Three Oakland businesses-worker-owned grocery store Mandela Foods Cooperative, janitorial supply provider Starline Supply Company and plumbing services contractor Pipe Spy Inc.-were showcased last month by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for their efforts to reduce energy consumption and minimize pollution.
The California Green Business Program helps small- and medium-sized businesses find ways to green their operations, and pays particular attention to businesses in economically challenged communities like West Oakland. Photo by Joel Williams
By Bill Picture
Three Oakland businesses—worker-owned grocery store Mandela Foods Cooperative, janitorial supply provider Starline Supply Company and plumbing services contractor Pipe Spy Inc.—were showcased last month by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for their efforts to reduce energy consumption and minimize pollution.
These three businesses also recently received green certification from the California Green Business Program (CGBP), which was awarded a grant by the EPA to continue its efforts to grow California’s green economy by helping small- and medium-sized businesses adopt environmentally friendly business practices. CGBP pays particular attention to businesses in economically challenged communities such as West Oakland, where all three of the businesses recognized are based.
“There are fairly simple steps that any small business can take to be more green, but even simple changes can be tough to implement because we get so set in our ways,” said Zoe Heller, manager of EPA Region XIV’s Zero Waste Office. “That’s why we feel it’s important to recognize businesses that are doing what they can to be greener. And in this case, the businesses went above and beyond.”
Though now considered an up-and-coming neighborhood, West Oakland continues to struggle with the poverty, high crime rates and poor air quality that have plagued the area for decades. For years, the neighborhood was also classified as a “food desert” because residents had to travel several miles for access to fresh meat, produce and other nutritious foods necessary for a healthy diet. The result has been higher-than-average rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes. Since it opened in 2009, Mandela Foods has been West Oakland’s only full-service grocery store.
“Because they’re a small business serving a small community, they don’t have the resources to make sweeping changes at the operational level,” Heller said. “But they recognized there were things they could do, and they said, ‘Let’s go for it.’”
The right thing to do
Most large companies now have sustainability departments that identify ways for their businesses to minimize their environmental footprint, but small business owners have only their own green conscience to spark change. “There are incentives in place for big companies to make these kinds of changes, but small businesses don’t quality for a lot of those programs,” Heller said. “Small business owners that are going green are doing it because they believe it’s the right thing to do.”
One of the changes that Mandela Foods came up with was adding covers to the coolers in the store’s refrigerated section to keep in cold air. It’s a simple change that will result in less energy used, and quickly lower the store’s electricity bills.
“There are a lot of opportunities like this to save money, but they require some amount of up-front investment so the return isn’t necessarily immediate,” Heller said. “And when you’re just trying to get by from one month to the next and pay your bills and pay your employees, it’s hard to think long term. Being greener can feel like just one more cost, one more thing to do.”
That makes convincing businesses to undergo the steps necessary for green business certification challenging, Heller conceded. Though she’s confident that as word of the value—both moral and financial—of going green spreads, more businesses will follow suit. “Again, we’re talking about inspiring a change in behavior, which is tricky,” Heller said. “But by showcasing small businesses like Mandela Foods, Starline Supply and Pipe Spy that have taken the steps necessary and are actually saving money, we’re saying to other businesses, ‘You can do this too.’”
And once a business starts thinking greener, Heller says there’s no limit to what it can achieve. “It almost becomes a challenge,” she said. “What can we do next?”
Flexibility is key
According to Heller, the key to the success of the California Green Business Program (and any green business certification program) is flexibility. “There’s no one-size-fits-all model,” she said. “A program has to meet the goals of each type of business, and the community it serves. And each individual business has to determine what works for them.”
Heller commended the Alameda County Green Business Program for its outreach efforts.
“They’ve done an amazing job of spreading the word,” she said. “That’s what we have to do—let businesses out there know what they can do, and what a difference these changes make.”
That difference can be quantified, and the numbers are beyond impressive. The 3,400-plus businesses currently participating in green business programs throughout the state have spared the environment more than 835,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide. That’s the equivalent of planting 44,000 acres of trees each year for 10 years. And together, those businesses have saved over $3 million by operating greener.
“It’s amazing,” Heller said. “And imagine what those numbers would be like if every business did what it could. That’s the goal, and we have to believe we can get there.”
Open-faced coolers like these waste energy by allowing cool air to escape. Mandela Foods in West Oakland added retractable shades that can be pulled down at night to trap the cool air, reducing energy consumption. iStock/littleny