The St. Louis region has a mild regulatory climate and modest utility rates, waste disposal fees and fuel costs. A diverse community character, a wealth of cultural amenities and many cost-of-living bargains make this mid-continent region a great place to build career credentials while raising a family.
These relative comfort factors are both a blessing and curse as our business community copes with global market expectations. How do we grow the sustainability savvy, the P2 expertise, that's so crucial to plan for, track and reduce long-externalized environmental costs?
St. Louis lacks the economic and policy drivers that energize ICLEI's urban partners and affiliates of Green Business California. Sustainable know-how is well rooted in our building industry companies, but other sectors had no motivating center here until an unusual partnership stepped into the breach.
The St. Louis Green Business Challenge promotes sustainable thinking and practice in the everyday business operations. Now in its fourth year, this St. Louis Regional Chamber program is growing sustainable expertise, pollution prevention and cost benefits across our region's business community. The challenge has mobilized 145 companies, institutions and local governments -- chamber members representing more than 110,000 employees -- to understand and implement sustainability strategies every day.
Powered by partnerships
A unique component of program delivery is the chamber's contract with a cultural institution widely respected for sustainability commitment and leadership. Senior staff from the Missouri Botanical Garden's EarthWays Center serves as resource advisors to all challenge companies. Services include annual site visits to assess participants' strengths and potential, ongoing problem-solving support by email and phone, and help with prioritizing action best suited to needs and culture.
A joint chamber and EarthWays overview of each company's progress enables the challenge leadership team to efficiently target mentoring matches, recommend green service providers and circulate shared resources. Within the first challenge cycle in 2010, this highly responsive, relational style of group skill building had fostered a dynamic new regional green professional network.
Today, each challenge company champion can tap into the knowledge base of 150 primary colleague, and their networks' resources. A wide range of job specialties, ranging from hourly to C-level titles, populates this talented ecosystem.
Greening the value of chamber membership
The St. Louis Green Business Challenge is one of only two such initiatives in a major population center that is currently coordinated by a chamber of commerce, according to a recent survey. Most are local government or NGO initiatives, or are aimed at helping utilities achieve energy reduction goals.
Chambers of commerce typically focus on growing industry and increasing jobs, not improving internal practices. But challenge-type outcomes can link the "how" of operational green practice to the more traditional "what" of economic development, unifying and amplifying both benefit streams.
"A vibrant network of 'greening' business has sprouted because of the challenge and these connections have spurred growth of our region's green economy," said Eric Schneider, the chamber's senior director of energy and environmental policy and challenge team leader. "Our aspiration is for St. Louis to be one of the nation's Top 10 regions in prosperity, and advancing the green economy and sustainability in practice will lead us to that goal."
A categorized, point-based scorecard is used to facilitate efficient planning, delegating and budgeting of participants' greening choices. Each company competes with itself to improve on an annually updated baseline score. Scorecard items detail options in energy efficiency, waste minimization, water conservation, indoor environmental quality and transportation alternatives. Points incentivize a green team approach, employee and supply chain education, and the formalization of "green intentions" into a range of fundamental sustainability policies. Companies can claim innovation points for achievements specific to their business, and for exemplary day-to-day performance.
Attendance routinely ranges from 60 to more than 100 at monthly challenge seminars where presentations spotlight individual company processes and achievements. There are also special events, such as green business tours, happy hours and an annual green products and services expo. Annual awards recognize every company's completion of the challenge and honor those with the most points earned over baseline scores.
Participants include Fortune 500 and 100 corporations, locally owned and national brands, public utilities, local governments, nonprofits, arts and sports organizations, cultural institutions and universities. Most have participated for two or more years.
The ongoing sustainability challenge
The region's green goals are a work in progress. The number of local companies using frameworks such as the GRI or Carbon Disclosure Project is small but growing. A handful of municipalities have developed climate action plans. The City of St. Louis recently released a list of 2018 goals as part of its first sustainability plan. OneSTL, a regional sustainability plan funded by a major HUD grant, soon will be released in draft form, with implementation priorities under discussion.
Companies such as Boeing and Wells Fargo Advisors use challenge processes to locally meet corporate sustainability expectations. Others broadly apply their local experience.
• Graybar Electric: This original challenge company, now a program sponsor, uses a scorecard adaptation called the Graybar Green Challenge in all locations, as well as nationally adopted Energy Star standards for building operations.
• Edward Jones: The St. Louis Green Team submitted a proposal to refocus environmental sustainability as part of the firm's national values and culture, then created a five-year plan, objectives and approach to accomplish this.
• St. Louis Cardinals: The baseball organization spotlights recycling through its "4 A Greener Game" home stand initiative. This experience influences professional, collegiate, amateur and school sports through Joe Abernathy, its vice president of operations who is part of the Stadium Managers Association's national leadership.
Substantial opportunities certainly remain for more -- and more concerted -- efforts, yet common green practice across the St. Louis region continues to yield uncommon results.
The 2013 Challenge cycle, which runs from March through October, is still in progress. The 2012 results include:
• 96 percent of participants formed companywide green teams
• 80 percent incorporated sustainability guidelines into business operations
• 66 percent adopted a green purchasing policy for a mix of office supplies and cleaning and catering services
• 60 percent pledged to reduce energy consumption by 10 percent
• 60 percent pledged to reduce landfill waste by 25 percent through a mix of single-stream and special-item recycling and food waste composting
St. Louis arch image by ShiningPhotography via Shutterstock.