Growing green businesses in Austin

P2 Impact

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.

After a visit from Coudert to verify a business's scorecard information, AGBL benefits soon follow. A certificate for display and a USB drive arrive within a few days. The resources on the USB include AGBL logo files for use in correspondence and company promotional materials, and information related to each of the seven topic areas on the scorecard. Informational materials range from tips for marketing & employee engagement to resources from the EPA, Austin Energy, US Department of Energy, Austin Water Utility, and US Department of Transportation. All Gold and Platinum members are listed on the AGBL website. There's also an annual awards ceremony to recognize particularly outstanding members. New member businesses receive recognition at the next AGBL networking event.

Every other month, members gather for a networking event at a member site. Some of the first to host were Whole Foods and Rackspace. Three or four other businesses also may co-sponsor. January's gathering, for example, was co-sponsored by Eco Chic Floral, Buenos Aires Cafe, Texas Saki and Green Thumb Compost. In addition to these events, the City of Austin's Earth Day Festival -- with an expected turnout of over 4,000 -- is offering AGBL members free exhibitor space this year.

Both smaller, up-and-coming and larger, nationally recognized companies see value in the program. "Joining the Austin Green Business Leader program has provided our team with a venue to share great ideas that can be implemented, tracked and expanded upon," explained marketing director Lionel Johnnes of Circular Energy, a solar energy systems company with nearly 50 employees and growing.

Joseph Wilzbacher, an engineer and sustainability manager with Samsung Austin Semiconductor, found the AGBL scorecard a helpful tool in developing its corporate sustainability program. "It provides a framework for our program and allowed us to perform an initial impacts assessment to identify the areas that are our strengths and weaknesses," he said. "... Receiving an award from the mayor also generated a lot of enthusiasm and engagement with our executive management."

Change and excitement were in the wind for AGBL at an early April member event. In his update at that event, Coudert announced that the fast-approaching May release of the new AGBL scorecard will drop questions and be more in sync with other City programs. The "easy" items that "everyone does" will go away. Examples of extremely common actions up for removal from the scorecard include workstation recycling bins and electronic documents.

Coudert also has been meeting with other City departments such as the electric utility, water utility, transit authority and resource recovery to revise existing and develop new scorecard questions. But the most exciting and challenging goal for the program is 100 members by the June 26 AGBL awards ceremony hosted by the mayor. To boost membership, current members are volunteering to assist applicants with the daunting scorecard completion process.

Clearly, Austin's green business program is still young and evolving. Both member input and cooperation with other City programs are currently reshaping it. Like a sprout just emerged from a seed that often looks very different from the full-grown plant, AGBL has not yet achieved its final form. What will it grow up to be?