A Green Business With Teeth

Photo by Goodwin Ogbuehi, http://flickr.com/photos/yoshikatsu.

“About 20 years ago, the dental industry decided that everything should be wrapped in plastic, including the dentist,” says Ina Pockrass, a lawyer who along with her dentist husband, Fred, is a pioneer of green dentistry. All that plastic — and all the other stuff that’s thrown away in a dental office — creates a lot of waste. Worse, she says, “The dental industry is the single largest contributor of mercury to the water supplies in this country.”

Who knew?

Pockrass was one of a parade of lively speakers at this week’s State of Green Business Forum in San Francisco, organized by GreenBiz Group, where I’m a senior writer. You can find comprehensive coverage here, so I’m going to write about a few highlights today, and then dig a bit deeper into a couple of interesting people and companies in the days ahead. The SOGB forum, by the way, takes its show on the road to Chicago on Feb. 9-10 and Washington, D.C., on Feb. 16-17.

State of Green BusinessMeanwhile, here’s the buzz from the Bay Area gathering:

Oral you need to know about green dentistry can be found at the website of the Eco-Dentistry Association, a national association started in 2008 by Dr. Fred Pockrass and his wife, Ina. He was a conventional dentist, practicing in Canada, when they met in 2000 in Bug Sur; she was an intellectual property lawyer whose clients included environmental activist Julia Butterfly Hill. They married and went into business together — ”I sleep with my dentist,” she jokes — forming an environmentally-friend dental practice known as Transcendentist (“discover your inner smile") located in Berkeley. You couldn’t make this up.

All is seriousness, the dental industry generates lots of waste (see the chart at left). The Pockrasses have come up with safe and reusable alternatives that lower dentists’ operating costs. They’ve got an environmentally-friendly office and they replace paper with digital media whenever they can.

To spread the word, they formed the Eco-Dentistry Association, which now has about 600 members. They dispense advice to other dentists about reducing waste, saving money and creating a healthier environment for patients and staff.

Empire Building, Efficiently: The energy efficiency story is what reporters call an IBD (important but dull), but Clay Nesler, a top exec at Johnson Controls, gave a great presentation about the oh-so-massive retrofit of the 102-story Empire State Building. The stats alone are eye-popping: Will save owners of the building more than $4.4 million annually, reduce energy use by 38 percent, cut carbon emissions by 105,000 metric tons over a 15-year period and provide a payback in slightly more than three years.

What’s more, as Clay explained to me after the session, all of the energy savings are guaranteed by Johnson Controls. So it’s a very low-risk proposition for owner/manager Tony Malkin. Even better, the building is currently what’s known as Class B real estate, meaning not nearly as pricey as newer buildings. As the commercial tenants turn over, and there is currently lots of space available, Malkin will try to upgrade the caliber of tenants and of course the rents.

Clay explained it to me this way: The renovations are like investing in a bond, with a guaranteed return, and they enhance the value of the building itself, which is like a share of stock, with potential for appreciation.

In an appeal to building owners and corporate execs in the crowd, Clay said, “Please, please look to doing a deep retrofit…if you’re doing a major renovation or building a new building go for the whole meal.” Smart advice.

Scaling Up The Sustainability Consortium: Kevin Dooley of The Sustainability Consortium gave an excellent presentation updating a packed room on the progress being made by the alliance of companies, NGOs and academics who are taking on a gargantuan task: Measuring the environmental impact of thousands of consumer products. They’re taking great care to be science-based, and as a result their efforts are taking time. Currently, task forces are analyzing seven product categories, including laundry detergent, shampoo, laptops, televisions, breakfast cereal, flavored yogurt and fruit juice.

It’s painstaking work. “We know this cannot scale,” Dooley said. He said companies in the consortium are giving some thought to focusing on 300 to 500 products with significant environmental impact, so they can do them right, rather than trying to measure everything. Start-up Good Guide, by contrast, has ratings for more than 70,000 products, which tells you that they are thin and not very deep in their methods.

Then there’s the question of budget for The Sustainability Consortium, which was started  by Walmart and two universities, Arkansas and Arizona State. Dooley said, “I think this is a $100 million, if not a $300 or $500 million project, and that’s not our budget.” Clearly, the companies involved in this effort have some tough decisions ahead.

The Kids Are All Right: How many big public companies do you think would underwrite and distribute a short film about “environmental racism” and stopping coal plants? Not many, I’d guess, but the Adobe Foundation did, as part of its Adobe Youth Voices program, which empowers young people to use digital tools to express themselves about things that matter to them. This takes guts. [Disclosure: I've been asked to provide advice to Adobe in the future on the Youth Voices program.] Having said that, this is courageous corporate philanthropy and a very cool little movie.

Photo by Goodwin Ogbuehi, http://flickr.com/photos/yoshikatsu.