Speak to business owners about going green, and after the talk of recycling initiatives and energy-saving measures subsides, the grumbling begins. You hear about the "greenwashers," companies that tout dubious green credentials while simultaneously flouting other environmental responsibilities, investing in hybrid cars while failing to recycle their office's cans and bottles. Then there are the environmental acolytes, shamelessly waving their business' green flag like it's a religion only they are members of. And then there are the companies that don't even try.
Business owners profess a wide range of reasons for why they go green. Most say they wouldn't if it was bad for business, but that's where the motivations begin to diverge. We've profiled four companies, two on each side of the green spectrum. First, Coffee By Design and Green Clean Maine of Portland — businesses strongly driven by social conscience whose missions are inextricably linked to green concepts. Then, Atlantic Pest Solutions of Arundel and Maine Wood Treaters of Mechanic Falls — companies whose business models just happen to be all the rage these days.
Coffee By Design
Mary Allen Lindemann, co-owner of Portland's Coffee By Design, really wants to serve your hot cappuccino in a fully compostable cup. But the corn-based vessels her business uses for iced drinks, as it turns out, will melt from the heat. So, for now, she's sticking with an otherwise compostable cup that has a poly liner.
The cups are one of the most recognizable symbols of the company's commitment to sustainability, a core part the coffeehouse chain's beginnings in 1994. Area farmers compost Coffee By Design's grounds and reuse their burlap bags, and the business has instituted an extensive recycling program. Lindemann's husband and co-owner, Alan Spear, has traveled to a dozen countries to ensure the farms that supply their beans use sustainable practices. A recent renovation of the Washington Avenue roasting facility to include training and showroom space is being undertaken using no-VOC carpeting, low- or no-VOC paints and lights that turn off when occupants leave the room. When the business originally moved into the building in 2004, they installed highly efficient HVAC systems and lighting. Now they're working with their paper goods supplier to certify all of their bathrooms as green (who knew?).
All of those efforts, along with the financials, figure in when Lindemann considers her company's bottom line. "A sustainable business, and how we define it, is what we come back to," she says. Even as coffee bean prices skyrocketed over the last year and a half as the economy spiraled downward, the company maintained its sustainable practices. Its reputation, Lindemann says, is "non-negotiable." "You can't buy back what you've lost." The business' commitment to giving back to the community started locally, and expanded worldwide with the development of the roasting business, she says.
The first quarter of 2009 has proven more profitable than the same quarter last year, as the company enjoys healthy demand from caffeine junkies and savings from improved efficiencies in payroll and supply processes. Coffee By Design still works to distinguish itself, particularly to touristy customers at its L.L.Bean location, which opened in Freeport last year, and amid an ever-growing number of greenwashers with less legitimate credentials, Lindemann says.
Recognized in the local business community as a leader in sustainability (Lindemann and Spear were Mainebiz 2005 Business Leaders of the Year, www.mainebiz.biz/news11873.html), the company proves an attractive model for other business owners. Don't be intimidated, Lindemann advises. "It's never too late to start, and none of us have it figured out," she says.
Green Clean Maine
Joe Walsh might have been in your cubicle last night, scrubbing the floor and wiping down your computer monitor with his homemade cleaning solution. He might have, upon erasing the last trace of dust, sighed in satisfaction at an office well cleaned.
Walsh is the founder of Green Clean Maine, a Portland all-natural cleaning company founded in October 2007 that now employs six people. He admits reveling in the instant gratification that comes from immaculate perception — surveying a clean room after its transformation from messiness. But it's only one of the reasons he got into the business. Walsh wanted to start a company that was environmentally beneficial and provided eco-friendly services. Otherwise, he never would have opened shop, he says. "I definitely founded the company 20 months ago with the whole point being that it was green," Walsh says.
Business is booming, with an average 20 to 30 jobs per week. Walsh uses cleaning solutions he concocts himself, a mixture of baking soda, vinegar and essential oils. And though the company's greenness might catch customers' eyes, its professional service convinces them to pay its slightly higher fees, Walsh says. He pays his employees an average $11.50 an hour and requires that they demonstrate a personal interest in sustainability. He wants them to be able to chitchat with homeowners about efforts like composting and using cloth diapers. "It goes way further than just cleaning," he says.
Walsh hopes to transition himself away from work in the field, but finding the right employees takes time, he says. "We might be saving the planet one house at a time, but we're still cleaning houses," he says with a laugh.
Only about 20% of Green Clean Maine's customers are businesses, because cleaning is just about the last thing they consider when going green. "Cleaning is something that no one sees," Walsh says, because it happens on nights and weekends when customers and employees are away. Such services usually are awarded to the lowest bidder, so the businesses he serves are deeply dedicated to the environment, Walsh says. "What really makes it is that when our customers meet us and talk to us, they know we're committed."
Walsh might be a green cleaner, but he's no green washer. Green Clean Maine's challenge has been to demonstrate its commitment to environmental responsibility as the cleaning industry is inundated with largely unregulated "green" cleaning products, Walsh says. For Walsh, the bottom line means making money, benefitting society and helping the environment. "If I can't meet all three, then I'm not successful," he says.
Atlantic Pest Solutions
The term "integrated pest management" may not rank on the list of green buzz words alongside the fear-inducing "carbon footprint" or the popular portmanteau "locavore."
But the practice, a comprehensive approach to pest removal in which pesticides are a last resort, is catching on as consumers become more eco-friendly, says Ted St. Amand, president and owner of Atlantic Pest Solutions in Arundel. "We were doing integrated practices that meant using fewer chemicals, so it fit the green model," he says.
St. Amand worked his first summer job at the company 30 years ago, when his father owned the operation. Like many other exterminators at the time, St. Amand's father, "a man with a can," sprayed pesticides indiscriminately, with little knowledge of the bugs and where precisely they lurked. Many companies still use the tactic because it's cheaper, quicker and requires less employee training than integrated pest management, St. Amand says. He began doing away with those practices when he took over the business in 1984.
Atlantic Pest is the only business in Maine designated as an integrated pest management provider by the New England Pest Management Association. It's also one of about only 30 companies nationwide that provide services certified by Green Shield, an independent nonprofit, which conducts rigorous third-party audits to ensure effective pest control without unnecessary pesticides.
Among the Arundel company's bug-killing tactics are detailed inspections to pinpoint pests' locations and breeding environments and nontoxic monitoring to keep them at bay. Suggestions to a customer might include venting an attic to eliminate heat-loving silverfish or moving insect-friendly moist bark mulch away from a house and replacing it with a buffer of dry stone, St. Amand says. Through its carpentry division, the company also plugs holes that bats and mice use to infiltrate buildings. Atlantic Pest even has a bedbug-sniffing dog named Miss Layla. If all else fails, pesticides are applied locally to targeted area. "If you don't respond to the environment that's supporting them, it's going to be a short-term solution," he says.
Not a day goes by that customers don't inquire about Atlantic Pest's earth-friendly services, according to St. Amand. "You can be green and make money too," he says. Some valiant customers determined to go green, though, falter when they hear the word "bedbug," St. Amand says with a chuckle. "All of a sudden your tolerance level for conventional products just got really great."
Maine Wood Treaters
Hal Bumby founded Maine Wood Treaters in Mechanic Falls over 25 years ago for one reason: "I make wood last longer," he says.
His company treats sustainably harvested wood with micronized copper, an alternative to the arsenic preservative the industry used for years until abandoning it for the consumer market in 2003 in the face of costly testing requirements mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency. Maine Wood Treaters uses a process that infuses wood with tiny particles of copper, making it resistant to rot.
Bumby is a third-generation wood treater. Loath to have anything handed to him, he entered the business with some reluctance, he says. His grandfather bought a similar business, which made utility poles out of Western red cedar, in Milwaukee in 1943. After the company went under in 1982, Bumby started his own company from scratch a year later, rationalizing that providing a safe and sustainable product would be worth his while. "I'm a businessman, pure and simple," he says.
Bumby considers himself an environmentalist, and maintains that the lumber-treating industry has always been earth-friendly. Even the forsaken arsenic, a byproduct of the mining process, was put to good and safe use preserving lumber, he says. And treated wood lasts five to 10 times longer than untreated lumber, meaning fewer trees are needed to construct decks and patios.
Last year, Bumby installed a geothermal heating system, another "green" effort based in a pragmatic approach to business. He wanted to remove the variable of fluctuating energy costs from his business. So, rather than wring his hands and watch the price of oil day to day, he had W.H. Demmons Engineering of Portland install the system last October. He expects to break even on the project, which heats roughly an acre of building space, in five years based on oil prices of $2.50 a gallon.
It just so happens that what's best for his business is best for the environment, Bumby says. He's no flag-waving disciple of the green movement. "I do believe in being responsible. I think some people take it ad nauseum," he says. Bumby advertises his product on the radio as made from sustainable wood treated with a safe preservative, but his customers buy his product for a simple reason: Treated wood is the best value for the money, he says.
Jackie Farwell, Mainebiz staff reporter, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.