Walking the walk: Carbon 101 inspires businesses to shrink carbon footprints

A recent Carbon 101 conference at CUNA Mutual Group in Madison brought together a mix of about 70 business owners, academics, nonprofit leaders, and government representatives anxious to learn best practices for reducing small and medium-sized businesses’ carbon footprints.

The event was organized by the Wisconsin Business Alliance in cooperation with the Wisconsin Sustainable Business Council, Sustain Dane, the Wisconsin Green Building Alliance, CUNA Mutual Group, and the American Sustainable Business Council.

So how does a business take those first steps down a more sustainable road?

“Just start,” urged Murphy Desmond attorney Matt Frank, who shared trends from a regional, national, and international perspective. “There is a lot of movement [in the regulation of carbon].” According to Frank, 53% of S&P 500 companies are making sustainable disclosures, including Kellogg’s, Walmart, Proctor & Gamble, HP, Apple, Ford, Bank of America, Pepsi, and McDonald’s, to name a few. “They are looking at how they can mitigate their risks, increase growth, and how they create business value,” he said

Around 70 business leaders, academics, and government representatives attended the Oct. 3 Carbon 101 conference at CUNA Mutual Group in Madison.

Many large companies are looking to reduce their carbon footprints by evaluating everything from consumer packaging, transportation, and product design to process motivations and land use. But small to medium companies can do the same, and the tools are out there. Among the resources he cited are Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership (WMEP), Cool Choices, Green Tier (through the Wisconsin DNR), MPower Business Champions, and the Green Masters program offered by the Wisconsin Sustainable Business Council.

Susan Hedman, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 5 administrator, discussed President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which, she says, will “double the distance we go on a gallon of gas and [by 2025] save the average family over $8,000 over the life of their cars.” There are no federal standards for carbon pollution from power plants, she noted, but “that’s about to change.”

Madison Mayor Paul Soglin reminded the audience that the EPA helped the city clean up the 800 block of East Washington Avenue, paving the way for high-density residential use that will allow people to walk, bike, or bus to nearby destinations, reducing the need for gasoline. “There are consequences to everything we do,” he said, “and [we need to] recognize that the cleanup of one square block leads to more development with a reduced carbon footprint.”

Tom Eggert of the Wisconsin Sustainable Business Council said businesses are being pressured by customers, risk managers, suppliers, investors, employees, prospective employees, and insurers to do their part. “We’re in a different world than existed 30, 40 years ago,” he noted. “This is an issue that business needs to work on, needs to focus on, and needs to be rewarded for focusing on.”

Reducing demand

In the Madison area, some local businesses have been successfully reducing their carbon footprints for years, thanks to the buy-in of their employees.

UW Credit Union took the leap after members and staff began questioning the company’s commitment to sustainability. The credit union soon learned that it could reduce its electric bill by as much as $10 per day (based on “customer maximum demand”) by asking staff members for some common-sense changes.

Cheryl Wiesensel, the credit union’s facilities manager, noted that in addition to standard electric bills, some large organizations are charged fees based on energy consumption. The customer maximum demand rate, in particular, is set annually during the peak cooling season.

“That is the number you want to lower,” she explained. “But it was so easy!”

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The credit union emailed its employees at the corporate headquarters on University Avenue asking for their cooperation in helping to reduce its energy consumption. Participation was entirely voluntary.

In some offices, daylight is sufficient, Wiesensel said, but the company also suggested employees close window coverings, lower the number of lights switched on during the day, turn lights off in unused common rooms and spaces, reduce printing and copying when possible, and wear weather-appropriate clothing on extremely warm days to reduce cooling costs.

As a result of their collective efforts, UW Credit Union decreased its electrical usage from 131,783 kilowatt-hours of energy used in June 2011 to 120,243 kilowatt-hours in June 2013, a savings of 11,540 kilowatt-hours. “We’ve actually reduced more than that annually,” Wiesensel said. “The program goes from Memorial Day to Labor Day, generally, because most energy is used at that time, and annual rates are set at that time, so that’s when we really push this.”

It’s also been a feel-good measure for employees, who are updated every June about the company’s progress. “People are very passionate about the environment and making sure the best steps are taken. Our measure date is June 7 every year, because our highest peak demand [before starting the initiative] was June 7, 2011.”

A frame of mind

About six years ago, Brian Duzak, plant manager at Uniek, a Waunakee picture-frame manufacturer, said the company decided to do its part to reduce its carbon footprint and focused first on the “low-hanging fruit,” including lighting and HVAC. “Facility lighting is a no-brainer,” Duzak said.

A group of employees formed a “Uniekly Green Team” targeting specific areas of the company’s operation, including waste reduction, recycling, conservation, environmentally preferred purchasing, manufacturing processes, and community involvement.

By replacing some outdated process-chiller equipment, the company saved 577,000 kilowatt-hours and reduced its water consumption by more than half a million gallons annually. Uniek also benefited from a WPPI Energy incentive that helped cover 31% of the project cost.

Above and beyond those efforts, Uniek also recycles Styrofoam. “We purchase all kinds of polystyrene-recycled waste on the market in regrind or pellet form,” Duzak said. “We also collect and allow businesses and residents to drop off Styrofoam at our Waunakee location.” Companies such as American Family, Epic, Swiss Colony, and Johnson Health Tech have participated in the program. “We collected about 600,000 pounds locally that we’re processing back into picture frames.”

Polystyrene starts out as a natural gas product, he explained. “We’re able to filter out the impurities, take the air out, and get it close to a newly made plastic pellet [suitable for manufacturing].”

Lisa Geason-Bauer of Evolution Marketing encourages business owners to share their success stories strategically, engaging the audience, empowering the end user, and most of all, being truthful and trustworthy.

Geason-Bauer’s small business conducted its first carbon analysis in 2010. Not surprisingly, her vehicle produced most of the company’s carbon emissions, so she replaced it with an electric-powered car. She also encouraged the audience to measure its own carbon footprint with the use of The Nature Conservancy’s carbon footprint calculator.

“The biggest opportunity starts with small business,” Geason-Bauer said. “It starts with you.”

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