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How One Small Business Overcame Big Obstacles to Greater Sustainability

3p Contributor | Friday February 15th, 2013 | 2 Comments

DownHome_kitchenBy Mihir Parikh

With consumer spending showing signs of continued recovery, now’s a smart time for small businesses to invest in sustainability measures with proven returns, but the vast majority of these businesses don’t have the time or resources to commit, because they’re too busy running day-to-day operations.

There’s tremendous potential to cut operational costs through the use of new energy-saving technologies for lighting, HVAC and appliances (to name a few), but small businesses generally lack the capital for significant upgrades.

Where city, state or utility programs do exist to aid businesses, they often are complex and not easily accessible to an owner who already fills the roles of CEO, CFO, Head of HR—and now Chief Sustainability Officer.

Even when funds and time are available, most small business owners or staff members don’t know where to begin evaluating their facilities, researching the available incentives and prioritizing upgrades.

It’s no help that technology manufacturers generally don’t market their products to small businesses. In large part, this is because there are few direct channels for approaching small businesses in a volume that can justify the marketing expense. This also means there are few networks through which small businesses can share best practices for addressing energy and sustainability issues.

As a result, sorting recyclables is likely to be the most significant sustainability task assigned to employees at the neighborhood pizza joint or laundry mat. However, despite all this, it is possible for small businesses to take big steps—with the right support.

Down Home Delivery & Catering, has been serving soul food in Boston since 2008. After working on Wall Street for 30 years, Down Home’s business manager Gale Scott teamed up with her fiancé, Gary, and his three brothers to help establish the restaurant.

Gale understood the opportunity to cut energy costs and contribute to the environment, but she needed to protect their bottom line at the same time—which meant no large capital investments, and no dedicated sustainability staff. So in 2011, they joined the Challenge for Sustainability run by the Boston non-profit organization A Better City. The Challenge provides sustainability expertise, toolkit resources and a community of peers for small businesses involved in the City’s Main Streets Program and to large property owners representing a combined 30 million square feet of commercial space.

This four-minute micro-documentary tells the story with greater interest, but in short, Down Home received hands-on assistance with a free energy audit and prioritized recommendations for investments in energy-efficient lighting, motion sensors, and more efficient fan motors and HVAC equipment. With incentives, Down Home expects to save close to $2,000 a year on energy costs and pay back their entire investment in just over a year.

The video even has a cameo by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino who made national headlines earlier this month for calling on the city to prepare for climate change. Menino created the Main Streets Program for small and medium-sized businesses under the City of Boston’s Department of Neighborhood Development in 1995, and the program linked up in 2010 with A Better City’s Challenge for Sustainability. This case study shows that small business can indeed see big rewards from investing in sustainability.

Mihir Parikh works with small businesses as a sustainability coordinator for A Better City (ABC), a Boston-based organization dedicated to improving the economic competitiveness of the region through improved infrastructure and sustainability. ABC’s Challenge for Sustainability provides leadership, technical support and recognition to businesses and buildings that are willing to dedicate a few hours a month to strengthening their organization’s bottom line and making Boston a more sustainable and economically competitive city. The Challenge is supported by The Boston Foundation and The Barr Foundation—a private foundation backing initiatives to lower Boston’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions.  


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  • http://twitter.com/bart_king Bart King

    The Challenge for Sustainability is doing good things up in Boston. Here’s the micro-doc they produced about how they use scorecarding to help their big-company participants get a handle on sustainability improvements: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NnRzmJ_riOs

  • Penny Bauder

    One of the biggest sustainability measures that our small business, Green Kid Crafts (www.greenkidcrafts.com) practices is telecommuting. We save huge amounts of energy here while being able to support our talented staff in their desires to work from home. We also strongly believe in carbon neutrality, partnering with carbonfund.org to support renewable resources and save tons of CO2 for going into the atmosphere each each. This is a lot cheaper, and easier, to do that I think most businesses realize.