This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: New event space puts sustainability front and center

By Judith Nemes

A new green event space just opened its doors, seeking to cater to companies that want to hold eco-friendly gatherings this holiday season and beyond.

The West Loop Studio event and meeting space on Elizabeth Street shuttered its 10-year-old loft and moved this month into bigger digs within the Green Exchange, the old Cooper Lamp Factory near the Kennedy Expressway that’s been transformed into a platinum LEED-certified building. Co-owners Jamie Davis and Steve Ewert renamed their company Greenhouse Loft to reflect a greater emphasis on sustainability.


Steve Ewert and Jamie Davis

Mr. Ewert, a photographer, was sole owner of West Loop Studio. He originally opened his sun-bathed loft to other photographers for photo shoots. Word spread about the cool venue and pretty soon the business grew into an event space for weddings and corporate gatherings. West Loop Studio was always green-minded in how events were run, but now that focus will be more visible in the new location, notes Ms. Davis, also a photographer and event manager who worked at the original loft for seven years.

The duo was looking for a new home for the last couple of years after Mr. Ewert and his brother, owners of the West Loop Studio’s original building, decided to sell the property. They were scouting for LEED-certified locations because they wanted to boost their green profile. The Green Exchange opportunity came along at the right time, Ms. Davis recalls. A handful of the Green Exchange’s tenants have been moving in over the last few months after many delays.

The new event space has a 3,500-square-foot open floor plan and many of the bells and whistles of a retrofitted building intended to garner the highest level of certification from the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program. They include a high-efficiency heating and cooling system that slashes building energy use by 22% and rain cisterns that capture storm water and enable it to be reused for other building needs. There’s even a green escalator with built-in occupancy sensors that employs 30% less energy than a traditional escalator.

The emphasis on sustainability was the biggest draw to sign a lease in the Green Exchange, but Ms. Davis notes they now have 1,000 more square feet than their old space and an outdoor entertaining area, too, which sweetened the deal.

Crain’s caught up with Ms. Davis to learn more about how they incorporate sustainability practices into their functions to appeal to business clients.

Crain’s: Why did you choose to move to an event space that had a bolder green focus?

Ms. Davis: We’ve always thought being sustainable is very important — now we’ll get to promote that more strongly. I’m part of the Chicago Green Wedding Alliance, a grass-roots group of vendors trying to make events more sustainable because we saw how wasteful events and meetings can be.

At West Loop Studio, we were doing everything we could to be green. We . . . had strict recycling programs. We work with a very small list of caterers, including Fig and City Provisions, because they’re dedicated to local, sustainable food and have composting systems. For business meetings, they’ll use reusable platters and compostable lunch boxes. It’s really important to us that they follow many green practices because there’s so much waste in catering.

We plan on continuing all of that, and we’re going to try to do more events that are close to zero waste.

Crain’s: How unique is your green event concept in Chicago?

Ms. Davis: I don’t think there’s a lot of competition for these kind of spaces. We’re one of the only alternative green spaces in the city, but there are probably some hotels that have LEED certification if that’s what someone is looking for. There’s Logan Square Kitchen, but it’s a lot smaller so we’re not getting the same kind of clients.

Crain’s: Will the mix of events you host change in the Green Exchange compared to your old loft building?

Ms. Davis: Weddings were our bread and butter in the West Loop Studio, and we did a lot of corporate meetings. But we didn’t have a license to do fundraisers where we could sell tickets. Now we’ll be able to do fundraisers in our new space and more non-profit events, along with the other things we’ve always done.

In our lease, we also agreed to donate our space once a week to the Green Exchange for a community event. This week, we’ll have the U.S. Green Building Council in here. The vision for the event space in the Green Exchange was for it to be the center of the building where ideas are exchanged and the community comes together. We love that.

Crain’s: What were businesses doing in your space and do you expect that to continue in your new location?

Ms. Davis: Brand development. Usually it’s the creative team or the marketing team having creative brainstorm sessions to think of new ideas for certain brands. In the past we have worked with such clients as Kraft Foods, McDonald’s, Facebook, Apple and Jim Beam. We expect them all to be coming back as well. We also work with research companies that have new ways of doing focus groups that are more interactive and creative. They like the open space to move around, the wall space to post up ideas.

Crain’s: Do you expect companies to seek you out because of your own branding now as a green event company?

Ms. Davis: There are lots of companies, like Kraft for example, that are looking for ways to be more sustainable in every way. I’m going to start reaching out to them more and promote this as a green space that can also achieve what they need.

Crain’s: Do you have any green holiday parties planned in your new digs?

Ms. Davis: No, we just moved in last week and most companies plan their parties farther out in advance. But we’re certainly open to it if anyone wants to put on a last-minute party.

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Other good “green” reads from around the Internet today:

Bringing solar down to earth, price-wise: Fortune’s Brian Dumaine reports that a few solar companies “are applying a new financing model that makes residential solar affordable. They are attracting investors from U.S. Bancorp to Google.”

The 21st century’s version of the space race: Jay Lauf of The Atlantic writes that “from the mid-to-late 20th century, the United States and the Soviet Union largely took their battle for world dominance to space, leading to landing the first man on the moon to Star Wars. And now the next great race between two superpowers is on.”

A phone app for switching out lightbulbs: How many mobile-phone apps does it take to change a light bulb? The New York Times says, just one.

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This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Corporate sustainability reporting expert sees upsides for small biz, too

Sustainability reporting is a hot trend among large corporations that want to demonstrate their commitment to greening their organization. But it’s not just for the big boys anymore.

Now smaller businesses are beginning to join the ranks, according to Jane Madden, executive vice-president and director of the corporate social responsibility and sustainability practice at Edelman, the global public relations firm based in Chicago. In many instances, though, smaller companies are coming up with less intense versions of the formal reports that large corporations are creating.

Many of these companies, both large and small, are attempting to boost the transparency and credibility of their reporting by getting an outside party to independently verify the environmental and social data they share in these reports, Ms. Madden explains.

Jane Madden

Ms. Madden has been engaged in sustainability reporting and much more for a long time. She spent most of her career at the World Bank advising governments around the world on environmental, social and governance issues. She’s a sustainable development expert and ran her own firm advising corporations, non-governmental organizations and multilateral agencies on those issues before joining Edelman.

These days, she’s also leading Edelman’s partnership with the Global Reporting Initiative, a non-profit that offers guidelines to companies interested in developing sustainability reports.

Even though Ms. Madden works mostly with Fortune 100 companies at Edelman, she has her finger on the global pulse of sustainability reporting for companies of all sizes. Crain’s recently asked her to share some thoughts on why the sustainability reporting trend is so hot in Europe and is now spreading throughout the U.S.

Crain’s: How would you describe the current status of sustainability reporting among Chicago-based companies?

Ms. Madden: We’re doing OK here, but we need to do more. (Edelman) just did the Northern Trust report, which is great for a company that is in the financial sector, although they’re a bit more conservative because of the industry that they’re in and because that’s their culture. They reported on 35 GRI indicators, so they are taking this very seriously.

Many are using the GRI framework or using the guidelines for reporting out on some of their indicators. Some companies now are also asking GRI to verify that they followed the process. We’re also seeing a trend, and Northern did this, where they had their accountants certify it, just as you would certify an annual financial report. It brings more credibility to this space.

A framework like GRI is good because it’s comprehensive and it’s multi-stakeholder. It’s also a global framework so you can compare a bank in the U.S. to a bank in Germany or South Africa. The Carbon Disclosure Project is good, too, but more limited (in its scope).

Crain’s: Are these sustainability reports stand-alone projects or is anyone blending them with other reports for better context?

Ms. Madden: Another big trend is integrated reporting. Companies are now reporting out not only on their financial data but also the non-financial data and combining financial and sustainability reports. The key is you’re showing the connections between the data. The U.S. is a bit behind on that, but we’re seeing more sustainability reporting, as well as integrated reports. Europe is ahead, in part because countries like Denmark and France are mandating it. Even South Africa has mandated any company on its stock exchange must do an integrated report.

Crain’s: Do you think some companies use sustainability reporting primarily as a marketing tool?

Ms. Madden: I think companies used to see it as a marketing tool, especially on the philanthropic side. Going back to metrics, it’s a really important tool for identifying goals, commitments and targets and measuring them along the way. There’s increased demand for transparency and the metrics behind them, but we’re also seeing companies are better run because of it. They’re reducing their risk because they’re measuring.

We talk about the triple bottom line of people, profit, planet being equal. I would argue if you look after the people and the planet, your profits are going to be better. And not necessarily because you’re doing more good or you’re selling more products, but because you’re a better-run company.

Right now it’s more of a business decision to do this, especially if you’re a company that responds to (requests for proposals). Companies are asking for sustainability reports and they can easily say: “Here’s a link to our reporting.” Plus there’s also a lot of (sustainability) business awards coming out. There’s the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, the Financial Times’ Index, and Newsweek’s green business rankings are coming out for the third time.

Crain’s: Are small businesses paying attention to sustainability reporting?

Ms. Madden: In general, I think they are, but it’s one more thing they have to do. If you’re promoting yourself as a green company, your clients or future clients are going to ask how you walk the walk. We’re seeing some smaller companies actually do the reporting.

We see companies are looking at reporting and trying to figure out which certifications to pursue. I don’t think small enterprises need to do the full blown reports like a Fortune 100 company, but they are tracking that data. It could be an independent contractor and it’s easy for them to do that tracking.

Crain’s: Are there other reasons why businesses should consider sustainability reporting?

Ms. Madden: It’s also important for talent acquisition and retention, regardless of company size. There are lots of millennials (born between 1980 and 1995) who want to work for a company that shares their values. That’s especially important if you’re a small company because there’s more risk when you have turnover and it has more impact on your bottom line, so you want to attract people who are going to stay with you for a while.

Crain’s: What trends do you see that could encourage small businesses to take sustainability reporting more seriously?

Ms. Madden: There is increased scrutiny and concern about the supply chain regarding both environmental and social issues. From a small-business point of view, these businesses are often part of somebody else’s supply chain and they’re getting demands for transparency and reporting, so they have to be able to supply their own information, too.

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This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Local brothers add app to recycled ink cartridge business

There’s an app these days for just about everything, but who knew you needed one for that emergency ink refill for your printer?

Brothers Jacob and Aaron Dallek have been growing Cheap Ink — their Bedford Park-based recycled ink cartridge business — by anticipating consumer needs. The new app so far only records the type of ink cartridge your printer needs so you can call it up on your smartphone. That’s helpful when you’re out shopping for that refill.

By this winter the app will also connect you to the entrepreneurs’ recently re-launched website, where customers will be able to buy recycled cartridges at a fraction of the name-brand price directly from them online, says Jacob, 29. For purists, there will be an option to buy the name-brand product too, but the discounts aren’t nearly as steep. Either way, the app and the website will keep records of the models purchased so the consumer doesn’t have to.

The Lincoln Park brothers started their recycled ink and toner cartridge company in 2002 when Jacob was a sophomore in college and younger brother Aaron (now 27) was still in high school. At the time, the duo mostly sold recycled cartridges in a market that wasn’t yet crowded with reusable options to higher-priced name-brand goods. In recent years, their focus shifted to collecting and recycling the empty ink and toner cartridges and selling them to re-manufacturers that refill them. They continue to sell both generic and name-brand cartridges directly to consumers, too, including schools, non-profits and small and mid-sized businesses.

Cheap Ink recently earned bragging rights by making it onto Inc. magazine’s 2011 list of 5,000 fastest-growing privately held companies in the U.S.. The publication ranked Cheap Ink as the 22nd fastest-growing privately held company in Chicago, citing a 617% increase in revenue over a three-year period. Cheap Ink posted $2.2 million in revenue in 2010, up from $301,000 in 2007. The company fared well in the magazine’s national listings, too: Cheap Ink came in at No. 40 in its industry nationally, and it ranked 544 on the 2011 list of 5000 fastest-growing U.S. firms.

The Dalleks identified a niche market early. But they say they also wanted to reduce the amount of waste that ends up in landfills.

Crain’s met up with the brothers to learn more about how these Davids compete against the big-box store Goliaths.

Crain’s: What inspired you to pursue this specific corner of the printing and ink cartridge market?

Jacob: We come from a long line of entrepreneurs. Our parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents and even great-grandparents were entrepreneurs. So it’s in our blood.

Jacob Dallek

The reason for the printing and ink business is that we wanted to be in a business that helped both the environment and our customers at the same time. When we started it nine years ago, the concept of using compatible cartridges to provide cost savings was still new to most people. We figured everyone prints and everyone always complains about how expensive ink can be. So our solution was cheap ink.

Crain’s: How cheap is Cheap Ink? Can you really compete with the big-box stores?

Aaron: If someone’s buying a name-brand product, we can offer the compatible (non-brand) version of that for up to 75% less. With name brands, we’re slightly less (than the big-box stores), but very close.

The recycling has been a great business for us, but we now want to focus again on selling the full cartridges. That’s one of the reasons we just set up an ecommerce site and relaunched our website.

Crain’s: Can you describe the eco-friendly aspect of your business?

Aaron: Every part of our business is eco-friendly. We sell recycled products and we collect and recycle used cartridges. Recycling cartridges eliminates plastics and metals from going into the landfills and it saves oil by not having to use energy to make more new cartridges.

Aaron Dallek

Companies can also earn LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) credits toward their certification (from the U.S Green Building Council) by recycling with us. We are partnered with Allied Waste and offer a free pickup service to companies and buildings that want to recycle their cartridges.

Crain’s: Can you tell us a bit about your website relaunch?

Jacob: On our new site, we provide technology that solves many of the problems people have with buying printer cartridges. One big one is that people have a hard time figuring out which cartridge goes with their printer. Our site and mobile application make it easy to find. You can also save your cartridge information for easy re-ordering so you save time in the future and don’t have to worry about it every time you need ink

Crain’s: OK, tell us why anyone would need an app for ink cartridges? Is it a marketing gimmick or are you filling a real need here?

Aaron: In doing research for the app, we found that most people we talked to complained about not knowing which cartridge goes with their printer. When I go to Office Max, I see people walking around with their cartridge in their hand to make sure they buy the right one. The app eliminates that problem and allows you to save your cartridge information for easy reference in the future. We also make the app compatible with our website. If you sign in and save your cartridge information on the app, it will be there waiting for you on the website for easy ordering. We feel there’s a niche there that wasn’t being filled.

Our industry is highly competitive, yet there is only one other cartridge app — it’s by Hewlett-Packard, and only for their cartridges. This is a major part of how we are innovating in an industry that’s been stagnant for a long time.

Yes, the app does help us with marketing, but that’s secondary.

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