert said the departments that will absorb Environment programs include General Services, Public Health, and Transportation. No current programs will be cut, she adds.

“We are moving things around, but this is a strategic move to elevate and embed sustainability into everything we do in the city of Chicago,” Ms. Weigert said. One sign of that elevation: Ms. Weigert will move her desk to the mayor’s office during the transition.

The 2012 budget unveiled this week calls for new environment-related measures within city services that help raise revenue and cut expenses, as well as demonstrate Mr. Emanuel’s commitment to green priorities, Ms. Weigert said.

Among those measures: a $2 to $5 “congestion fee” added to downtown parking garages and lots that aims to raise $28 million to reinvest in public transportation infrastructure; a proposed water and sewer tax increase that will be invested in replacing 900 miles of the city’s water and sewer systems and will create 18,000 jobs in the next decade, and installation of energy-saving lighting throughout the city that could cut energy use by 90% .

The reorganization also calls for:

• Energy and Sustainable Business Section functions to shift to the Department of General Services.

• The Permitting and Enforcement Section to transfer to the Department of Public Health.

• The Urban Management Brownfield Development Section to move to General Services, to integrate environmental risk mitigation with the city’s asset management efforts.

• The clean vehicles initiatives to shift to the Transportation Department.

• Utility bill assistance to move to Department of Family and Support Services.

• Water policy issues to merge with the Department of Water Management.

Peter Nicholson, executive director of the Foresight Sustainable Business Alliance and Foresight Design Initiative, a firm focusing on economic development, green business and related policy issues, wasn’t surprised by the city’s move.

“In many ways, it makes sense,” he said. “One of (former) Mayor (Richard M.) Daley’s accomplishments was seeding a diversity of city sectors with sustainability-minded administrators. Integrating these functions, if properly managed, can be seen as a sign of progress.”

He added, “But as someone dedicated to sustainable transformation, my primary concern regarding this transition is for the department’s innovation function. I don’t see that important role sitting easily in another part of government.”

Ms. Weigert isn’t worried. “Every department will be looking for innovative ways and new opportunities to make sustainability a major part of the way they do things,” she said.

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This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Climate change and business part of Chicago Ideas Week

Climate change and business were on the agenda of Chicago Ideas Week amid the wide range of thought-provoking events scattered throughout the city these last few days.

At a gathering Wednesday night, local experts in climate change issues and economic matters shared their views in a panel discussion that highlighted both risks and opportunities for the Chicago business community, non-profits and government agencies. Matters affecting non-profits and government agencies were addressed as well, according to Joyce Coffee, vice-president in the corporate social responsibility & sustainability division at public relations giant Edelman, and the panel’s moderator.

About 50 people attended the downtown event in the 63rd-floor boardroom at Edelman, one of the evening’s sponsors. Net Impact, a non-profit focusing on sustainability issues, was a co-sponsor. Panelists includedJon Creyts, principal and leader of the U.S. climate change practice at McKinsey & Co., Aaron Durnbaugh, a deputy commissioner in the city’s Department of the Environment, Jacky Grimshaw, vice-president of policy at the non-profit Center for Neighborhood Technology, Shannon Schuyler, leader of PricewaterhouseCoopers’ U.S. corporate responsibility practice, and Alex Weiner, founder and chief operating officer of Inbalance, a Chicago-based management consulting firm that specializes in improving buildings’ energy efficiency and other green-related services.

One major audience concern last night was how to mobilize more climate action among businesses and other sectors. At PricewaterhouseCoopers, according to Ms. Schulyer, the major emphasis is on travel reduction. For all sustainability efforts, it’s important to appeal to employees’ interest and make sustainability part of their everyday job, she noted.

The conversation was wide-ranging. In response to questions about mechanisms to monetize carbon reduction and make carbon a priority within an organization, Mr. Creyts observed that you don’t count carbon like you count dollars. And McKinsey has developed a cost-curve tool that is helpful for understanding the costs (and benefits) of various carbon-reducing actions.  

Based on the panel’s insights, Ms. Coffee concluded that energy efficiency can have a net benefit to the economy and is an opportunity for any organization or company to see improvements to their bottom line while acting on behalf of climate protection.

Joyce Coffee
Ms. Coffee knows a thing or two about climate change and local issues.   Before joining Edelman, she led the team in charge of implementing the Chicago Climate Action Plan for the city of Chicago. One of the main objectives of the plan is to reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions 25% below 1990 levels by 2020.

Crain’s met with Ms. Coffee before Wednesday night’s gathering to talk about how local small businesses can prepare for climate-change issues that are already affecting Chicago.

Crain’s: What are some concerns locally in terms of climate adaptation risk? 

Ms. Coffee: The major risks Chicago has to worry about are extreme heat events and more precipitation when we don’t need it and less precipitation when we do. By the end of the century we’re expected to have over 30 days above 100 degrees every year. Right now we have one or two. Even on a 90 degree day we can have mortality. Heat above 90 in Chicago can be very deleterious to public health and so the morbidity and mortality related to that are really serious concerns.

We can already see the trending moving in that direction. A company really cares about events that are unexpected. Cellular storms are happening more frequently here and they’re not as predictable. Extreme precipitation has always been a concern in Chicago. The question of how do we handle more precipitation is a really big deal in Chicago.

How can companies deal with climate change as part of their overall business strategy?
You’ll find few companies that talk about climate change specifically. For most companies climate change is going to be part of their risk management and their continuity planning. But they’re always talking about resiliency and preparation for uncertainty, and talking about shoring up infrastructure. Climate adaptation on the corporate side relates to everything from ensuring that your employees are safe to ensuring that you have a supply chain that will be viable regardless of any extreme weather event to ensuring that your infrastructure and built enterprise is out of harm’s way.

A lot of companies are framing it in terms of climate opportunity. The city government has been very proactive in taking a leadership position on climate action and I think a lot of small companies in Chicago have taken a great deal of leadership and innovation around what it means to be innovative, efficient and risk-mitigating.

Are small companies thinking about climate change issues?

I don’t think any small company is going to think about climate adaptation as a priority, but they’re reflecting on extreme weather events they’ve seen recently and wondering how they can protect themselves. I think they put it in the context of risk management to prevent crisis.

One of the major reasons why a firm should be thinking about climate adaptation is to ask the question: How it will change the market and can I be part of that play? So if we’re talking about more extreme weather events, more extreme heat, how am I going to position my business to be able to grow in that scenario? In Chicago, we are likely to see a growth in population because its going to become a more pleasant place in climate for many to live.

If there’s a demographic shift towardmore people in Chicago, that brings bigger markets and companies should be ready for that. We don’t have the kind of cataclysmic expectations in the midwest of inundation or extreme drought that are going to drive people away. So given the potential that people are going to be coming in this direction, how do we prepare for that increased market? Many companies are looking out not just to tomorrow and next year, but 10 years in the future.

Do any local companies come to mind that are doing a good job of considering climate change adaptation within their business strategy?

Some companies that come to mind relate to water, because water availability in our climate change world is so dramatic. Goose Island Beer a great example of a company using resources very carefully and understanding what the risks are to the resources that they use if they’re not stewarded properly.


In other local green news:

This weekend, the Green Exchangewill open its doors as part of the Chicago Architectural Foundation’s OpenHouseChicago 2011. This citywide event features a behind-the-scenes look at many of the city’s greatest spaces and places. Green Exchange is included as part the Green Trail tour, which features properties that demonstrate a commitment to sustainable design. Green Exchange tenant, and sustainable design guruLisa Elkins from 2 Point Perspective Architecture will be leading guided tours on Saturday and Sunday at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Visit for details.

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This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Report finds uneven results in green building projects

A new report on green buildings in Illinois shows owners who pay a  premium for eco-friendly features find it’s worth it, but only if managers maintain the building’s systems as intended.

In addition, green building projects in Illinois that made energy efficiency a priority in the design and construction stages have lower utility bills than green buildings that didn’t emphasize those elements, according to the study, conducted by CNT Energy, a non-profit that specializes in energy efficiency matters, and the U.S. Green Building Council — Illinois Chapter. Still, most of the total 51 green buildings in the report use less energy than a commercial building of comparable size.

The study was released this week in time for the Greenbuild International Conference and Expo in Toronto, the industry’s mega-gathering that draws thousands of green building professionals from the U.S., Canada and many countries beyond North America.

The buildings included in the Illinois study (mostly in Chicago) all are LEED certified, short for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a designation awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) after applicants meet environmental and sustainability standards. The study is a followup to a 2009 report that analyzed energy usage and other sustainability features in 25 LEED-certified buildings in Illinois. There are 19 buildings in the current study that also participated in the first one.

Doug Widener, executive director of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Illinois Chapter, has been in Toronto all week attending sessions at Greenbuild. Crain’s caught up with him by phone to talk about the buzz at the conference and discuss some findings of the Illinois chapter’s latest study.

Crain’s: What was one of the most surprising findings of the study, compared to the first one released two years ago?

Mr. Widener: When we first started the study three years ago, lots of building owners were happy to have their LEED plaque they could mount somewhere. There was some expectation that a green building should always perform well. In many cases, they weren’t taking a hard look at their energy use month over month. Many also weren’t keeping their systems in check and that’s where we found some differences in performance.

Doug Widener

Sometimes assumptions during construction or initial use change over time. If staffing among tenants doubles from the initial assumptions, for example, there could be double the number of computers — and much more energy use — than was originally expected in the modeling.

Crain’s: What can go wrong in a green building that reduces its efficiency?

Mr. Widener: Even if you have the best HVAC system in the world and good water conservation, you have to look at how managers are using it. If they (or occupants) override systems to turn off lighting controls or heating and cooling controls and the building isn’t being efficiently managed day in, day out, then it doesn’t deliver the promise of what’s possible. If I don’t have my hybrid car tuned up every 3 months, the performance could be worse than a regular car.

People started to see the daily operations of green buildings were more important than they originally thought. We are moving beyond design to performance. We’re finding that occupancy behaviors are really important too. The USGBC prioritized energy use in a big way in 2009 and the LEED rating system went through a big change.

Crain’s: Why did the USGBC change the weighting system of its certification program to focus more on energy use? Mr. Widener: LEED is a broad based rating system that looks at all kinds of things to award ratings. Now the prerequisites (to get a LEED rating) are higher in areas of energy efficiency and water conservation because we’re dealing with a carbon crisis and limited energy resources. We must focus on making buildings more efficient because they emit 40% of all carbon and use over 70% of all the electricity in this country.

Crain’s: What can small business owners learn from this study?

Mr. Widener: Small business owners can take a comprehensive look at their energy data and define a baseline going forward. You can’t manage what you don’t measure. Over time, they can develop strategies for workers’ education, including lights-off campaigns, or getting them to shut down their computers. A lot of improvements can come at no cost and from changing people’s behaviors. Lots of people get energy audits too. They’re not expensive, they can find where energy is being wasted and can identify things that could be low-cost fixes.

Crain’s: You’re at Greenbuild in Toronto now. What are the hot topics at the conference that might apply to Chicago’s green landscape?

Mr. Widener: Building performance is one of the big trends here at GreenBuild. What people are learning is that once you open a green building, the sustainability journey is just beginning.

I’m looking forward to a presentation about taking energy modeling to the next level. In modeling, sometimes it’s science and sometimes it’s an art. We need to make it more of a science so it’s more predictable.

The USGBC is announcing the launch of more online resources to measure building performance. G-BIG, short for Green Building Information Gateway, is a new platform for LEED building owners to go online, enter their utility and resource data, and see how they compare to other buildings in their category. The ultimate goal is for all buildings to get access to that.

Another hot topic here this week is affordable green housing. There’s also a green jobs summit that focuses on the nexus between green building and green jobs. Because the meeting is in Toronto, there’s a bigger international crowd here too. The green building movement is global and there’s a lot we can learn from each other.

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