“We all have a role to play”: More and more businesses take steps to go green

Firefly owner Melissa Meece, a former environmental consultant, earned her business a certification from the Green Restaurant Association by investing in making the eatery more sustainable. / Photo: Eze Amos Firefly owner Melissa Meece, a former environmental consultant, earned her business a certification from the Green Restaurant Association by investing in making the eatery more sustainable. / Photo: Eze Amos

More and more local businesses and nonprofits are looking for ways to operate sustainably. While not everyone is familiar with the “triple bottom line” approach (gauging success by three rubrics: economic, environmental, and societal), most do see efforts to go green as beneficial beyond saving money or reducing waste. And their number includes more than the usual suspects.

“People might not necessarily think of us as among green companies,” says Tiger Fuel Company president Gordon Sutton. “But my brother and I [who took over the family-owned business when their father retired in 2017] are passionate outdoorsmen. We’re looking to the future, and we want to do the right thing.”

Sutton’s brother Taylor, who is COO, was an environmental sciences major; Gordon himself interned at a biodiesel company and always had an interest in renewable energy. Their company, which distributes home heating fuels and petroleum products and owns The Markets convenience stores, began by installing solar panels on two of its stores, the Exxon stations on Preston Avenue in Charlottesville’s Rose Hill neighborhood and in Ruckersville. Sutton saw this step as both a sound financial move–“Our stores and car washes are significant energy users”–and a way to raise awareness and contribute to the community.

He says both customers and employees have been enthusiastic and supportive. The company’s delivery fleet is diesel-powered; “we’ve looked into propane motors, but weren’t thrilled with the results,” Sutton notes. Tiger Fuel is now in the process of assessing its carbon footprint and developing a plan to set significant reduction targets.

While traditional car dealers might also seem to be on the wrong side of climate issues, Carter Myers Automotive’s vice president Peter Borches calls CMA’s Colonial Nissan the company’s “incubator test site” for ways to reduce environmental impact at its 13 dealerships in central Virginia.

Because lighting is a huge energy cost at auto dealerships, Colonial Nissan switched to LEDs and installed a 480-panel solar array designed to produce 93 percent of the facility’s electricity needs. While Borches notes the many incentives for greening the business–cost savings, tax incentives, positive public relations, and marketing benefits–his motives are personal: “My wife and I are worried about [the world] when our children are 50 years old. We need to raise this issue above the political fray, and get as many people as possible in the tent and working together.” An added benefit, in his view, is “our associates have really run with this,” contributing ideas like providing car shoppers with cup- and water-bottle filling stations instead of single-use bottled water, and recycling everything from paper to outdated computers.

Ravi Respeto, president of the United Way Thomas Jefferson Area, says that as a nonprofit, “we’re always looking to reduce costs, but there’s a community leadership aspect as well as an awareness factor” in taking action to lessen environmental impact. United Way began by replacing its building’s old HVAC units with a high-efficiency system that includes programmable thermostats.

Next year, after upgraded windows are installed, the agency is expecting a 10-15 percent savings on its electric bill–and it’s considering solar options down the line. “Climate change affects our lower-income constituencies the most,” says Respeto. Since investing in energy-savings technologies costs money up front, she notes, “there’s an equity aspect to this issue, and we are in the business of equity.”

Firefly Restaurant, as a tenant, can’t make these kinds of capital investments–but it has invested in qualifying as the city’s first Green Restaurant Association-certified eatery. Owner and general manager Melissa Meece, a former environmental consultant, has installed UV film on the restaurant’s huge windows (cutting energy usage for air conditioning by 43 percent); invested in LED bulbs (“expensive up front, but saves energy and staff time, because they never need changing”); and committed to non-toxic cleaning supplies and customer toiletries.

Meece also looks for used or rehabbed Energy Star-rated restaurant equipment: “I’m a big fan of second-hand [she’s also the owner of consignment shop Rethreads], and it saves the energy used in manufacturing.”

It might seem hard for a hospital to go green, but when Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital decided to create a new campus on Pantops, in 2007, they tried to build sustainability in from the start. The facility (LEED®-certified by the U. S. Green Building Council) uses a range of technological tools to save resources: low-water-usage toilets, automatic controls for temperature and lighting, re-use of condensation water from AC units, and irrigation water supplied from the site’s retention pond.

Focusing on a more sustainable building enabled the hospital to double its square footage (from it’s previous location) without increasing either energy or water consumption. As both a large community institution and a major employer, executive director of support services Catherine Hughes says Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital sees the need to set a visible example, from recycling in the kitchen (including composting food and reclaiming fryer oil) to encouraging staff to bike to work and even cutting out bottled water and photocopied materials at meetings.

For help in their efforts to reduce their environmental impact, several of these organizations–and others–have looked to the Charlottesville Climate Collaborative, a nonprofit founded in 2017 to coordinate government, business, nonprofit, and community resources to address climate issues. One example: C3 is assisting on Tiger Fuel’s environmental impact assessment.

C3 also runs the annual Better Business Challenge, founded in 2010 by environmental website Better World Betty and the community-based Local Energy Alliance Program. This year (2018-2109) more than 90 businesses and nonprofits participated, taking steps that collectively will save more than $675,000 a year in energy costs and cut 4,331 tons of CO2 emissions. Teri Kent, the original Better World Betty and now C3’s director of communications and programs, says, “There’s great momentum now as businesses are stepping up to this issue. Looking just at the money side of sustainability is too siloed–we all share the same air and water.”

Business sustainability by the numbers: a hyper-local case study

New York City is requiring all large buildings to slash carbon emissions to meet a collective goal of a 40 percent reduction by 2030. In Seattle and Washington, D.C., plastic straws are officially banned at all businesses to reduce plastic waste.

So how is the C’ville business community stepping up on sustainability? From Kardinal Hall to WorldStrides, many area businesses and organ­izations are pledging to reduce their carbon footprint with the help of the Charlottesville Climate Collaborative’s Better Business Challenge, a friendly, year-long competition that encourages energy savings actions and spurs sustainability initiatives on the local level. What kind of tangible impact can they—and did they—make?

The 2018-19 Challenge tracked participant actions, and the energy-savings metrics are in.

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