This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: New study finds ‘cluster activity’ in green economy can accelerate success

A new study on opportunities in the local green economy offers perspective on how entrepreneurs, existing businesses and investors can target their efforts to succeed.

Using “cluster analysis,” the study’s authors demonstrate how specific sectors within the green economy can work together to achieve synergies and build momentum that’s more powerful than solo efforts by individual companies or investors. Details of the study’s findings and a broader discussion about how to boost greater activity in the business community and economic development circles will be featured tonight at the University of Chicago’s Gleacher Center downtown, says Robert Weissbourd, one of the co-authors and president of economic development consultancy RW Ventures LLC. He’s one of the scheduled panelists, along with John Cleveland, vice president of Innovation Network for Communities, another co-author of the study.

The lecture is co-sponsored by the nonprofit Delta Institute and the University of Chicago’s Graham School. Other panelists include Sabina Shaikh, an environmental economist and faculty member of the University of Chicago, and Michael Berkshire, green projects supervisor for the city of Chicago’s Department of Housing and Economic Development. The panel will be moderated by Jean Pogge, the Delta Institute’s CEO.

Mr. Weissbourd says Chicago’s current challenge is to convert existing pockets of green startup activity into development that cuts across a wider swath of the economy.

The study was commissioned by Metropolis Strategies, which was formerly Chicago Metropolis 2020, the civic leadership supporting organization of The Chicago Community Trust.

Crain’s met with Mr. Weissbourd to discuss the study’s findings and how they can be applied to stimulate the local market.

Crain’s: What’s new in this report that will surprise people already working in the local green business community or those seeking to get in on the action?


Robert Weissbourd

Mr. Weissbourd: The report reveals enormous opportunity for businesses that don’t normally even think about green. It builds from and goes well beyond the excellent Brookings Institution study (released last year), getting past raw data to firm and industry dynamics to identify particular emergent opportunities.

Crain’s: What competitive advantage does the Chicago area have over other metropolitan regions that make it a big draw for growing new green companies or expanding markets for companies already here? Is it more than O’Hare Airport?

Mr. Weissbourd: We have some competitive advantages that cut across all of the green sectors — our extraordinarily strong manufacturing base, assets in transportation and logistics, high levels of human capital, and specializations in knowledge and service industries.

But more importantly, we’ve identified a lot of business opportunities in varied sectors — from energy-efficient lighting to wind energy to water purification and treatment — and the competitive advantages are different for each. For example, in the broader building energy efficiency sector, Chicago benefits from its heritage as a center of large building design and architecture and its large commercial building management industry.

Crain’s: You refer to “cluster-based interventions” as a powerful way to identify segments of the green economy that can be nurtured to meet emerging green market demand. What’s the benefit of that type of strategy for targeting new business development and how would that work in Chicago?

Mr. Weissbourd: Particularly in emerging markets, where firms are looking at developing new products and services, they often have common needs for R&D, suppliers, production relationships and partnerships — that’s what is referred to as the “cluster”. Take for example, energy efficient lighting — it turns out that the next generation of LED lighting products will often be integrated with design features and distributed through different channels. A cluster approach understands that firms don’t act in isolation, and focuses on how to build the firms as part of building the industry.

Crain’s: The study found particularly promising opportunity for local growth in energy-efficient lighting. Why was that segment of green business singled out for the Chicago region?

Mr. Weissbourd: Energy-efficient lighting is the future of the lighting industry, with LEDs in particular expected to surge in the next decade. So this is a huge opportunity globally. The Chicago region has strong assets in traditional lighting, and a lot of them have already begun the shift to energy efficiency. As we dug further into the industry, we realized that the opportunity was actually not just in energy-efficient lighting narrowly, but in a broader cluster made up of firms in design and architecture, energy software and controls, energy integration, and commercial building management.

That said, it’s important to note that energy-efficient lighting, and the broader cluster it’s a part of, is just one of many promising opportunities for Chicago. It was chosen to illustrate the process of green cluster development, and not necessarily because it was the biggest or best opportunity.

Crain’s: Did the report identify any specific sectors of the economy that would be especially well-suited for entrepreneurs or small businesses to jump in on?

Mr. Weissbourd: While we were focused on opportunities for existing firms, the market growth creates huge opportunities for entrepreneurs as well. The Clean Energy Trust has been particularly adept at finding and promoting these. The opportunities for entrepreneurs range from smart grid to recycled content products.

Crain’s: The report suggests there aren’t any strong industry associations or business networks to support the local green economy. There are a few out there already (Chicago Clean Energy Alliance, Foresight Sustainable Business Alliance), so what kind of specific groups should be formed to address this gap you’re suggesting and what should be their top priority?

Mr. Weissbourd: There are a lot of great groups doing important work to support the Chicago region’s green economy. Our point is that we don’t have a rich set of business associations or networks matched to the scale of the opportunity, and particularly that much of the current activity focuses on more narrowly defined “green” firms or entrepreneurial opportunities, rather than the massive economic opportunities for firms that are not currently part of the green economy, but that could adapt their products and services to meet this new market demand.

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This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Women in Green Chicago: Social gatherings draw like-minded business women

Name an industry sector in Chicago and there’s a good chance you’ll find some dynamic women who are influencing the sustainable direction of companies in that field. If you want to know who some of them are, you might find them at the next Women in Green Chicago gathering Thursday night at Green Home Chicago in the West Loop.

Helen Cameron says she and the group’s co-founders wanted to connect, share ideas and socialize with like-minded women in a relaxed setting. Ms. Cameron is co-owner of Uncommon Ground, a restaurant with two locations on the city’s North Side that last month was named the greenest restaurant in America.


A recent gathering at Green Goddess Boutique

The idea behind Women in Green was hatched by Claire Woolley, who until recently was executive director of Chicago Gateway Green, a non-profit partnership dedicated to greening and beautifying the city’s expressways and neighborhoods. She recently moved to Denver. Other founding members included Karen Weigert, Chicago’s chief sustainability officer, and Stephanie Wolcott, who was content director for KIN Global, an affiliate of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. She has since moved to New York.

Initially, a small cluster of women began meeting every six to eight weeks at a downtown restaurant. Membership hovers around 400, according to Isabel Schechter, another organizer. Ms. Schechter owns Attention to Detail Event Productions, an event-planning firm that arranges sustainable events for businesses and non-profits.

These days, the gatherings take place at members’ retail storefronts, restaurants and other business locations to showcase the variety of green companies and organizations that women in Chicago are leading, Ms. Schechter says. Recent hosts have included Marilyn Jones, longtime owner of Consolidated Printing, an eco-friendly printing service, and Elyce Rembos, who owns the Green Goddess Boutiquein Lincoln Park and Hinsdale.

Crain’s met with Ms. Schechter to learn more about Women in Green and its members.

Crain’s: Are there any qualifications for membership in Women in Green, and how can someone join?

Ms. Schechter: There’s no membership fees, no dues, no secret handshake. You just get on the mailing list or show up at an event if you want to join. We’ve never turned anyone away. Men don’t usually attend our events unless they’re one of the hosts or a staffer helping to run it.

Crain’s: What industries are represented among WIG’s membership?


A 2009 gathering at Uncommon Ground

Ms. Schechter: There are bankers and graphic designers, architects and women who work in the non-profit and medical sectors. We have women in public relations and event planners, government officials and corporate sustainability officers. There’s lots of industry leaders, like Marilyn Jones of Consolidated Printing, and local business advocates like Suzanne Keers of Local First Chicago. We have young women right out of college to seasoned professionals.

Crain’s: Why isn’t there an emphasis at these gatherings on networking for business purposes?

Ms. Schechter: These events are really about taking a break, recharging our batteries and learning about what other people are doing in the green space in Chicago. Obviously once you get to know people at these meetings, you may end up doing business with them when you think of who you need for certain situations. We also have a LinkedIn page and a Facebook page for people to connect if they want to.

Crain’s: Can you describe the commonalities among the members of WIG?

Ms. Schechter: The women in this group are working toward a greener Chicago, but they’re also serious about greening the world. You meet these women and they’re all inspiring. You just see all the different ways that someone could be green or try to make an industry go green, but you don’t have to own a green business to make that happen. It’s great for women to meet others who are like them. It makes me feel like I’m not always the green freak in the room.

The group’s event this evening is at 5:30 p.m. at Green Home Chicago, 213 N. Morgan St., No. 1D. The next gathering is scheduled for Feb. 27, 5:30 p.m. at Provenance Food and Wine, 2528 N. California Ave. For more information: wig.chicago@gmail.com

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This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Chicagoan designs sustainable clothes to take cyclists from road to office


Biking to work in the frigid cold and looking sharp all day long is getting easier for guys in Chicago and beyond thanks to a local sustainable-clothing designer.


Jonathan Shaun

Jonathan Shaun, an urban cyclist who has designed snowboard wear and worked for sustainable consulting and clothing companies, has launched a new Chicago company called Nonetheless Garments. He’s designed a line of weather-proof pants (and some jackets, too) that can take diehard year-round cyclists through the slushy streets of Chicago to a polished look at the office and then out to dinner or a night on the town.

More people are cycling to work year-round, even in Chicago. The market for durable clothing that moves from the road to the workplace is growing, and Mr. Shaun is looking to fill that niche.

Mr. Shaun, 39, works in small batches and develops three or four new products every few months. His current line offers four types of pants and a shirt jacket made from leftover Burberry trench coat material. He keeps his business local: All garments are manufactured in Chicago.


The Bender Pant

One of the company’s most popular garments is the Nara Wool Bender Pant, made from an eco-friendly wool and polyester blend fabric from Japan-based Teijin Fibers Ltd. There’s no petroleum used in the textile’s manufacturing and the polyester is recycled from plastic bottles. Teijin worked with Mr. Shaun for two years to get the textile right so it could perform well for the mix of intended functions. The pants don’t need dry cleaning, which is better for the environment, too.

Another part of Mr. Shaun’s sustainable mission is to achieve zero waste. The company’s Afterward Program enables people wearing his clothes to swap them out for something new at discounts if the pants get messed up in a crash or if customers just want to freshen their wardrobe with a new piece.

Locals can buy his clothes at Connect, his Wicker Park storefront (with irregular hours) that also doubles as space for his sideline gig, 3.zero, a digital and branding studio. His clothing also is sold online and in cycle-centric retail stores in San Francisco, Seattle and Portland, Ore.

Mr. Shaun declines to discuss revenue, but says sales in 2011 were off to a strong start. He’s self-financed along with two private business partners. He’s looking for potential investors to develop the business to a bigger wholesale distribution model.

Crain’s met with Mr. Shaun (he goes by Shaun, actually) to learn about the challenges of creating sustainable clothing for a savvy shopper.

Crain’s: Why do you have a limited selection of clothing items?

Mr. Shaun: I’m highly focused on one piece at a time. I don’t have big committees like Nike or Apple. From first sketch to last stitch, the painstaking process takes a long time. I’m not going to put a product out just to fill the store.


The Fluid Jacket

Sales reps tell me I need more pieces to round out my collection. They’re probably right, but I design it, resource the textiles, watch over the factory, the finishings, and I test everything with a small quality group of likeminded people who are influencers to help me make the final decisions. These people are very diverse: Some care about the environment, some care only about the design, some only care about how they perform on and off the bike. It took 30 samples and a year and a half to fine-tune the first pant and get it into final production.

Crain’s: What’s so unique about the fabric and design of the pants that sets it apart in the market?

Mr. Shaun: I’m very much into technical fabric. I’m a textile geek.

One of the new textiles is made from Polartec, called NeoShell, and it breathes 100 times better than Goretex. We’re only one of a handful of brands that got access to it, and that’s in the some of the pants I designed. Polartec is made in the U.S., and that’s important to me as well.

Crain’s: Why were you so intent on manufacturing your clothing line locally?

Mr. Shaun: I was bent on making this in Chicago because I want to put my dollars back into my community. I’ve seen the financial crisis here through this macro economic time. I can’t change the world but I can change a small corner of it.

 

When you talk about the triple bottom line and being a socially responsible business, some people get lost. There’s lots of brand names made in China and all over the world. They can be made of the most sustainable fabrics and textiles and have the most socially responsible factories in China, but what’s more sustainable than making it in your own backyard here in Chicago?

Crain’s: Where do most people shop for your pants and other pieces?

Mr. Shaun: About 70% of sales are happening online, and 20% of our purchasers are wholesale. Another 10% comes from our retail showroom on Milwaukee Avenue. I’m getting pretty aggressive with the wholesale side.

Crain’s: How are you positioning yourselves for growth in the years ahead?

Mr. Shaun: We’re highly focused on figuring out how to still be a core commuter brand and also be able to be in boutiques and select department stores because of the aesthetic. Going into 2012 and beyond, we want to be able to be in the active commuter cycling market, and we want our design and product to translate into the boutique realm seamlessly.

The boutique side doesn’t care about the technical attributes. The cycling side cares about both the technical and the aesthetics. No one has found that sweet spot yet. The biggest challenge I have every day is to be both and not lose our DNA.

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