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What makes a business 'sustainable'? Here are two exampl...

What makes a business 'sustainable'? Here are two examples of award-winning green businesses in Boston

Pop Quiz: what is a sustainable business? From the first Earth Day in 1970 to the hundreds of Chief Sustainability Officers appointed in corporations and city governments today, “going green” has incrementally come into the psyche of individuals, businesses, institutions, and governments alike. Despite sustainability’s evil twin, “greenwashing,” green business has evolved into a set

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Pop Quiz: what is a sustainable business?

From the first Earth Day in 1970 to the hundreds of Chief Sustainability Officers appointed in corporations and city governments today, “going green” has incrementally come into the psyche of individuals, businesses, institutions, and governments alike. Despite sustainability’s evil twin, greenwashing,” green business has evolved into a set of guiding principles for enterprises to change the status quo of urbanization. Ultimately, these principles seek to tackle the consequences of (reckless) negative human impact on the planet.

The overuse of sustainable and green in contexts all over the place – particularly in the American economy – has devalued their significance, and for some, has made them obnoxious. I, myself, have grappled with how to describe my passion for city development that prioritizes environmental health and long-term strategy for embracing environmental change. United Nations Environment Programme Champion of the Earth, Dr. Leyla Acaroglu helps us cut through the ambiguity of the concept, describing sustainability as, “considering and designing for a future that avoids the catastrophes that inaction could potentially result in.”

With that in mind, the pursuit of sustainability in our economy and urban planning practices must not only keep a focus on the future but also educate the masses on what is and is not “sustainable” (and train the eye to spot the greenwashing that dilutes the powerful mission of sustainable growth).

To identify a business as “green” or “sustainable,” consider if it implements the following:

Short term:

  • Triple-bottom-line (social, economic, environmental) incorporated into all business decisions and anticipated outcomes;
  • Development of employee understanding and adoption of sustainable principles (and promoting learnability in the workplace);
  • Provide products and/or services with less negative (or positive!) impact on local and/or global environments and disclose company environmental impact strategy.

Long term:

  • Longstanding commitment to environmental values and policies for business strategy and purpose;
  • Market transformation in green building, investments, products, and services;
  • Knowledge transfer to industry partners and future generations; the proliferation of the comprehension that sustainability is a concerted effort that requires a consideration of impacts and the design of systems, products and services to balance those impacts.

The economy plays a crucial role in the trajectory of sustainable urbanization. Market and institutional failures that have resulted in pollution, growing income inequality and public health crises - effects of unsustainable development, to name a few - have the potential to be corrected (“How,” you ask? See what Forbes proposes: “How to Succeed At Sustainability (And Why Greenwashing Doesn’t Work”). The key is investing capital, people and time into the companies and strategies that are making those corrections happen.

In Boston, green businesses are recognized and awarded through the annual Greenovate Awards – a component of Boston’s climate action plan. Categories include:

  • Waste reduction;
  • Community engagement;
  • Buildings and energy;
  • Sustainable food;
  • Trees, open space, and landscaping;
  • Sustainable mobility;
  • and Climate preparedness and resiliency.

Boston Building Resources, Roxbury-Crossing, Boston, Massachusetts

In 2017, Boston Building Resources won a Greenovate Award for the second time (first awarded a ‘Green Business’ Greenovate Award in 2008) for the Waste Reduction category. The two-in-one social enterprise, based in Boston’s Roxbury Crossing neighborhood, combines a consumer co-op with a charitable nonprofit to educate and empower homeowners to improve the efficiency and value of their homes through affordable solutions.

When asked about Boston Building Resources’ role in Boston’s “green economy,” Nancy Koch, Data Management Specialist and member, told me she believes it “is a great thing to do in the community, to provide affordable materials that otherwise might go into the landfill, for local residents to use to refurbish their homes.”

The business model itself – a cooperative business and a charitable nonprofit – inherently focuses on the benefits of people as opposed to maximizing profits, while its purpose is to help neighbors “create stronger communities while benefiting the environment” (hitting that fundamental triple-bottom line aspect of sustainable business). Since the co-op was founded in 1978, its focus on cabinetry, windows, doors, energy-saving products and green products – including rain barrels, home compost bins, weather stripping and recycled material products – underscores its “greenness” in the economy. Additionally, the nonprofit Reuse Center, opened in 1993, accepts new and gently used materials for resale. The Center accepted over $2 million (in fair market value) worth of donated materials in 2016 alone.

Boston Building Resources, Donation Center, Roxbury-Crossing, Boston, Massachusetts

Koch highlighted that Boston Building Resources is both “community-strengthening and environmentally good.” She went on to add that she is “happy to have a small part in what they do.”

Coming up on 30-years as a local business, Boston Building Resources’ long-term strategy includes an emphasis on going beyond purchasing products and into training member employees in technical skills in order to educate the public with expert advice and hands-on workshops for home improvement skills. And sustainable homes contribute to sustainable urbanization…

Boston Building Resources has developed numerous partnerships with other organizations, which works to develop local demand for the sustainable homebuilding market, and awareness of waste reduction and sustainable materials sourcing. Some of these partners include The Homebuying Mentors, Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance, Massachusetts Recycling Coalition and the Sustainable Business Network of Massachusetts.

The Sustainable Business Network of Massachusetts, of which Boston Building Resources is a member, was the first business trade association in the United States “making a business a vehicle for social, environmental, and economic change” through advocacy, technical assistance, leadership development, and a certification program.

Bon Me Food Truck, Harvard University Campus, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Like the City of Boston, the Sustainable Business Network of Massachusetts also uses awards as a tool for recognizing businesses that “are helping to build economies that are local, green and fair.” In 2017, Bon Me food truck and restaurant won the award for the ‘Budding Small Business’ category. Run by two Boston-natives and led by a management team comprised of more than 50% women, the company has integrated sustainability into the essence of their being.

On the social side of the triple-bottom line, the company advocates for living wages at the State House and participates in employment classes that train and hire underemployed Chinese immigrants through a partnership with Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center and the Chinese Progressive Association.

On the environmental side, Bon Me uses compostable packaging, supplies its tofu and tea from local companies, composts all food waste generated on trucks and at the commissary, and provides benefits to employees who ditch cars in favor of public transit or biking for their commute. For the long-term, the company is striving towards creating a positive impact in local communities by way of the company’s business operations.

As more companies design their corporate strategy around the triple-bottom line and promote a holistic approach to actively creating a future that “avoids the catastrophes that inaction could potentially result in,” the question of “can we afford this?” becomes invalid. The fact of the matter is that we can’t afford not to correct the course of unsustainable business and urbanization. The question is: how quickly can your business reformulate its strategy to become a part of the economy that is changing the course of history for the better?

What stirs inside you when you hear the terms “sustainability” or “green"? How do you think businesses can work to cut through the noise of greenwashing and buzzword catchphrases? Share your thoughts and your city’s stories in the comments area below.

Credits: Images by Alyssa Curran. Data linked to sources.

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A native Buffalonian, UCLA-trained geographer and Harvard Graduate School of Design Urban Planning alumnus, Alyssa is passionate about improving social justice, environmental performance, climate adaptation and resource security in cities. Alyssa's m...

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