Measuring sustainability is tougher than one might think
The city of Durango is partnering with the Four Corners Office for Resource Efficiency to provide rebates to businesses that make concerted efforts toward sustainability. But measuring sustainability endeavors is proving more difficult than the nonprofit initially expected.
Laurie Dickson, executive director of 4CORE, said the nonprofit is working with two Durango businesses in a pilot phase of its Green Business Certification program to figure out how to measure a business’ “sustainability.”
And, the city of Durango is open to providing rebates to businesses that meet the standards set by the nonprofit. Marty Pool, the city’s sustainability manager, said in an email to The Durango Herald that his department proposed a budget of $16,000 in 2023 to support the program. A majority of the funding would provide rebates to energy and water savings measures undertaken by businesses.
Generally, 4CORE’s program aims to measure a business’ efforts at achieving energy efficiency and addressing climate change, reducing toxins and waste production and improving or sustaining air quality.
“All of this is designed not only to reduce the business’ carbon footprint but also to create energy and cost savings for a business,” Dickson said.
Benefits to having a Green Business Certification include reduction in utility bills and other cost savings, in addition to awareness and education about conducting business in a sustainable way. And, businesses get bragging rights about their green certification, which environmentally conscious consumers might find attractive.
“It’s also community recognition for the business, and we’re going to be having an annual awards ceremony for the businesses, kind of highlighting who the sustainable businesses of the year (are),” Dickson said. “… We want to make it a whole recognition program and certainly something that businesses can market as being sustainable.”
In 4CORE’s pilot phase, the nonprofit is working to determine what metrics are fair to judge a business’s sustainability efforts by. But it gets complicated.
Right now, the program has different levels of sustainability – bronze, silver, gold and platinum. But sustainability levels achievable for one business aren’t necessarily attainable for another.
Dickson said sustainability standards will vary from business to business. A clothing store on Main Avenue will have different standards than a hotel or a restaurant.
Supply chain issues, location, lighting, heating, water use and landscaping are factors that vary from one business to another, and the Green Business Certification program aims to consider all of those factors in accordance to how relevant they are for a given business, she said.
Some categories 4CORE will consider include landscaping, food (and food waste), waste in terms of recyclables, compost and waste reduction, nonrenewable materials, energy efficiency, commuting, and transportation, according to a draft assessment form that Dickson provided.
Sweaty Buddha and Desert Sun Coffee, the two businesses in 4CORE’s pilot certification program, are great examples of how different types of businesses vary in their use of resources, she said. Lighting is a big factor for Sweaty Buddha, but the store won’t have nearly the same energy footprint that Desert Sun Coffee has.
Switching to LED light bulbs and installing low-flow water fixtures are two ways a business can easily become more “sustainable.” But if a business does that while it is relying on an international supply chain that is inefficient or environmentally unfriendly, is it fair to give that business a platinum Green Business Certification?
That’s what Zachary Ray, owner of Desert Sun Coffee, wonders.
“There’s so many layers of sustainability,” he said. “Being in a consuming country, we generally focus on the consuming end of sustainability. And so let’s say you were to bring in the most toxic piece of anything you can find, and from China. And you do everything sustainable right at your business here. You may get a sustainability award here for being a sustainable business.”
Ray said sustainability is all about integrity and where products come from. The coffee industry is incredibly “greenwashed,” he said. Many coffee companies claim their products are sustainably produced, and for the most part, those claims are a “load of crap,” he said.
“I really pushed 4CORE to think about this in how they do sustainability,” he said. “Because what if you do bring in some really terribly unsustainable product, but you do everything right here (in Durango)? What does that look like?”
Desert Sun Coffee has taken real steps to be as sustainable as it can, he said. It installed solar panels about five years ago. It is in the process of becoming a D-corp business – a globally recognized sustainability status – but Colorado law has complicated those efforts because it requires a D-corp company to change its legal status.
Desert Sun Coffee pays coffee producers to keep track of their carbon sequestration efforts – the more carbon they can prove they put into the ground, the more they get paid, he said. It also invests in reforestation efforts, and it tracks all of its sustainability activities online.
A summary of Desert Sun Coffee on fairtradeproof.com says the business “recognizes the importance of supporting and sustaining the people who grow coffee as well as the regions where it is grown.”
When it comes to sustainability, Ray said the poorer a business is, the harder it is for it to undertake certain sustainability measures. A business that rents its office space can’t pursue xeriscaping, for example.
So if that is one metric 4CORE decides to take into account when judging a business’ sustainability, some businesses won’t be able to win “points” in that category.
Ray said he applauds 4CORE for trying to create a Green Business Certification program that works for everyone because the question of sustainability is so complicated and nuanced.
“The problem for me is I get tired of hearing coffee roasters who’ve greenwashed and say, ‘Well, we’re sustainably sourced,’” he said.
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