Green Business Certification in Alameda County


If you offer a green product or service, it’s important to also incorporate green initiatives into your own business. That’s why I’ve enrolled Cultivating Capital in the Bay Area Green Business Program.

The Bay Area Green Business Program was launched in 1996 and serves to “distinguish small businesses that protect, preserve and sustain our environment.” It operates in all nine Bay Area counties and has certified over 2200 businesses. The program is unique in that it is coordinated by the Association of Bay Area Governments and has partnerships with cities, utilities, and environmental agencies.

Why Should You Get Certified?

Going through the Green Business certification process can help you in different ways. First, you can identify opportunities for reducing expenses through implementing water and energy conservation measures, among other things. Second, you’ll be able to differentiate from your competitors who either may not be green or may not have the third-party certification to support their claims. And of course, there’s the satisfaction of knowing that you’re doing your part as a responsible business owner to reduce your environmental impact!

As more businesses go green, it’s becoming increasingly important to be able to verify the claims you make about how your business is sustainable. Indeed, if you market your business as green, you should be aware that the FTC is revising its Green Guides and that there are guidelines regarding the claims that you can and cannot make. As part of this, the FTC is cracking down on rogue certifications that are effectively worthless. Receiving third-party certification can be an asset to your business, but only if it comes from a reputable organization; aside from the Green Business Program, B Corp certification is also worth looking at. [Full disclosure: As a Green Business Consultant with Alameda County, I assist businesses that are going through the certification process.]

The Green Business Certification Process

The process for getting certified is simple. You can enroll online by filling out a short form. After you enroll, you will need to fill out an online checklist. The checklist consists of six sections: Solid Waste, Energy, Water, Pollution Prevention, Wastewater, and General, and in each section you will need to indicate if you are performing both required and additional measures. The final step after you submit your checklist will be to coordinate on-site audits.

For an overview of ways to cut costs and emissions in your office, you might be interested in this previous post about “Going Green in Alameda County,” which features an interview with Alameda County Green Business Program Coordinator Pamela Evans.

Why Your Small Business Needs to Go Green & Market Online

Isn’t one of the ongoing challenges of being a business owner just keeping up with the changes around you?

Your customers are constantly looking for a better value, your competitors don’t let up for a moment, the technology you’re used to becomes obsolete quickly, and you need to run your business while also trying to have some balance with your personal life. No wonder you’re so busy!

However, keeping up with changes becomes especially important in this day and age. In particular, there are two recent developments that have changed the landscape of business and that will affect you now and in the future. All businesses, large and small, will need to incorporate these into their overall strategy in order to be successful in the 21st century. These two changes are the need to become more sustainable and to effectively leverage online and social media marketing.

By now, you probably know that going green and marketing online are important. The question is: are you doing both effectively? Consider that 46% of small businesses don’t have a website (still!) and many businesses are still learning how to integrate sustainability into their overall strategy and operations. If you’re focused on just surviving in the present, you’re missing out on gaining a competitive edge for the future.

If you go green but don’t market, you may not generate enough sales to make your business profitable. Most customers, including older Baby Boomers, are now going online for information. Without an online presence, your business simply can’t be found. Without social media, it’s harder to connect with and educate your customers.

If you market but don’t go green, you will be at a disadvantage in several ways. First, your expenses may be higher than those of competitors who have implemented green practices such as conserving water and energy, which can directly benefit your bottom line. Second, you may be missing out on potential customers who are factoring environmental considerations into their purchases. And finally, you may be unprepared for how changes such as increases in gasoline prices may affect the shipping of your products.

Ultimately, the best way to ensure that your business will survive and thrive for the long-term is to integrate sustainability and the triple-bottom line into your business and market yourself online effectively.

Going Green in Alameda County

We are fortunate in the Bay Area to have a well-developed green business program. The Bay Area Green Business Program includes Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Solano, and Sonoma Counties. San Francisco and Monterey also have Green Business Programs. Since 1996, over 2200 businesses have been certified.

In this short video segment hosted by Bill Roth of Earth 2017, Alameda County Green Business Coordinator Pamela Evans talks about “Best Practices for Cutting Costs and Emissions in an Office.” Tips and information for helping businesses to go green include:

  • What is the quickest way to reduce energy in your office?
  • What uses the most water in your office, and what can you do about it?
  • What is the number one reason that businesses go green in Alameda County?

If you’re interested in pursuing Green Business Certification, you can visit the California Green Business Program website and enroll online.

5 Resources for Small Green Business News & Information

News sources for small green businessesLet’s face it: a lot of the sites for green news tend to focus more on large businesses. The blogosphere is overflowing with posts about everything from Pepsico’s ongoing effort to develop a quieter, compostable Sunchips bag and to the sustainability efforts of companies like WalMart and GE.

It is important for us to understand how large corporations are undertaking and reporting on their green initiatives. However, these sites often don’t address the issues that most small businesses are facing when it comes to going green. Most small business owners aren’t writing CSR reports, implementing sustainability initiatives across multiple business units, or developing sustainability scorecards for suppliers. Instead, the business owners I’ve spoken with are trying to figure out how to grow their business with limited financial and human resources, while also trying to do right by people and the planet.

With that in mind, here are five resources for green news and information that are relevant to small businesses:

  1. Greenbiz: As “the business voice of the green economy,” Greenbiz is one of the best all-around sources for green business news. The content is overwhelmingly focused on corporate news, but there is a section that specifically focuses on small business.
  2. Green Marketing TV: The mission of Green Marketing TV is to inspire individuals to participate in the green economy. From interviews with entrepreneurs to a series of posts about unique green business ideas, the website provides solid information and resources.
  3. New York Times: The standard-bearer of news publications that provides “all the news that’s fit to print,” (or, in this day and age, “all the news that’s fit to publish online”) has not missed a beat in keeping up with the times. Within its “Business Day” section is a section on “Small Business,” and within that, you’ll find the small business sustainability news.
  4. Small Business Trends: This award-winning site is a great resource for all small business owners. Posts on the site are written by their Small Business Experts and cover topics ranging from marketing to financial management. While it’s not updated too regularly, they do have a Green Business category that provides some helpful posts.
  5. Triple Pundit: This new media site focuses on triple bottom line businesses that value people, planet, and profit. Although it covers its share of corporate news, its comprehensive coverage of all things related to green business on its website is helpful for small business owners as well.

With all of the information out there, I’m sure that there’s a few sites that aren’t on this list. What would you add?

How to Join the Women Leading the Green Economy

Last week, I had the good fortune to co-present on the topic “How to Join the Women Leading the Green Economy,” with Grace Tiscareño-Sato. Grace is the author of “Latinnovating: Green American Jobs and the Latinos Creating Them.” The book is the first to examine the role of Latino entrepreneurs in the emerging green economy.

Our presentation was at the 3rd Annual Women’s Business Expo held by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (video highlights are available below). We focused on three main topics:

  1. Women and sustainable businesses are a powerful combination. The rise of women-owned businesses and sustainable businesses is presenting us with a unique opportunity to reshape business as we know it.
  2. Many women business owners are already active in the emerging green economy. Examples include women like Carmen Rad of CR&A Custom, a large-format printing company that uses biodegradable materials, and Sandra Artalejo, a fashion designer who repurposes discarded materials into new products.
  3. How you can go green in your business. This involves looking at the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit. While most businesses are quite adept at looking at the profit component (a necessity to survival in business!), the focus on people and planet tends to be much less prominent.

In terms of reducing your impact on the planet, areas to look at include:

  • Energy and water conservation: How can your business reduce its energy and water consumption?
  • Solid waste reduction and pollution prevention: How can your business divert waste from the landfill and minimize use of harmful chemicals?
  • Production and distribution: How can your business modify its production and distribution practices to make it more environmentally responsible?

To ensure that your business is having a positive impact on people, areas to look at include:

  • Employee wellness: How does your business provide for the well-being of your employees?
  • Community impact: How does your business support its community?
  • Supply chain impact: How are people impacted throughout your supply chain?

These are all important areas to look at in your business as you consider what you can do to go green and develop a sustainable business. The actual practice of greening your businesses in these areas may seem to be overwhelming, but it’s important to realize that the business case for sustainability has already been made: businesses that minimize their environmental impacts can in turn reduce their expenses, while also generating goodwill among employees and customers, which can lead to higher revenues. The businesses that do this will also realize a competitive advantage in being able to tap new markets. Finally, this is just an overview (we only had 45 minutes!), but fortunately, there are several resources available:

  • Certifications: Bay Area Green Business Program and B Corps
  • Networking and advocacy groups: Sustainable Business Alliance and the Green Chamber of Commerce
  • News and information: Greenbiz, Triple Pundit, and Sustainable Industries

This short video captures some of the highlights from the Expo:

Are you a woman with a green business? Share your story below!

What is Sustainability?

There are various definitions of sustainability. One of the most commonly accepted definitions comes from a 1987 UN Conference: “Sustainability is the ability to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” This sounds good, but what does it really mean?

What is sustainability?

Meeting the Needs of the Present

Think for a moment about our most basic needs: food, water, and shelter. Traditionally throughout human history, these were provided on a local, moderate scale. Food was grown locally, water came from a clean local source such as a river, and shelter was modest. In recent decades, however, this has completely changed.

Now, our food is mass-produced on huge farms using pesticides and then transported halfway around the world, which has resulted in the displacement of small farmers, pollution from pesticides, and significant energy requirements from the transportation alone. Our water supplies are strained as a result of increased demand from growing populations and reduced supply from the pollution of our waterways. Finally, the size of our shelter has increased as well: the average American home has increased in size from 983 square feet in 1950 to 2,434 square feet in 2005. These homes require great amounts of energy to heat and to cool, not to mention the amount of resources used in building them in the first place.

Beyond food, water, and shelter, it’s worthwhile to look at our wants in addition to our needs. We want to have the latest electronics and gadgets, the latest fashions, the latest cars, etc. – all of which require raw materials and energy to produce, transport, and maintain, and most of which will ultimately end up in landfills. Multiply this by 300 million people in the U.S. alone, and you can begin to see how this can create a strain on a planet that has never in its history had to produce so much for so many people.

Sustainability: Beyond Green

Although sustainability is often thought of as “going green,” it actually goes beyond that. Green can be limited to environmental issues such as reducing our carbon emissions, conserving water, and minimizing waste. These are, of course, all important activities that are needed for us to work and live within the natural limits of the planet.

Sustainability, however, challenges us to look at both social and environmental impacts. When the air and water are polluted, those are not just environmental issues – they are public health issues for the people who will breathe that air and drink that water. When development expands into isolated areas, the effects go beyond just the loss of forests and habitat destruction – it’s a cultural issue for indigenous people who may lose their traditional way of life. When oil spills occur, the effects aren’t limited to the loss of animal life and damage to ecosystems – they are a blow to local communities and people whose livelihoods are threatened.

By examining more closely the interactions among our economic activity, our environmental impacts, and our social impacts, we can begin to understand how sustainability is, ultimately, a much more holistic and comprehensive way of looking at our lives and understanding the world in which we live.

The Implications of Sustainability for Business

This is why the triple bottom line has emerged as an important concept in sustainable business. The triple bottom line takes into account that every business needs to be financially profitable – the traditional “bottom line” of business. In addition to this, it takes into consideration the environmental impact as a result of business operations (such as its use of energy and water) and its social impact as well (such as its treatment of employees and people in the local community). The idea is that for a business to be sustainable in the long-term, it will need to be profitable in a way that operates within natural limits and respects the well-being of people affected by the business. In short, it will need to factor people, planet, and profit into all business considerations.

This is not a perfect model, of course, and many businesses large and small are struggling to adapt to it. After all, it goes against traditional business practices, which have focused solely on maximizing profits. On a positive note, there are interesting and innovative models emerging that are helping to pave the way for sustainable business, such as B Corps.

Sustainability can actually be quite complex and is subject to different interpretations. How would you define sustainability? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Reflecting after the 2011 State of Green Business Forum

The State of Green Business Forums have recently wrapped up. The San Francisco Forum kicked off a three-city tour on Feb. 2 & 3, followed by a forum in Chicago on Feb. 9 & 10 and one in Washington D.C. on Feb. 16 & 17.

Green Business Forum

GreenBiz Chairman Joel Makower interviews former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom at the State of Green Business Forum on Feb. 2.

The forums are an opportunity to get the latest on the State of Green Business, an annual report that captures the 10 key trends and 20 indicators that tell us which way the winds are blowing in sustainable business. The 2011 State of Green Business Report is an important resource for anybody who is interested in gaining a better understanding of the developments in green business. The forums are also worthwhile events that have generated a flurry of activity in both the blogosphere and the twittersphere, with the first posts and tweets being published during the conference and a steady stream following ever since.

A multitude of topics have been covered in these posts – ranging from trends in sustainability reporting to green dentistry and green travel – and a wealth of information has been generated. For a complete overview, you can visit the State of Green Business page, which includes links to the report as well as highlights from all of the forums.

Yet, as with all conferences, it’s always helpful to step back and remind ourselves about the most important question of all.

Why are we doing this?

Umair Haque writes about the need for reflection in business. As he notes, we often jump right to the “what” and the “how” – what are the trends in sustainability reporting, and how do we keep up? We end up missing the “why.”

In this case, asking, “Why are we doing this?” can yield numerous responses: we are doing this to learn, to help our companies be competitive, to network with other sustainability professionals.

We can delve deeper and answer the question on another level as well: we are doing this to advance sustainable business, to demonstrate that a new paradigm in business is possible, to build a community committed to common goals.

Finally, we can answer the question on the most fundamental of all levels: we are doing this because we care about the world that we live in, we care about the people in it, and yes, we may even want to make the world a better place.

It may seem virtually impossible sometimes to stop and reflect. After all, emails need to be sent, meetings need to be scheduled, calls need to be made, and businesses need to be run. Who has time to stop and reflect? Yet it is by reflecting that we can renew our commitment to sustainability and to the work that we need to do.

What about you? Why are you doing this work? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Natural Capital: What It Is and What It Means For Your Business

Natural capital and triple bottom line  business

One of the fundamental features of sustainable business is the concept of the triple bottom line. Rather than just focusing on growing financial profit, a sustainable business will take into consideration its social and environmental impact as well. This requires recognizing the value that lies in both social and natural capital, in addition to financial capital.

Ray Anderson, former CEO of Interface, described this in a recent post titled “Is Interface’s Sustainability Strategy Still Relevant?”:

“Soon, “green” was becoming mainstream, a crowded field of corporations, governments, academic study, and celebrity endorsement. Today, it’s mostly a healthy mix of doing the right thing and good old capitalism in action, in which “natural” capital takes on value along with financial capital.”

But what exactly is natural capital?

According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development, “Natural capital is the land, air, water, living organisms and all formations of the Earth’s biosphere that provide us with ecosystem goods and services imperative for survival and well-being. Furthermore, it is the basis for all human economic activity.”

Natural capital is continually providing us with something of value, whether it is the air that we breathe, the water that we drink, or the raw materials that we use in our products. The problem is that we have not traditionally placed a financial value on these natural resources. By not placing a financial value on them, it became easy to destroy forests, pollute rivers, endanger species and habitats, and otherwise plunder our natural resources.

Now, however, we are starting to recognize the value of natural capital. In fact, it is estimated that the value of natural capital worldwide is $33 trillion per year. In 2008, humans destroyed $6.6 trillion worth of natural capital – equivalent to 11% of the global GDP. The top 3,000 companies by market capitalization were responsible for $2.15 trillion in environmental costs. Unfortunately, under our current economic system, these costs are externalized, which means that while these companies caused this damage, they are not footing the bill for it. In many cases, it is the local communities and taxpayers that ultimately pay the price (the BP oil spill in the Gulf is but one example of this).

If this were cash, we would be appalled to see it squandered so recklessly. However, because these costs aren’t factored into our current economic system, this waste goes largely unrecognized. That’s why natural capital is important: it has value, and once we recognize that, we have a responsibility to spend it wisely.

What does this mean for your business?

The calculations for placing a financial value on natural capital in a business are still being developed, but there are simple ways that you can begin to consider natural capital in your business. For example, removing waste from your production process will conserve natural resources – while also possibly providing cost savings to you as well. Using materials that can be more rapidly renewed, such as bamboo, will ensure that the most scarce of our natural resources are preserved – while also building your products around a resource that may be more abundant in the long-term.

Although we are still figuring out how to accurately value natural capital, this is the direction in which we need to move – it is part of reimagining business for the 21st century. The businesses that begin to consider natural capital in their decisions now will be the ones to gain a competitive advantage in a future of constrained resources.

Tips for 2010 Year-End Business Planning

The end of the year is a great time to plan for the new year. This is an opportunity to reflect, evaluate what worked and what didn’t, and set goals for the new year.

As a business owner, you are already constantly working on four of the five key areas for a sustainable business: planning and strategy, finances, operations, and sales and marketing. The fifth area – sustainability – is one to begin working on, if you haven’t done so already. Taking the time to review your performance in these areas during the past year and engaging in reflection and planning will prepare you to get off to a strong start in the new year.

  • Planning and strategy: A SWOT analysis is a good way to think through the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats that will affect you in the coming year. The strengths and weaknesses are internal to your business, whereas the opportunities and threats are external. As you think through this, consider how you can leverage your strengths, improve your weaknesses, capitalize on opportunities, and mitigate the threats. This process can help you to then identify your top business goals for the coming year.
  • Finances: This is the time to make sure that your financial records are organized and to work with your accountant. The site has set up a Small Business Tax Center for 2010 that has a number of resources available, including information about recent tax changes and the health care tax credit as well as a virtual small business tax workshop. You should also check the financial health of your business. Review your financial statements with your accountant, especially your balance sheet, income statement, and cash flow statement.
  • Operations: During the past year, you’ve most likely noticed some inefficiencies in your business. What were the recurring problems that you encountered? Maybe your product ordering process can be streamlined, or customer orders can be delivered more quickly. Take the time now to analyze these inefficiencies and develop a strategy for fixing them.
  • Sales and Marketing: If you have a marketing plan, review it and make updates as necessary. If certain strategies aren’t working effectively, now is the time to reconsider them and try something new. If you don’t have a marketing plan, make that a priority for the coming year. This is also a good time to review your sales strategy. Remember the 80/20 rule – 80% of your sales will come from 20% of your customers. Identify who those customers are and reach out to them. Simple ways of reaching out, such as a personalized holiday card or a phone call, are nice ways of saying “thank you” and staying in touch.
  • Sustainability: Review the sustainability initiatives that you have in place and update any measures that you are tracking such as energy use or solid waste generated. Identify any new initiatives that you might want to implement in the coming year. Maybe it’s time to launch a green team or to green your supply chain by switching your purchases to socially and environmentally responsible vendors. Or perhaps you might decide to begin working on a sustainability certification like B Corp.

While this may seem overwhelming, the key will be to keep it manageable. Set aside some time to review each area of your business, identify the key improvements you can make, and plan out your strategy for the coming year. Even a day or an afternoon devoted to each area will help you to get prepared for a successful 2011. (Of course, don’t forget to take some time from all the planning to rest and enjoy time with friends and family!)

What would you add to this list? Are there other end-of-year business activities that you recommend?

What are B Corps?

The conventional wisdom when it comes to business is that, as a business owner, you have to make a choice: you can either make money, or you can do good.

This is, however, a false dichotomy. You don’t have to choose to either ensure your personal livelihood or to live according to your values. As one of my instructors from the Green MBA used to say, you can choose “both/and” – you can both make money and do good.

What are B Corps?

Benefit Corporations, commonly known as B Corps, are a new type of corporation. Unlike the traditional corporation that gives priority only to financial profitability, B Corps actually use the power of business to address social and environmental problems.

How do they do this? Among other things, they “institutionalize stakeholder interests.” Instead of taking the shareholder as the What are B Corps?primary person to which they are responsible, B Corps give primary consideration to the stakeholder. This is a very important distinction. A shareholder, as we know, is someone who owns shares in a company; a stakeholder, by contrast, is someone who has a stake in the company, regardless of whether he/she actually own shares. Who can have a stake in the company? Anyone who is affected by the actions of that company, such as employees, members of the local community in which the business operates, or members of the community in which the business has an environmental impact.

A traditional C Corporation will focus on increasing shareholder profits, often without regard to how that affects other stakeholders. This is why corporations sometimes do not pay living wages or provide inadequate health benefits – because those are costs that, if saved, can provide profit for shareholders. B Corps, however, are committing to taking social and environmental interests into account when making decisions.

Why are B Corps Important?

B Corps are important for several reasons:

  • They are demonstrating that business can address social and environmental problems. This by itself is important, as it provides a new model for how business can be different in the 21st century.
  • They are creating rigorous and transparent standards around social and environmental responsibility that support the triple bottom line. In effect, when a company becomes certified as a B Corporation, that company’s practices have been vetted by a third party.
  • There are already over 300 B Corps representing over 54 industries with $1.6 billion in revenues – and this is just the beginning.

However, beyond all of these reasons, there is one primary reason why I believe that B Corps are important. They are fundamentally changing the rules of the game when it comes to business.

You see, when a company becomes a B Corp, it doesn’t just earn a certification. It also commits to changing its legal organizing documents to include consideration of stakeholders. Earlier this year, the states of Maryland and Vermont became the first states to legally recognize B Corps.

One of the co-founders of B Lab, the non-profit that issues the B Corp certification, explained why this is important on the B Corp blog earlier this year:

“Today, there is a critical mass of entrepreneurs, investors, consumers, workers, and policymakers seeking to create social and environmental impact through business. However, they face two systemic obstacles: 1) the absence of transparent standards which allow all of us to support “good companies” not just good marketing; and 2) the legal concept of shareholder primacy which makes it difficult for corporations to include employee, community, and environmental interests in decision making.”

B Corp provides a fundamental alternative to these obstacles by establishing transparent standards and challenging the legal concept of shareholder primacy.

How can B Corps Help Your Business?

There are several ways that B Corps can help your business:

  1. Get certified! B Corps must get a score of 80 out of 200 on the Impact Assessment, a survey that covers all areas of the business, including corporate governance, employee benefits, and more. By becoming a B Corporation, you will ensure that your own business meets high standards, join a community of like-minded businesses, and support a larger movement towards sustainable business.
  2. Commit to stakeholder interests in your business. Prior to becoming certified by B Lab, you may be able to include your commitment to consideration of stakeholder interests into your legal organizing documents if you are an LLC, which is what I did for Cultivating Capital. However, be sure consult with an attorney about this, preferably one who is familiar with B Corps. The Katovitch Law Firm explains more about the legal implications of being a B Corp on their blog.
  3. Identify areas in which you can improve. Even if you do not get certified right away, the Impact Assessment is a tool that you can use to identify areas for improvement in your business. To get started with the Impact Assessment, visit the B Corp website.
  4. Support other B Corps. Every dollar that you spend, for yourself or your business, is a vote for either an economy in which businesses can make money at the expense of people and the environment, or one in which businesses can make money in support of people and the environment. Supporting businesses with a social and environmental mission will also help to green your own supply chain.

To learn more about B Corps, you might want to read a related post about “Completing the B Corp Impact Assessment.”