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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The program goes into effect in January.

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