This article was originally published in the Maine Business Journal on June 24, 2013. The original article can be accessed here. Written by James McCarthy.
Andy Whitman, director of Manomet Center for Conservation Science’s Natural Capital Initiative, is a scientist with a degree in wildlife ecology. In 20 years of helping foresters and land managers practice responsible forestry, he’s learned a thing or two about sustainability and how it can guide farming, forestry and recreation practices.
He’s now taking those insights and using them to help businesses of any type minimize their environmental impact, better engage customers, employees and communities and create efficiencies to improve their bottom lines.
“We’ve done a lot of work on sustainability over the years,” he says. “The hardest thing always has been: How do you define sustainability? Often, it gets stuck there. It’s a very value-laden question. The key thing we’ve learned though is that while the value-laden aspect of sustainability is not scientific, that is the realm in which we make decisions.”
Since 2010, he says, Manomet has been teaming with the nonprofit Maine Businesses for Sustainability to create and implement a web-based survey that is scientific in its approach and addresses those all-important, value-laden questions. The 137 questions are broken down into categories, such as “finances and governance,” “employee relations,” “community engagement” and “environment.” After answering the questions, the business gets a benchmark “sustainability snapshot score” and links to resources to improve sustainability practices.
(Note from Manomet: The tool was developed by Manomet Program Manager Julie Beane, who is also the co-founder of one of the businesses using the tool featured below.)
Launched a little more than a year ago, the Sustainability Benchmarking Tool is a free service. Participants have the option of paying an additional fee for one-on-one consultations to help them capitalize on the insights gained from the survey, and learn how to market themselves as sustainable businesses.
Alison Nason, MBS’s operations manager, says the tool is based on the understanding that every business is unique and will use the insights differently to balance the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit. Approximately 110 businesses have completed the tool, most of them in southern Maine.
Whitman says small and mid-size businesses might feel intimidated by the possibility of a low benchmark score, but he encourages them to think of the tool as a guide that will flag the areas where they can improve and have a tangible impact on performance.
“By taking stock, more often than not people realize they are doing better than what they thought they were doing,” he says. “Once you know where you are, you still face the question of where do you want to go? And that comes back to the owner and his values and whether it makes financial sense [to change the business model].”
Here’s what some businesses have learned from their benchmark surveys:
Idexx Laboratories Inc., Westbrook
Maine employees: more than 1,900
Best lesson learned: How to prioritize competing sustainability goals
With 5,300 employees worldwide, Idexx Laboratories Inc. is a big company by anyone’s standards. A successful one, too, with $1.29 billion in revenues and a corporate history of steady growth since its founding in 1983.
Even so, Matt Haas, Idexx’s Maine operations manager, admits that in 2007 when the animal bio-tech company started looking at sustainability and how it might relate to the company’s mission and bottom line performance, it wasn’t an easy process. “In the early days we were like a deer in the headlights,” he says.
In 2008, Haas says Idexx embraced the standard sustainability principle of the triple bottom line of people, planet, profit. But even after taking that step, Idexx’s managers struggled with how to prioritize the three goals. So when Haas attended a Maine Businesses for Sustainability conference and learned about Manomet’s pilot sustainability benchmarking tool in 2010, he jumped at the chance to test the concept.
“At that stage, it was a grassroots sustainability effort, driven by folks who were passionate about the issue,” he says.
Haas says he was the primary responder to the benchmarking tool’s 137 online questions, which he figures took two to three hours to complete. The benchmark score came back immediately.
“It was a pleasant surprise,” he says. “In our first go-round, we achieved ‘Sustainability Champion’ status (61–75 score). The score was a validation that we were on the right track. It was a good feeling and a catalyst to continue moving the sustainability project forward.”
Since then, Haas says the benchmarking tool has helped the company prioritize efforts to improve its triple bottom line. A sustainability leadership team was created in 2011 to align sustainability with other corporate initiatives, including those focusing on employee wellness and community volunteerism.
Employees have embraced those initiatives. More than 200 volunteer tend vegetable gardens and donate more than 1,000 pounds produce to local nonprofits and the Idexx café. Another suggestion from employees led to a commuter van pool.
Those and other efforts helped Idexx reach a score of 78 the second time Haas completed the benchmarking tool, high enough to achieve the “Sustainability Leader” status. In 2012 it received a Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence as one of six stewards of sustainability recognized by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.
“Not all sustainability initiatives will hit the ‘people, profit, planet’ benchmarks equally,” Haas says. “You are never going to find the perfect project … We feel we’ve made good progress with some good traction happening. My personal opinion is that in this day and age, every company needs to look at sustainability.”
Duratherm Window Corp., Vassalboro
Best lesson learned: How to build sustainability into day-to-day business practices
A small herd of shaggy Scottish Highland cattle isn’t typically an integral part of a custom wood window manufacturer’s business plan. But as Tim Downing sees it, they do a great job of mowing the 20-acre fields surrounding the Duratherm Window Corp. in Vassalboro and provide a healthy food source that later on will be shared with employees.
“My business model is always focused on prudent stewardship,” says Downing, president and owner of the company whose revenues average $8 million to $10 million a year.
Stewardship, as he defines it, means doing what’s right for the planet, his customers and employees and the surrounding community. It’s reflected in the Forest Stewardship Council Chain of Custody stamp verifying the wood used by Duratherm comes from well-managed forests. It guides practices that help customers achieve LEED standards and qualify for energy tax credits. It’s the motivation behind the company’s wellness, 401(k) and health insurance benefits, as well as the organic company garden and flock of Rhode Island Red chickens that provides farm-fresh eggs for his workers.
Far from being a drain on the company’s bottom line, he says that sustainability emphasis has improved Duratherm’s business practices to the point where it’s been able to reduce its wastes to zero, achieve carbon neutrality, eliminate the need for heating with No. 2 oil and in doing so reduce its energy costs by more than 50%. “It gives us a competitive advantage that grows each year,” he says.
Downing says his manufacturing company had already been moving forward on the path of sustainability long before he took the MBS/Manomet Sustainability Benchmarking Tool. As one example, he cites the company’s “Durabrique” initiative, which takes 400 tons of kiln-dried hardwood sawdust that otherwise would be a waste product and transforms it into a clean-burning briquette for wood stoves and boilers.
“We branched out from there,” he says, pointing out that the Durabrique byproduct not only cut the 43,000-square-foot plant’s use of heating oil by 10,000 gallons annually, it also inspired the delivery of free supplies to nearby elderly residents needing help with their heating costs.
His sustainability interests eventually led him to Maine Businesses for Sustainability, where he learned about the benchmarking survey and took it. He achieved “Sustainability Champion” status, but Downing says the more important result has been the deeper understanding the survey gave him about the myriad ways sustainability can be built into a company’s day-to-day business practices.
In his experience, Downing says, each step typically leads to another.
“The beauty of a good benchmarking tool is not only that it shows you where you’re at, it also shows the path to where you want to go,” he says.
Little Dog Coffee Shop, Brunswick
Best lesson learned: Make easy changes that save on operating costs
Located on Brunswick’s Maine Street, the Little Dog Coffee Shop is abuzz with conversations taking place over cups of coffee, tea, espresso, latte or hot chocolate. Tasty locally made cookies and other sweet treats offer a tempting supplement to that bracing cup of joe. Local art graces the walls. Patrons with laptop computers tap away thanks to the shop’s Wi-Fi service.
Eight-and-a-half years after taking the plunge and opening a coffee shop as his first business venture, Paul Harrison, Little Dog’s co-founder and president, has daily evidence he made the right call. Business has more than doubled since Little Dog’s opening day.
“We’ve never stopped growing,” he says. “I feel lucky. I feel blessed.”
Harrison says his wife and business partner, Julie Beane, program development manager of Manomet’s Natural Capital Initiative, encouraged him to take the benchmarking survey.
Harrison says that with only five full-time and three part-time employees, Little Dog Coffee Shop offers MBS and Manomet a truly “small” business perspective for the statewide sustainability index the organizations are creating based on data collected from all the companies using the benchmarking tool.
Harrison says he wasn’t particularly surprised that his score didn’t reach the “leadership” or “champion” levels. He wasn’t looking for that kind of affirmation. Rather, he found the tool highlighted goals that would improve the coffee shop’s sustainability.
“For me, it offers a good outline of what is a ‘sustainable’ business,” he says. “I had no idea what I’d score. Mine was low, but that wasn’t a surprise. Anything I was weak in, I already knew it.”
As is true for many small business owners, Harrison says the challenge he faces in trying to improve the coffee shop’s sustainability score is finding the time and resources to tackle his business to-do list. For example, he’s long wanted to create an employee handbook, but invariably that need keeps getting trumped by long hours spent behind the counter, training employees and hauling recyclable trash to the regional facility in West Bath once or twice a week.
Still, Harrison says he revamped his food menu last year and decided to buy only local meats from Bisson Farm in Topsham. “That was a fairly simple change … to go local with our meat purchases,” he says. “It was a huge hit.”
Another change, for which he tapped Efficiency Maine, involved converting the coffee shop’s light fixtures to longer-lasting bulbs. “That has saved me a ton of money,” he says. “It’s little things like that which this tool makes you think about … low-hanging fruit that directly goes to your bottom line.”