By Robert Ackerley
In the popular dialogue around sustainability, people pay more attention to the things they can touch, like the canvas bags that are now common at grocery stores, than to multi-billion dollar organizational or citywide initiatives.
Once a green initiative transcends the personal level, perhaps it becomes too nebulous to be tangible. We can all understand recycling plastic water bottles, but when the talk turns to replacing some of our coal-generated electricity with clean solar photovoltaic power, the attention span diminishes. The truth of the matter, however, is that for energy efficiency and environmental stewardship to really work, it takes the combined effort of municipalities, businesses and individuals to each do their part.
Recently, this phenomenon has become highly visible in a rather unlikely location: Houston, the hub of the global energy industry. We most often associate Houston with oil and gas exploration and production, and rightfully so. More than 200 companies in the industry, including major corporations like ConocoPhillips, Transocean, Schlumberger, BP, Kinder Morgan, Marathon, Shell Oil and Halliburton, call Houston home.
Less well-known is the fact that Houston’s deep roots in the energy industry extend to energy conservation and stewardship. Houston has consistently been ranked among the top ten U.S. cities for Energy Star-certified buildings, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Houston is also frequently ranked among the top ten cities for buildings with Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, in recognition of sustainable architecture and building practices that also promote environmental stewardship and energy conservation.
More recently, Houston held its first-ever Green Office Challenge, a contest that challenged roughly 300 participating businesses to make the city a “greener place to live and work,” to paraphrase Mayor Annise Parker. The challenge tasks participating companies with reducing energy and water use, as well as producing less waste by implementing energy efficiency and environmental stewardship measures through various means depending on owned (focuses on structural improvements as well as sustainability programs) or rented property (places greater emphasis on sustainability programs and energy use improvements).
The challenge upped the ante for Houston’s corporate participation in meeting the city’s aggressive sustainability and energy conservation goals, including a 30% reduction in energy use by 2014, no small feat for the fourth largest city by population in the U.S. and one of the fastest-growing U.S. metropolitan areas.
Officially, the Green Office Challenge only rewards companies with publicity and the resulting cost savings from the successful implementation of their energy and water management programs. These are rewards that our company, Smith & Associates, was pleased and proud to receive. The benefits from active environmental stewardship began well before we received our award, however, and many of the actions taken by management to become a greener company were a result of the positive feedback and interest coming from our employees.
When our first remodeling was done in 1997, we started out with the basics, improving on the early 1980s construction styles of our buildings. By 2001, we had put in recycling bins to sort waste and paper collection bins to shred and then properly recycle the paper. Then in 2008, after an ISO 14001:2004 audit revealed deficiencies in Smith’s environmental program, we seized the opportunity to use the results as a checklist for improvements.
We began by switching out our lighting and we partnered with a sustainability-focused packaging manufacturer and began to use only 100% recycled packaging for our shipments. In 2009, the interest in our environmental impact issues grew beyond our employees, as our major customers began to express a greater concern as to how we operated our business. At the corporate level, Smith designated an Environmental Management Manager, revamped our ISO 14001:2004 program, and turned our focus to reducing energy consumption. These efforts focused on both programs and structural changes to the building and grounds.
Our employees and leadership team kept building our commitment to moving the green bar of sustainability management further, meeting new goals that we might have initially considered impossible. Most recently, in early 2011, we committed to work toward becoming a climate neutral, zero waste-to-landfill distributor. Our so-called greenovation had reached new heights, because we collectively pushed ourselves further and further.
I don’t think this experience is that unusual. It underscores that sustainability, rather than being either a grassroots or top-down initiative, is a truly collective phenomenon, one that is strengthened and furthered when we work together, step-by-step.
Houston’s Green Office Challenge is part of the sustainability pathways promoted by ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability, an international nonprofit association that focuses on helping local governments engage in clean energy initiatives, climate protection, and sustainability. ICLEI is working to establish national standards for municipalities, and has 1,220 members from 70 different countries. ICLEI powered the Green Office Challenge, recognizing that by challenging businesses to individually succeed, a solid network of green stewards could be recognized and, in turn, would cooperate with the city of Houston to further the city’s environmental goals. Inside those companies, like my own, employees were motivated by this snowballing, forward movement.
Cities now account for roughly 70% of the world’s population. Within in each city exist individuals, businesses, governments, nonprofits, and a host of other communities. As we collectively reinforce and further our respective environmental stewardship responsibilities, we can reach increasingly aggressive environmental and sustainability goals.
In Houston, green initiatives at the city level will make significant differences to improving sustainability efforts, from climate change control and energy conservation to greenhouse gas emissions. Houston’s quest to lead by example is significant, not only because of the seat of the energy industry, but also because of its size and continued growth. With individual corporations taking on the challenge to improve their sustainability management goals and collaborate with cities and their own employees simultaneously, there are many green shoots for promoting the green economy.
Robert Ackerley cofounded electronic components distributor Smith & Associates in Houston, Texas in 1984. An MIT-trained chemical engineer, he has been involved in numerous successful startup ventures in the high-tech services, sustainable energy, and agricultural sectors.