Sustainable business practices are filtering throughout Upstate New York.
Both large and small companies are finding ways to become more environmentally friendly in areas as basic as recycling and as complex as changing the culture of the organization. While they often tackle sustainability on their own, leaders in the community say the best learning could come from sharing with each other.
Last year a sustainability network was started by Rochester Midland Corp. as a forum for local businesses. The purpose was to bring business leaders together, educate them about a sustainable issue with a presentation by an expert speaker, and then allow for open discussion.
Sara Sweet, chartering founder of the network and manager of Rochester Midland’s marketing development and services group, noticed a need for discussion about the same time that Rochester Institute of Technology’s Golisano Institute for Sustainability was looking to increase professional support. Sweet approached the sustainability professors at RIT to gauge interest in the network.
With support from RIT, she conducted two focus groups to see if the idea would be viable.
"In the first focus group, (a participant) said, ‘You know this is really interesting, sitting in this room with 12 other individuals who all are in sustainability-and Rochester is not a really large city, and I’ve never met any of you before,’" Sweet says. "A lightbulb went off in my head, and in the second focus group, the same sentiment came out."
She began the Sustainability Network by approaching the top 50 companies in the area, such as Bausch & Lomb Inc., Eastman Kodak Co. and Constellation Brands Inc., to see if there was interest.
"They (the large companies) are at the table," Sweet says. "It’s the middle companies that really don’t know where to begin."
Many companies do not have a sustainability or environmental officer, but the position is becoming more common.
"We are seeing more of it," Sweet says. "I think that as time goes on it’s going to be more and more common. (It depends) on the company, but it’s a growing role."
Currently the mailing list for the network has more than 90 recipients; 15 to 20 representatives from a mix of companies meet on the second Tuesday of each month. There is no fee to become a member.
A steering group, with representatives from companies across Rochester, is responsible for picking topics, bringing in speakers and acquiring new members. The network is still in the early stages of development; its goal for this year is to become widely known.
For some executives in the field of sustainability, local universities are a key resource.
"I think (sustainable knowledge) is pretty high because of the universities here, especially what RIT is doing," says Arunas Chesonis, CEO of Sweetwater Energy Inc. "A lot of people are focused on sustainability with the new (Golisano Institute for Sustainability building) that was just opened up this year. It’s a resource that most cities don’t have."
Still, sustainability has been somewhat slow to take hold in businesses here and nationwide. A 2013 Ernst & Young LLP study in collaboration with the GreenBiz group found that a senior executive often influences how sustainability will be received by people at lower levels of the company. When a top-tier executive embraces sustainability, the company begins to shift to more sustainable practices, the survey found.
"It’s a slow process," Sweet says. "Every company has a doubting Thomas. So you really have to have that top-level support.
"The more you grow the bottom level, the grassroots support and the educational (backing)-and get that middle management, that senior VP involved and endorsing it-then you’ve really got something."
Syracuse is a bit farther along. The Sustainability Upstate Network has 32 members representing businesses in Central New York. They meet to discuss and learn about green business practices.
Andy Picco, founder of the SUN group, launched it in late 2009 because he noticed a need for sustainability in his field.
"What really hit me between the eyes was a statistic that somebody shared with me, and that statistic was in one year 1,508,000 tons of office furniture gets thrown away because it can’t find a home," Picco says. "It was driving me crazy from being green and sustainable, and (as) an entrepreneur I also felt that there must be a great opportunity there."
Picco’s company, Sustainable Office Solutions LLC, focuses on office furniture and sells pre-owned, remanufactured and new furniture to businesses.
"I’m doing it (because) no one else seems to care," he says. "Most people that are going to do this are going to do it for one reason: They are forced to do it. I’m doing it because I recognize the tremendous need that no one is addressing."
Customers are one factor in changing the mindset of a business with respect to sustainability. For many customers, the lack of information about a product’s sustainability could dissuade them from purchasing it.
"I think that people are smarter now," Chesonis says. "They know that if you’re going to have a sustainability offering, you have to save people money. You can’t just say, ‘Well, I’m going to charge you 30 percent more, but it’s sustainable.’ Well, no one is going to buy."
One way to continue to spread information is through local events. Rochester events include the annual Greentopia, which took place last month.
"I think they are doing a great job," Chesonis says. "We could probably use something in the springtime as well, not just the fall, but I don’t think it’s just Rochester. I think everyone around the country (is) getting into it."
Picco believes sustainability will be at the forefront of every business plan in due time.
"I do believe that the day of (being) conspicuously absent in the sustainability arena will become more and more powerful, which will force people to have to make the change whether they want to or not," he says. "Everybody is going to say, ‘What do you mean, you are not sustainable? What do you mean, you don’t recycle? What do you mean, you don’t care? Who the hell are you?’"
10/4/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email [email protected].