Bringing fundamental change to everyday life. And, for that matter, death.
Can a skateboard maker change the world? Comet Skateboards is taking a shot. The company produces high-performance decks and wheels using materials made locally and sustainably. It's something any business can do, says Don Shaffer, a co-owner of the company and also the executive director of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies. "If you source your raw materials as locally as possible, you're shortening the supply chain, putting fewer emissions into the atmosphere by using fewer petroleum products. Lessening the distances that things travel has a very clear environmental benefit."
The six-employee company, which is based in Oakland, California, has its boards made in San Francisco (at a factory that is powered by solar energy) and in nearby Chico. The decks are made from maple and poplar that have been harvested according to the guidelines of the Forest Stewardship Council. (Comet has also started working with bamboo.) The company is now experimenting with biologically based composites to hold the boards together, such as a soy protein polymer. By next year, all Comet skateboards will be certified "cradle-to-cradle," a designation indicating that the company takes responsibility not only for where the materials to make the boards come from and how they're made, but also how they can be disposed of when their shredding days are through.
Comet boards are a little more expensive than some, but the company doesn't just cater to skaters wealthy enough to choose to be ecoconscious. It has championed and raised money for a sustainably designed skatepark in downtown Oakland--the park is scheduled to open in 2007--and is a primary backer of the Hood Games, a community event of skateboarding, music, and fashion that takes place in South Central Los Angeles and in East Oakland. "It's about making it affordable and accessible and creating easier ways to express what sustainability is all about," says CEO Jason Salfi.
"We don't want to be known as the organic winery of the Napa Valley," says John Williams, founder of Frog's Leap Winery in Rutherford, California. It's an odd thing for him to say. Frog's Leap was started in 1984 and in 1988 became the first Napa winemaker to have its grapes certified as organic. Today, Frog's Leap produces 60,000 cases of wine a year, all from grapes that are grown organically. Perhaps more notably, they are grown with water-saving dry farming methods.
In recent years, other vineyards, including Bonterra and Rubicon Estate, have followed Frog's Leap's lead. (Still, fewer than 2 percent of all wine grapes grown in California are certified organic.) But Williams is reluctant to brag, and not only because he's modest. "Up to this point, there's been no advantage to marketing your wine as organic," he says. Indeed, Frog's Leap's labels don't even say "organically grown." So why bother? "We're doing it because it leads to higher quality," says Williams. "And it's better for the health and longevity of the vineyard and the workers."
Indeed, at Frog's Leap, which does about $10 million in annual sales, commitment to a healthier environment goes beyond grapes--and beyond Frog's Leap. The winery has erected solar panels to meet the bulk of its power needs, uses geothermal energy to cool and heat its buildings, and built its new visitor center and headquarters to exacting green building standards. It also has hosted organic farming conferences and "Solar Stampede," an event promoting solar power among other winemakers. Frog's Leap is now developing a work-sharing program with other wineries aimed at keeping more seasonal field workers employed full time. The upfront costs of things like building green add 2 or 3 percent to a project's costs, Williams says. "But the paybacks are the kind we're used to in the wine business, where we take a longer-term view of investments," he says. "I really have difficulty coming up with a single disadvantage to being a green company." Even if the rest of the world doesn't know it.
Before Kim Jordan, a former social worker, and her husband, Jeff Lebesch, an electrical engineer and amateur brewer, went commercial with their home-brewing experiments in 1991, they set a few ground rules. Make world-class beer. Have fun. Promote beer culture. And be kind to the environment. Fifteen years later, New Belgium Brewery, based in Fort Collins, Colorado, is the third-largest American craft beer maker (after Sierra Nevada and Sam Adams), has 260 employees, and boasts annual revenue of $70 million--and its corporate soul is intact.
In 1998, the company became the first U.S. brewery to be powered entirely by wind. It now meets all its energy needs through a combination of wind power purchased from the city and cogeneration of thermal energy from the brewing process. Brewing uses a lot of water, an average of eight barrels of water to produce a single barrel of beer; through recapture and reuse, New Belgium has cut its water use in half. In winter, induction fans pull in cool outside air to chill the beer, reducing the need for refrigeration, which can account for up to 30 percent of a brewery's electric use. Finally, New Belgium recycles or reuses 98 percent of its waste stream--converting spent grain into cattle feed, for example. Hybrids or high-mileage diesels are used for company business.
And the fun? Each employee gets a cruiser bike on his or her first anniversary--during the summer, some 40 percent of the company's day-shift staffers pedal to work. Corporate philanthropy centers on the Tour de Fat (named for New Belgium's Fat Tire Amber Ale), a multicity "ballyhoo of bikes and beer" that promotes green issues and raises money for local nonprofits. Jordan acknowledges that being green has a brand benefit. "But building a brand by being green is not our motivation," she says. "The beautiful part of it is we believe in what we're doing."
In the quest for perfectly manicured turf, more than 100 million pounds of pesticides are dumped on American lawns each year. They pollute groundwater and lakes and kill birds and fish, and many of the most commonly used ones, including organophosphates, have been linked to cancer, reproductive defects, and neurological damage in people.
After working for nine years as a manager at ChemLawn (which has since changed its name to TruGreen ChemLawn and updated many of its practices), the nation's leading lawn-care company, Philip Catron decided he had seen enough of sick pets, lawn-service employees, and lawns. So in 1986, he launched NaturaLawn of America in Frederick, Maryland, to provide a then-novel alternative: a lawn-care system that uses an approach called integrated pest management. This system allows beneficial insects to keep harmful pests under control and the soil healthy, and uses natural fertilizers and weed inhibitors to minimize the need for applications of chemicals. In the 20 years since, NaturaLawn has become the country's largest organic-based lawn-care business, with 72 franchisees in 25 states and systemwide revenue of about $27 million. Customers have been able to reduce pesticide use by an average of 85 percent. NaturaLawn is more expensive than traditional methods, but the company retains customers longer, Catron says, with an annual turnover rate of about 15 percent, compared with 40 percent for the industry at large. "To be responsible isn't necessarily the cheapest thing to do," Catron says. "It never is. But we make it up in the long haul."
Howard Berke has the credibility of an entrepreneur who has been involved with 13 start-ups. He also has the credibility of a CEO with two Nobel laureates among his 40 employees and all-star VC backing.
So there is considerable excitement in the renewable-energy world about Berke's focus on a technology known as solar cell. Power Plastic, as they like to call it at Konarka Technologies, the company Berke runs in Lowell, Massachusetts, is different from conventional solar panels both chemically and practically. Solar cells are built around organic chemicals rather than silicon. Because of that, they are considerably more flexible than the solar panels sold today and can be used in more ways. (For one thing, Power Plastic can be made in an array of colors.) When the product is ready for the market--soon, says Berke--it will have the potential to bring solar power to an array of everyday objects, turning things such as handbags, lampposts, and even clothing into clean power sources. Charge your phone while you carry it around, or use the awning outside your place of business to help power the computers inside. The U.S. military is onboard: Both the Army and the Air Force have awarded Konarka multimillion-dollar research contracts to outfit tents, uniforms, and electronic devices with Power Plastic.
"I'm a pretty conservative person," said Berke. "I don't come at this as an environmentalist. I come at this from basic good business sense. The cost of renewables is coming down; it's more competitive when compared with fossil fuel."
That sounds credible.
Even in our final act, we find a way to be wasteful. Every year, Americans spend $25 billion to deep-six more than 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid; in addition, about 90,000 tons of steel and more than 30 million board feet of hardwood are used to make caskets.
Billy Campbell realized the absurdity of the situation in 1985, when his own father died. A medical doctor with a strong interest in anthropology, Campbell knew about death, both the biological breakdown of the body and the way different cultures ritually react to it. So in 1996, he launched Memorial Ecosystems, which in 1998 opened the nation's first green cemetery, Ramsey Creek Preserve. Located on 36 acres in Westminster, South Carolina, Ramsey Creek buries bodies with no fancy caskets or harmful chemicals--no vaults or conventional headstones, either; they aren't allowed--for $2,250. For $250, cremated remains are scattered over some of the 275 plant species on the property.
It's not exactly a volume business: The facility accepts fewer than 200 people per acre, compared with 1,000 to 2,000 people per acre at traditional cemeteries. "No one wants to be the first on the dance floor," says Campbell of some people's hesitancy to break from customary burials. "But now, we're running out of creek-view property." Memorial Ecosystems is working now to open 70 acres in southeast Georgia.
Jim Poss likes talking trash: 179,000 refuse trucks rumble down America's city streets every day, he says, burning a billion gallons of diesel a year. The trucks follow the same route, day in, day out, whether or not there's trash to collect. Poss's company, Seahorse Power, aims to change that inefficient system, one trash can at a time. The company's BigBelly garbage bin is equipped with a 40-watt solar panel that powers a battery-run compactor that increases the capacity of the bin at least fourfold. An indicator on the can lights up when it's full, and plans are under way for wireless alerts that will help refuse haulers better manage pickups.
An environmental science major in college, Poss, 34, founded Seahorse in Needham, Massachusetts, after stints at a solar energy equipment maker and a start-up that developed battery-operated motors for electric vehicles. Taking apart his mom's trash compactor as a kid provided inspiration, too. Still, Poss faced his share of skeptical garbage guys who thought solar was expensive and weak. Then they saw it work--even in the rain. Today the bins, which cost about $4,000 each, are on the streets of Boston, the New York City borough of Queens, and Cincinnati. Cincinnati parks superintendent Gerald Checco hopes to go from 10 cans to 200 within the next couple of years. That will let his department retire one of its two garbage trucks and reduce collections at the city's 100 parks to every other day. "With budget cuts, we have to be more inventive with our dollars," Checco says. "BigBelly is a great idea based on very sound and very simple precepts." Revenue is expected to exceed $1 million this year, but that's only the beginning, Poss says. He has commercial plans for BigBelly, as well. Next up: custom-designed BigBellys. His dream is to create a coffee-cup-shaped bin for Starbucks, with a recycling container.
It's a nice phrase: "residential small wind." It refers to wind turbines that can provide most or even all of the electricity for a house. The leader in the field is a Flagstaff, Arizona, company called Southwest Windpower.
Southwest's latest model, the Skystream 3.7, shipped in September. It runs $10,000 to $12,000, installed. It has three six-foot blades, which spin almost silently. The company now sells as many as 2,200 wind turbines a month and will sell its 100,000th unit sometime this year. "Our growth is coming not so much because of environmental issues," says Andy Kruse, who co-founded the company 20 years ago with David Calley, "but because it makes financial sense. We're seeing a merge between renewables and electricity."
In April, Southwest secured $8 million in capital from venture capitalists. The VCs installed Frank Greco, a veteran of the manufacturing industry, as the company's CEO, and he has hopes for Southwest that are both immediate and far-reaching. Greco wants to improve Southwest's 35 percent market share in small wind by placing Southwest's turbines in places like Home Depot (NYSE:HD) within the next year or so. The American Wind Energy Association estimates that up to 13 million homes in North America are potential users of wind turbines.
In the category of solutions being no less important for being mundane: Teko Socks works hard to ensure that just about every aspect of the socks it makes, and its business itself, is low in environmental impact. "Maybe I'm a little compulsive, but we really try to look at everything we do," says Jim Heiden, the company's founder and CEO. Depending on the style, Tekos are made from organic cotton, wool from a family farm in Tasmania that uses sustainable practices, or recycled polyester made from old soda bottles and industrial waste. All Teko dyes are certified environmentally safe, all the electricity used in the company's headquarters and factory in Boulder, Colorado, is offset through the purchase of wind credits, and all the company's minimal packaging is done on recycled chipboard. When the company goes to trade shows, its display is made of recycled sawdust. There's more, but you get the point.
Good karma, good socks. An endurance runner named Sean Burch recently wore Tekos to set a record (five hours, 28 minutes) for a climb of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Furniture making is another one of those sausage businesses: You don't really want to know what goes into the product. But perhaps you should. Manufacturing furniture is typically wasteful and toxic, involving the use of virgin wood and harsh stains and adhesives. Josh Dorfman, founder of Vivavi, a retailer of environmentally responsible furniture based in Brooklyn, New York, is helping to clean up the industry.
Vivavi showcases a network of designers from across the country, all of whom create stylish furniture from sustainable resources. The pieces range from sharp and modern to warm and earthy, but there does seem to be a certain shared consciousness among Vivavi's designers. "A designer's job is to solve challenges," says Todd Laby, whose Rhubarb Décor designs are sold at Vivavi. Those challenges range from finding manufacturers willing to work with new materials like bamboo to calculating the ultimate impact of their creations. "It's important to me to use green materials because I am putting stuff into the world and wherever it ends up, I'm sort of responsible," Laby says.
Beyond being an arbiter of taste, Vivavi is something of an educator and community builder. More than 30 design companies are featured on the company's website--some obscure, some more well known. Customers browsing Vivavi are exposed to new companies, each with its own slant on how to design with the environment in mind. In addition, the website contains directories for green-focused architects, contractors, and interior designers and has links to ecofriendly apartment complexes around the U.S. and Canada. Unfurnished ecofriendly apartment complexes, to be exact. "Someone looking for a green home will eventually be looking for some furniture to put in it," Dorfman says.
Phil Nail can't count the number of calls he's taken from customers asking if Affordable Internet Services Online, the Web-hosting business he owns with his wife, really runs entirely on solar power. Now he has proof: a real-time Web camera trained on the 120 solar panels that flank his 2,000-square-foot data center in the southern California desert town of Romoland. "Anybody can buy ecocredits," he says, referring to companies that buy alternative energy credits in exchange for the amount of electricity they consume. "We're out to make a difference."
AISO.net, as the company is known, serves 15,000 clients worldwide, many of them attracted to its green values. One customer, IMAX film producer MacGillivray Freeman Films, displays an image of a solar panel at the bottom of its website with the statement, "Site hosted with 100% solar energy." Energy from Affordable Internet's $100,000 worth of solar panels goes into battery banks that keep power steady to the servers and office. Not that the business sucks power inefficiently. Solar tubes on the roof bring in natural light and minimize the need to flip a switch. Foot-thick walls stuffed with envirofriendly insulation keep the place so cool that the AC rarely runs, even when it's 110 degrees outside. Next year, Nail plans to add drought-resistant plants to the roof to cut energy usage even more. All told, Nail figures he saves $3,000 a month in electric bills, but that's not the only benefit. "All types of businesses come to us that want ecofriendly hosting," he says. "This gives us a little niche market."
Shayne McQuade's company, Voltaic Systems, makes backpacks and messenger bags faced with solar panels that can charge things such as cell phones and PDAs. They're made in China. McQuade would like to explain why that is an environmentally progressive approach.
It's precisely because so many things are made in China. By sourcing his bags there, McQuade accrued a little influence. He told his manufacturer that he wanted the bags to be made from recycled PET plastic--soda bottles, essentially. The manufacturer couldn't find a supplier. So McQuade went to Taiwan and found the supplier himself. And here's the thing: Now his manufacturer makes products of recycled PET for lots of clients. Big clients, including Nike (NYSE:NKE).
"By working with these factories, we have a hope of changing the manufacturing systems and making those materials and that fabric available through mainstream channels," says McQuade. "And that's where you change the world. If I'm doing some artisanal project in the U.S., it's not the same."
McQuade dreamed up Voltaic, which is based in New York City, while bumming around Spain. He was looking for a change after a stint as a consultant at McKinsey and later as an entrepreneur during the dot-com boom, and he needed a way to recharge his cell phone. He ultimately devised a bag designed around lightweight, durable solar panels and a small rechargeable battery. Voltaic's products are in sporting goods stores and the Museum of Modern Art store, and McQuade hopes to place them soon in Sam's Club. Next up: bags with enough light-harvesting technology to charge a laptop.
Most people don't think about the environment when they choose a dry cleaner. Actually, most people don't think about dry cleaning very much at all--they go to the joint around the corner, says Jim McManus, CEO of Zoots, a national chain of 80 dry cleaners.
Zoots plans to change that, targeting customers with a pretty compelling argument--the company does not use the standard dry cleaning industry chemical perchloroethylene, or perc, an air pollutant that is either a possible or probable carcinogen, depending on whom you ask. Founded in 1998 with investors including Staples co-founders Tom Stemberg and Todd Krasnow, Zoots is aiming to appeal to an upscale demographic that spends big on dry cleaning. It can only help that state legislatures are increasingly cracking down on the use of perc by dry cleaners. Zoots uses a cleaning fluid that is 100 percent biodegradable. "It made perfect sense to do the right thing," says McManus.
McManus is quick to point out that Zoots is innovative in other ways, as well. Every store, for instance, has a kiosk at which customers can drop off and pick up their cleaning with a credit card, 24-7. Zoots now has 300,000 customers, and revenue is up 26 percent over last year.