Growing green businesses in Austin

Austin, Texas, is aiming for a spot as one of the top green cities in the U.S. To cultivate its budding green economy, the city launched the Austin Green Business Leaders (AGBL) program in March 2012. The program is intended for businesses of all types and sizes, from hair salons and home-based consultants to multi-national corporations with a facility in Austin. Businesses become Silver, Gold, or Platinum members of AGBL depending on the information provided on a scorecard. Members must re-apply every two years. Membership benefits the business through recognition, resource files and networking events with other green business leaders.

At the end of January, Marc Coudert, AGBL Program Coordinator with the City's Office of Sustainability, presented an overview of membership and scorecard data to members at a networking event. There are currently 64 members, with 79 percent of these having 50 employees or fewer. Just over half of members were office operations and about two-thirds were tenants in the space where they operated. All members aimed high. Seven were Silver members, while the rest were about evenly split between Gold and Platinum.

The scorecard currently takes the form of a large spreadsheet that requires several hours for most applicants to complete. A certain minimum score and completion of at least one item in the following seven categories is required for AGBL membership: Communication, Energy, Resource Management, Transportation, Water, Healthy Work Environment and Community Stewardship.

Each section lists about 10 to 20 items an applicant can earn points for. Energy has the longest list and Community Stewardship has the shortest. Every category, except Community Stewardship, includes an opportunity to take credit for "any other innovative practices" that fall under that category. With the exception of the Communication category, points can be earned in every section for connecting with fellow tenants or property management about items you can't complete. Beyond checking "yes" for an item, applicants must also provide some description of what exactly they are doing.

Questions on the scorecard range from big ticket items ("Do you have on-site renewable energy production?") to smaller budget items ("Does your business have a "Green Team" that leads environmental initiatives and builds staff support for green practices?" "Do you provide secure onsite bike parking for employees and guests or do you have a bike rack onsite already?"). The most challenging items (on-site renewable energy) will earn an applicant three points, while those most easily achievable (having a bike rack) are worth one point.

Coudert's January scorecard summary revealed that actions most commonly taken by members fell into five of the seven categories on the scorecard: Communication, Energy, Resource Management, Transportation and Community Stewardship. About 80 percent or more AGBL members have taken the following actions: include sustainability in their core company values, create a "green team," switch to energy efficient lighting, provide recycling bins at employee workstations, use electronic documents instead of print, teleconference instead of travel, provide a bike rack on-site, donate materials to charity and sponsor/participate in community events.

Not surprisingly, only about 10 percent have on-site renewable energy production. Water conservation efforts seemed to have a weak showing even though Austin has been in a drought for years.