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GoGreen ’11 Phoenix Green Line Series: Miguel Jardine Solves The World’s Issues With Food Waste, Worm Wine + A Giant Sock

Food Scarcity. Erosion and desertification. Waste and greenhouse gases. Economic Downturn. Four major issues with one ingenious solution—VermiSoks. Miguel Jardine took his background in technology and finance, and coupled it with a keen interest in sustainable systems to create a closed-loop agricultural process that relies on natural cycles of breakdown and growth to provide local food , heal land that has been damaged, reduce waste and greenhouse gases, and positively contribute to the global economy. Read on to learn more about the innovative VermiSoks Virtuous Cycle and how it might soon change the landscape of a concrete jungle near you.

GoGreen Conference: You’re taking on an issue of massive global scale. Food scarcity is something that civilizations have been forged by and wars have been fought over. We’re curious—most people say to start small on sustainability and not to take off more than you can chew. You went to the absolute opposite end of the spectrum and took on one of the biggest issues challenging humanity since people began forming communities. What inspired you to do that?
Miguel Jardine: I actually look at what I’m addressing as four big issues. And the inspiration behind that was that I pulled the string, so-to-speak.  Remember how your mom told you, “Don’t pull the thread, just try to cut it”? Well I went ahead and pulled the thing.

The four big things we go after are hunger, health, economic development and the environment. And we’re able to tie all of those together through the VermiSoks Virtuous Cycle. The reason being that we simplified the challenge down to a more approachable scale. Unfortunately, up until now, big problems have stayed big problems because we have people saying, “Hey! This is a big problem!” That attitude makes everything seem very complex and sometimes overwhelming. It affects the way that you think about solutions.

I spent several years researching the subject. By recognizing the root issues, we have developed a clear system to solve all of them. When you’re looking at a business that involves food, you have raw materials coming in. Those materials get made into something and then get disposed of—party’s over. When you work with that type of linear model it causes a lot of the problems we are experiencing today. However, if you look at nature, it’s cyclical. You start at one point in the circle and you end at another point in the circle. That is how the VermiSoks virtuous cycle came about—by looking at an input and seeing the cycle of how that waste can turn around and act as an input again.

GG: Give us a brief rundown of what the VermiSoks Virtuous Cycle is, and how it works.
MJ: First let me say, I am something of an environmentalist. When I was looking at the environmental challenges we face, to me, all things kept leading back to human activity—and one of the biggest human activities is the generation of waste. Generally, what we’re doing to dispose of it is digging a big hole called a landfill and then throwing everything into it. There are two major problems with that: The generation of methane (which is 23 times worse at trapping the sun’s energy than CO2) and leeching (the seepage of nasty liquid made from the accumulation of oils and rotting vegetation) that seeps down into the landfill, which causes problems with the water table.

When looking at the methane issue, I saw that the gas was being created from the way that organic matter rots in a landfill. If we’re able to divert that organic material from our landfills that’s a big step towards reducing the amount of methane generated by this process. Again, through continued research that looked to nature as a guide, we discovered we can deal with this issue through composting. Composting is not something people tend to do frequently. In most parts of the country, we have one trash can and everything goes in it. It is difficult to separate organic material from inorganic material.

We’re looking to locate the food waste and divert it away from the landfill. Then we take that food waste and liquefy it. That substance acts as the foundation for VermiSoks worm wine, which is the liquefied waste with additional nutrients. Our worm wine is useful in several ways. First, it’s useful to the earthworms. It also builds up the soil with nutrients and this is beneficial to the crops which grow in the soil. This worm wine is drip irrigated into the actual “VermiSoks,” which are mesh tubes filled with ground coconut husks and earthworms. The earthworms eat the coconuts husks and worm wine and convert that into soil.

It’s a very fast process—the earthworms will plow through worm wine in approximately three days to a week, and will convert it into nutrient rich compost in the process. All of this is going on inside the sock. When this part of the process is complete, we then have an ecosystem inside the sock that is essentially arable land. All we have to do is lay the VermiSoks tube down on the ground, or even a parking lot, cut a hole in it, plant a seed, feed it worm wine and—viola!—we get a crop growing out of it.

Continuing around the circle: As the crop grows, we harvest it, turn it into an amazing dish—salad, lasagna, etc.—and collect the scraps and leftovers to start the cycle all over again.VermiSoks is all about is showing that we can use nature’s cycle in business as a competitive advantage with this particular model.

GG: It sounds like a very integrated system involving the coordination of multiple stakeholders. Does there have to be some behavior change? Some policy change? What are the accompanying issues you are working to solve beyond the physical process of closed-loop food production?
MJ: Yes. A massive amount of education is needed, mainly with our audience and customers. We have three main products: A food waste disposal service, the VermiSoks themselves and a monthly subscription to the worm wine. The VermiSoks and the worm wine constitute what we call our “growing platform.” They are products for customers who are actually growing and harvesting crops. The other side of it is our food waste disposal offering. For that group, it’s a matter of showing them how their food waste, something that traditionally has absolutely no benefit to them, can be turned into something extremely useful to their communities and themselves.

One of the more obvious beneficiaries of this whole cycle is your average restaurant. So a restaurant has two main cost centers—the amount of produce they need to make the dishes they sell and the amount of waste generated through the food making process. So it’s very effective to be able to go into a restaurant and say, “If you use our waste disposal service, you’ll both reduce the cost of your inputs and increase the availability of those inputs. We can convert your waste into a solution for growing fresh fruits and vegetables that can be used in the restaurant again.” It’s an opportunity to create a great CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) story and it bolsters their bottom line.

Because education is one of our bigger challenges, we are really excited about working with Whole Foods. They have taken a real leadership position in working with us in utilizing our waste service, but also supporting our growing platform and educating their community.

GG: Let’s talk about scale. Does the VermiSoks Virtuous Cycle only work on a small scale or can you plant acres and acres of land this way? Can it support millions of Arizonans?
MJ: Yes it can. VermiSoks is a very local solution that’s applicable on a global scale. That aspect of the system was completely by design. One of the first pieces of education we work on when we collaborate with community organizations is letting people know that having acres and acres of farmland far away from where the food is actually being consumed is not the best model. When something comes from a great distance away and is perishable, like produce is, it has to be picked early in order to be transported without rotting. That means it doesn’t have the ability to develop on the vine with all of the nutrients and flavors it’s supposed to have. Unfortunately, we then use a lot of chemicals to do a ripening process on the way to the consumer.

So, on average in the United States, food is traveling between 1,200-1,500 miles before it is consumed. The VermiSoks Virtuous Cycle addresses that issue. We bring the growing space—the arable farmland—right into the city where people are. This essentially allows you to convert an abandoned parking lot or blighted land into arable space that can be used to grow the food that will support a community. Our vision is one where urban Phoenix will be filled with these small urban farms growing food for the local population. VermiSoks satisfies these sweet spots—anywhere from 48 VermiSoks (about a 20×20 space) all the way up to an acre of space.

That’s more than enough in the city setting, because a complete acre that isn’t spoken for is hard to come by. That speaks for one level of our scalability. The other is being able to replicate this model all over the world. That introduces a different perspective on scale, because now we don’t need hundreds of acres of farmland to grow enough food for everybody. Each neighborhood will be able to grow its own food.

This model also lends itself to a creating a lot of jobs. The VermiSoks cycle needs individuals to manage the garden/farm, to run distribution, and work in the industries we service. Then there are additional value-added products and businesses that become available as a result: a salsa line or beauty and spa products for example. You can have a grower who is specifically growing lavenders and mints and thyme for their particular formula or recipes for soap for lotion or essential oils. You also have the development of a naturopathy industry around medicinal herbs that again can all be grown close to where they are utilized.

This localized model is what we see going forward. We believe you’re going to get lots of farms and gardens all over the place that are able to feed millions of people by bringing the solutions in closer. What we do here in the Valley is replicable all over the world. You just need a “wine cellar,” which is what we call our facility where we bring all of the food waste to undergo liquefaction, create the worm wine and manufacture the VermiSoks. Wine cellars are the hub for processing that food waste, for creating this growing platform and then servicing a set of local installations of VermiSoks gardens.

GG: You mentioned getting in cahoots with Whole Foods. What’s next? What is your vision for 2012 to take VermiSoks to the next level?
MJ: The big thing our investors have been looking for is to see the whole cycle proven out—for us to have a facility working through the whole process. We now have our first wine cellar up and running. We are collecting food waste from Whole Foods and we will be installing gardens come the first of November. All of this will show the big picture. At that point communities around the world can replicate our model and develop their own wine cellars and waste source and then grow food.

The cool part is that in doing so, they will be actively addressing those four big things I mentioned before. We address the hunger issue by having the capacity to grow more food. We address the health issues, such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease, by providing healthier food to our communities. We’ll spur economic growth by providing a foundation for jobs in all the industries I mentioned earlier. And we will regenerate the environment by adding back nourishing soil to the land.

That is actually one of my favorite impacts and I tend to not name it sometimes because people say “Miguel you’re harping on that one too much.” In all of this process many people would think the primary goal is food. But there’s more to it then that. At the end of season you have a sock full of 1.25 cubic ft of nutrient rich, composted soil. We know that a big part of environmental issues, especially around food security, are happening because of de-climitization or  the erosion of farmland because the soil doesn’t have the root infrastructure to keep it in one place. VermiSoks begins to regenerate the environment because the soil we create is latent with all of the nutrients necessary for healthy soil. So at the end of life for the VermiSoks, we not only got a naturally grown crop, but if you cut open the sock and then till the material inside into the ground, that begins to heal the soil.

GG: What people, books or ideas have influenced your outlook and helped you open up your mind to new ways of thinking?
MJ: Wow, that list is long! One of the big ones for me was “An Inconvenient Truth” by Al Gore. That one really got me to start asking the question “What can I do?” The other book was written by William McDonough called “Cradle to Cradle.” I also love Richard Florida’s “The Rise of the Creative Class,” “The Flight of the Creative Class,” and his latest book is “Who’s Your City?” The third one is really cool, it’s very much in line with Malcom Gladwell’s “Tipping Point.” The final book, and it’s something of a Bible for me, is Frans Johanssons book, “The Medici Effect.” That book is what got me to think about putting together an entire system of solutions as opposed to just solving one problem.

GG: Final question: Are there any topics we didn’t address that you would like to speak to.
MJ: The one thing that I’d like to touch on, before we finish, is collaboration. Now, more than ever, we need people to start talking together. Not just people with the same backgrounds, but people with very different life and professional perspectives. In my average day, I am working with a multi-national corporation like Whole Foods, local non-profits and regional businesses. It’s through something transferable like VermiSoks that we’re all able to see how this is not a situation that will be solved by a big powerful company donating either money or a non-profit working in the field. Each sector has a role to play in the solution. For us, the business model is also a model for collaboration between disparate groups who might not always think about talking to each other. We want to get them thinking about how this cycle can bring them together to not only talk to each other, but also be very successful at their respective missions, models, and objectives.

Miguel Jardine is the CEO of Vermisoks and will speak on the Collaborative Approaches to Achieving Zero Waste at Your Business panel session at GoGreen ’11 Phoenix, November 15. To learn more about businesses wanting to go green, come see Miguel live at GoGreen ’11 Phoenix! Event details and registration can be found here. For the latest event announcements and sustainability news, follow us on Twitter (@GoGreenConf) and be a fan on Facebook (facebook.com/gogreenconference). Join the GoGreen Phoenix email list here.

PDX 2010 Green Line Series: Going Green Is Tasty Too w/Burgerville’s Alison Dennis Shares Their Recipe For Sustainability Success

Burgerville Director of Sustainable Programs, Alison Dennis, holds an enviable position. Not only does she serve as the conduit between Burgerville’s sustainable programs and the communities they inhabit, but she also gets to indulge in their delicious blackberry milkshakes—among other tasty treats—for free! We’re just hoping she brings us some treats in October to munch on while she speaks at GoGreen Portland. She’s a speaker you don’t want to miss—offering a wealth of optimism, ingenuity and authentic determination for taking your business further down a sustainable path one cage free egg at a time.

GoGreen Conference: What is your role with Burgerville and what do you do for them?
Alison Dennis:
I serve as Burgerville’s Director of Sustainable Programs and that means working first and foremost with our food supply chain to ensure that our values are present at each link in the chain—from the grain farms, ranches, bakeries and cheese makers we work with—through to our restaurant environments and dining rooms in things like our composting and recycling programs. We want to make it easy for our restaurant guests to be active players in our sustainable supply chain.

I also work on our other sustainability initiatives, such as our food oil recycling program and our 100 percent wind power purchasing program. I look at every aspect of our business through a sustainability lens and work to find ways to invite everyone within the Burgerville family, and the greater community we serve, to be a part of what we’re doing.

GG: Fast food restaurants aren’t really known for making choices that take the environment into account. Since you operate in this industry, how have you been able to be successful in breaking a mold that seems pretty well established?
Well, Burgerville turns 50 next year, so I wasn’t here when the company was first forming, but I don’t see that we have ever been formed by that mold. Right from the beginning in 1961, Burgerville was not interested in competing in price wars—they call them the 19-cent burger wars. Instead the differentiators of the brand have always been sourcing quality ingredients—Burgerville has always served fresh, never-frozen beef since the first burger was flipped—keeping as many of our dollars within the local business economy as possible—which is still a core value of the company—and a deep commitment to community service and charitable giving. Those values have sustained us since day one and informed how we make decisions.

GG: Has sustainability always been a part of those core values—at least in some form, even if not by name? Or was that a conversation that came later in Burgerville’s lifecycle as a business?
I think all of those values I just described—focus on quality ingredients, keeping money in the local economy and charitable giving—are pillars of contemporary definitions of sustainable business leadership. They’ve just been a part of who we are since long before there was ever a business community conversation about “green” or “sustainability.” So it’s been very natural for the company, over the decades, to continue to ask ourselves what it means to be a good corporate citizen in today’s world and continue to be progressive. It’s especially important in this region to have a contemporary guest space, because there is a strong tradition of caring about people, air, land and water—and preserving our local environment and agricultural traditions.

GG: Why was it so important for the founders and then the leadership, as these 50 years have gone by, to take on those tenants as a core part of their business and integrate our modern definition of sustainability into what Burgerville is doing so rigorously?
Our mission is to serve with love. As a supply chain and sustainability professional, I can’t imagine a more heartfelt place from which to source my work. How can we serve all kinds of people with access to the most sustainably produced, best local ingredients? How can we serve our regional agricultural community and ensure that another generation of families can make a living farming? Our mission truly invites us to look at the food industry and restaurant industry with fresh eyes and engage our local food community from the heart. That’s why I think it’s so important and why we approach things as rigorously as we do.

GG: You mentioned the 19-cent burger wars—which are more like 99-cent burger wars today. How do you compete with that? Are these more encompassing sustainable programs good for you bottom line or are you just willing to take in a little less profit to do well by your community and the Earth?
: Where we focus our energy, and the kinds of conversations that we engage in, are really about bringing true value to the table. So, making the best ingredients as affordable to as many people as possible is very important. At the same time, we’re looking at many other ways to ensure that we’re bringing that value to the table as well. Does the person serving you your food have access to affordable healthcare at work? We believe that’s a part of true value.

Purchasing 100 percent wind power credits to fuel our restaurants is another way we believe we’re bringing additional value to the table. All of those decisions—and the commitment to local purchasing and so on—we think they add up to true value, not just a price conversation. And it’s absolutely profitable. We wouldn’t be able to give as generously to the community and continue our tradition of charitable giving here if we weren’t running a profitable business. That’s a big part of running a sustainable business.

GG: What do your customer’s think of your focus on sustainable and socially responsible values?
Every day we receive comments—through conversations in our restaurants, through our guest chair line (where people reach out to us), our website and social media channels—that share how these decisions are making a meaningful difference in our customer’s lives. That on-going dialogue with the community about what sustainable business looks like today and what they’d like to see us do next is where I get a lot of my ideas and energy.

GG: What has been one of the biggest challenges you’ve had to overcome? How were you able to maintain your values and stick to your guns?
Inertia. I’d say the best example is when we rolled out Burgerville’s composting, recycling and sustainable packaging program—which is a topic I’ll be focusing on at the GoGreen Conference later this fall. When we first started, we got a lot of feedback telling us we just wouldn’t be able to do it; that we wouldn’t be able to put sorting stations in our dining rooms and expect fast food eaters and workers to engage and take time out of their busy lives to sort waste into the most appropriate and responsible receptacles. So we had to get experimental and put some things out there before we were sure if they would work.

We had employees in our restaurants design how they thought sorting stations and table busing stations should be integrated into their restaurants. From there we started figuring out how to have conversations about that and how to invite all different kinds of people to join in. If you flash forward to today, we have one of the most comprehensive composting, recycling and sustainable packaging programs in the food industry and certainly for our kind of restaurant.

GG: What do you see as the biggest payoff from putting such a big emphasis on integrating these values so deeply into your business and taking on such initiatives?
It’s definitely playing an authentic, positive role in creating sustainable communities in the region that we serve. We want to find ways in which the presence of our restaurants in a community can actually be making a positive impact. If a Burgerville is in your community, does that mean there are more jobs in that neighborhood with access to affordable healthcare? Does it mean your citizens have access to composting and recycling programs, because we’re there, that might not otherwise be available? Those are the areas in which we really strive to make a difference.

GG: How deeply is sustainability integrated into even the nitty-gritty areas of your business? What are some examples—beyond composting and sourcing—where customers might not be able to see it happening, but that it’s still going strong?
The composting is a great, hands-on example and don’t think it gets any more nitty-gritty than that. One that’s more behind-the-scenes is our five-year anniversary of recycling all of our used 100 percent canola cooking oil into bio-fuel. And if you’ve never cleaned out a grease trap before, that’s about as front lines of sustainability as you can possibly get.

GG: Was that your initiation into your job? Cleaning grease traps?
Ha ha. I actually do a lot of cross training and spend a good deal of time engaging with our restaurant team and the talent behind-the-scenes as much as possible. They’re the ones who have the first-hand experience about what it will really take to integrate a sustainable framework and a sustainable decision-making paradigm into the ways various people with various roles do their jobs everyday.

GG: GoGreen has morphed into a diverse audience. Some of our attendees are looking for ways to get to the next level of sustainability and some are just getting started. You guys have been at this for a while—what does sustainable business 2.0, or 3.0 even, look like for Burgerville? How are you taking it to the next level?
I’ll just briefly highlight a couple of new directions we’ve been exploring. We’ve just rolled out company-wide a program where we’re printing nutritional information on our receipts. So when you place a Burgerville order, you’ll get customized nutrition information about the food you just ordered and even tips for the next time you order on ways to, for example, reduce the calorie count by ordering a blackberry smoothie instead of the milkshake you got today. It’s a pretty profound, new social experiment we’re engaging in and we’re getting great feedback from our guest base and nationwide about taking that step and adding that next layer of visibility to empower people’s food choices.

I’m also working now on taking our alternative transportation program to the next level. Last year we opened up all of our drive-thru windows to be bike friendly and that’s gone really well so far. We’re looking to build upon that and find the next generation of initiatives and projects we can take on to invite and reward people for choosing and using active forms of alternative transportation.

GG: To wrap up, there are a lot of business owners and decision-makers who are on board with the idea of taking their business into the sustainable realm, but who don’t see how their individual actions as a business can make an impact on the entire industry. How do you see Burgerville’s actions impacting your industry and changing how business is done in the future?
One tip I would give businesses who are just getting started is to look at making progress one cage-free egg at a time or one napkin at a time. Really look at where your business is having the biggest impact and make decisions based on your unique profile. Pick one project at a time and pick projects that are meaningful that engage the hearts and minds of your audience and talent-base.

I’ll close by saying that I believe that the most profitable companies in the future will be those that take the best care of people and the planet we share. And I’m excited to gather this fall with the GoGreen community to collaborate on the next generation of sustainable business innovation.

Alison Dennis is the Director of Sustainable Programs at Burgerville. She is also a featured speaker at the GoGreen Conference 2010 in Portland, Oregon on October 5, 2010. To register for GoGreen Conference 2010 Portland, please visit: http://www.portland.gogreenconference.net/registration. GoGreen ‘09 sold out, so make sure to sign up soon!

To learn more about Alison Dennis and Burgerville’s sustainable programs, visit: http://burgerville.com/sustainable-business. Follow them on Twitter at: @BVSustainable.

The Green Line Series: Anne Weaver, Elephants Delicatessen

09speaker_AnneWeaverAnne Weaver has been a Portland business owner for 30 years. In that time, she’s pushed the home-grown Elephants Delicatessen to soaring heights as an exemplary sustainable business. With four locations, Elephants is dishing their hand-made green menu to a grateful crowd of eco-minded citizens and picking up some sustainable bling along the way. In this episode of The Green Line Series, Weaver details the advantages and challenges of being a small business with a deep commitment to sustainability, points out the importance of engaging your employees and community, and reminds us that the little things add up to big results.

GG: You’re a small business owner. In what ways does working on a smaller scale help you achieve sustainability faster than a big corporation?
AW: One great thing about being a small business like Elephants Delicatessen is that there aren’t too many layers between the people who make our fresh foods every day and those who run the company. In a large corporation it could take quite an effort for one employee to be heard, but here at Elephants everyone from the top down is interacting with all of our employees daily. This is especially important for our managers because they very quickly can let upper management know when someone has a suggestion or a great idea. Sometimes something as simple as a tiny tweak in our kitchen can equal huge returns in terms of sustainability.

We also have a Green Team that is made up of employees from all levels and departments. These team members become ambassadors of our company’s message and help spread the word throughout the company. Because we’re small, our staff pretty well knows each other by name. That is really important for us. We’re not a business where everyone sits at a computer and reads company emails. We’re working together, face to face, every day, and that means we don’t have too much of a delay from suggestion to implementation.

GG: On the flip side, what are some road blocks to being sustainable that you’ve run into as a small business? How have you overcome them?
AW: Elephants Delicatessen is in a unique position in that we are not too small, but we’re not the big dogs either. If you’re a paper supplier and Starbucks wants a certain type of compostable cup, the suppliers can’t wait to make it happen. A business of our size can ask, but at the end of the day, the bigger account may get more attention. Instead, what we have chosen to do is work to forge strong relationships with vendors. We outline our own sustainability goals and ask them to partner with us in meeting them.

GG: How does making your food from scratch provide an advantage to Elephants in terms of keeping things green?
AW: The closer you are to your food, the more control you have over its impact on the environment. One example is reduced packaging on the front end because we buy individual ingredients such as flour, sugar and butter. Then, we use those bulk ingredients to make our own breads, cakes, cookies and pastries. Since the finished products are made fresh daily, we use minimal – if any – packaging to transport foods to our retail stores. These simple steps save a lot of unwanted waste.

GG: What are some of the most important, most impactful components of your business that help you be more sustainable (recycling, power conservation, etc.)
AW: In the food business, composting is huge. It sounds like such a small thing, everyone’s doing it in their backyard, right? Well, when you produce the volume of food that we do, every day, it adds up to a lot of waste. We have compost bins throughout our kitchens, and we train staff about what food waste can go into those bins.

Energy conservation is another huge opportunity for us. Through PGE’s Clean and Green program, the electricity used to power our entire operation is generated from wind farms in Oregon and Washington. We also purchase high efficiency food service equipment through Energy Trust of Oregon, and energy efficient fluorescent light bulbs from Pacific Lighting.

GG: How viable is purchasing wind power for small businesses? Is it affordable?
AW: As we mentioned, we participate in PGE’s Clean and Green program. That means 100 percent of our power is generated from a renewable source – wind farms in Oregon and Washington. One challenge small businesses can face is determining how to make the switch to wind power when you are one tenant in a large building. We fought that fight, and we’re proud we did. We think it helps raise awareness for everyone involved.

Wind power was more expensive when we first signed up, but we assumed power rates would rise in general. We were right, and we are proud to have been among the first local businesses to pursue wind power.

GG: Has being an award-winning sustainable business helped your bottom line?
AW: We think so. We think our customers appreciate our efforts. It certainly means that we have to put some energy into rethinking things at times, but ultimately, being sustainable isn’t a cause we’re into – it’s simply our business standard.

GG: Going green is sometimes an overwhelming concept. Do you have to go big to go green?
AW: It certainly can be overwhelming. We have a Green Team committee that meets weekly to discuss our sustainability efforts. We can spend weeks debating the merits of one type of green packaging versus another. Ultimately, starting with a few small things can really get a team moving, though. Start with the closet full of cleaners. Do a little research and find more environmentally-friendly alternatives. Then, train your staff to use them appropriately. Before you know it, everyone in your company starts to think in the green mindset. Then, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect your employees to start coming forward with their own suggestions. We have absolutely taken advantage of how easily we are able to make changes because of our smaller size.

GG: Do all the little things—things that businesses can add in stages—add up to dramatic changes?
AW: Absolutely. We did not start out doing all of this at once, and I’m pretty sure we’ll always have more to do. We bought an efficient machine to clean our Central Kitchen floors. It uses significantly less water and cleaning solution than traditional mopping. That may sound like a small thing, but when you think about how we clean that 10,000-square-foot kitchen 365 days a year, that adds up to a lot of savings.

GG: How did you get started making these choices?
AW: Since opening 30 years ago, Elephants Delicatessen has aimed to be a green company. Our business took off the same time as the major green movement in our area. It was a perfect match, just making sense that our business follows the regional green motto. We have made it a point to include thinking green into our decisions as business has grown. When we need a new appliance, we choose Energy Star. When we need new packaging, we research recyclable or compostable materials. As delivery business grew, we sought out alternative fuels and ways to reduce vehicle emissions on the road. Our next step is to deliver by bike. It seems there is always a way to improve.

GG: How do you recommend other small business owners get started down a path to sustainability?
AW: Start taking action immediately. Small, simple steps will lead to bigger ones. Open the closet and check out the chemicals used in your business. Put out recycle tubs. Take away the paper cups near the water cooler and coffee pot and ask employees to use their own, reusable cups and mugs.

Companies must invest in bringing their employees on board. Think of it as a group effort. Training and spreading the word through the company has a trickle-down effect. Eventually everyone from your vendors to your clients will see your efforts.

GG: Why is it so important for America’s small business owners to get on the sustainable side of the green line? What is their impact on the greater whole?
AW: Being green is the new business standard. Small businesses have the advantage of being close to their customers, and customers are more and more savvy about what it means to be a green business. We have to make sure our community knows we care about sustainability, and once customers are able to see a business’ efforts, we believe they’ll respond with return business. Small businesses making sustainable efforts puts pressure on larger businesses to take action. It proves that it doesn’t have to take deep pockets, just a genuine effort.

Anne Weaver is a speaker the GoGreen ‘09 Conference, October 7th, 2009 in Portland, Oregon. To hear more from Weaver and our other 40+ eco-visionary speakers on embedding your business with a sustainable commitment , register today at www.gogreenpdx.com/registration or call 503.226.2377.

For more information about Anne Weaver and Elephants Delicatessen, please visit: http://www.elephantsdeli.com

To get the latest Go Green ‘09 news, green news and innovative ideas join us on Facebook (Go Green Conference) + Twitter (@gogreenpdx)!