Area companies make protecting the environment a core part of their missions. But at what cost to the bottom line?
What are Connecticut companies doing to make sustainability part of their core mission? And what happens when sustainability clashes with the imperative to maximize profits? Those are the questions we asked some companies that continue to lead the way in sustainability and “green” practices. Their answers all have a common thread: doing the greatest good at the lowest cost to benefit both customers and employees.
“Sustainability has different meanings to many people,” says Tony Marone, senior vice president for customer and business services at UIL Holdings Corp., parent company of the United Illuminating Co., Southern Connecticut Gas Co., Connecticut Natural Gas and Berkshire Gas Co. “If you start with how we’ve looked at sustainability, it has to do with things that make sense both from an environmental and a societal impact as well as a business impact. From a long time ago we’ve been involved in energy-efficiency programs and we’ve promoted them very heavily to our customers.
“There was a time back in the late 1980s where it didn’t make any sense, necessarily, for us to do conservation programs,” he adds. “But we knew it was a good thing for customers, and so it was something that we promoted.”
Marone says his company continues with its original conservation programs but employs different mechanisms that don’t have a negative impact on the bottom line.
“It doesn’t hurt us financially as a business to be in the business of conservation,” he explains. “But, aside from that, we still do it and we always have because we feel that there’s no sense in customers using more of our product than they need to.
“We do a lot of things with customers that helps them, with home energy audits and all the various business programs that we have,” Marone says. “Right now, just on the electric side alone, we’re spending about $30 million a year in conservation. Between our two gas companies, it’s about another $20 million. Some of that is the kind of things you’d imagine like providing home energy audits and making sure that compact fluorescent bulbs (CFL) are cheaper. It’s also targeted at things that help customers make good investments in sustainability and have programs in place like we have here.”
Marone notes that his company has an initiative that helps customers identify ways that they can be more sustainable.
“We do it in a way that it’s not just from an environmental perspective, but it’s also good for business,” he says. “What we’ve migrated toward is that we work with the manufacturer of these low-cost CFLs or LED bulbs upstream and we buy down the cost of those. You used to have a rebate coupon that you’d have to mail in and get back a rebate on a bulb you purchased. What we try to do is make all that transparent to the customer so you see a lower price in the store due to our work behind the scenes so we can get the sales data on how many of those bulbs they sell from the incentives that we paid upstream. That’s been very successful.”
Marone adds that the company offers residential customers a program called home energy solutions, which utilizes a network of contractors that work for the program.
“They provide turnkey services where they perform a whole-home evaluation and look at not only light bulbs and shower heads but also the house’s weatherization,” explains Marone. “They usually spend somewhere between $600 and $800 worth of free services that they install in the home. There’s a small co-pay by the customer but the services they receive in exchange are really quite something.”
Marone says that, although the UI isn’t directly involved in solar and wind co-generation by its customers, they are offered statewide through the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund sponsored by the Clean Energy Finance & Investment Authority.
“They offer programs for people who want to install panels on their roofs,” says Marone.
Marone says that both of the company’s new buildings in Orange are Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) certified Gold.
“We made a conscious decision when we were building both of these buildings to meet the LEED certification,” says Marone. “Our original design was to at least be Silver-certified and, if possible, try for the Gold level. Like anything in life, there’s always a trade-off. As you look at new technologies that may be more sustainable and more efficient, here’s a balance between the cost and the benefit of those technologies. In the end, we struck the right balance so that we were able to get the LEED Gold certification but, at the same time, we had to be sensitive about the fact that the cost of the building is something that the company and our customers are going to pay for over the next 30-plus years.”
Marone says UIL created a Business Enterprise Sustainability Team (BEST) some five years ago to focus on sustainability issues. There are about a dozen employees from different areas of the company who have volunteered their time.
“We formed the team to make sure that we as a company practice what we preach to customers,” says Marone. “Things like single-stream recycling is at all of our facilities. Simple things, like double-sided printing, is standard on all our printers. In our restrooms, we put in the hand dryers as opposed to using paper towels.
“There are a variety of initiatives that we’ve put in place,” adds Marone. “In 2009, we started a greenhouse gas carbon inventory report that does a full inventory of all our carbon-based emissions for us to track and monitor these items. The reports helped us put in some practices with regard to the fleet and fleet management that saved us some fuel. None of these things by themselves are knocking it out of the park but each of them starts to contribute a lot toward having a better overall sustainability and environmental footprint.” The company has some vehicles that are hybrid gasoline-electric and some that run on natural gas.
“We would be willing to sacrifice some profitability to make it work and do the right things,” says Marone. “In the case of our new buildings, we did what we thought were the types of measures that struck a balance between having a business payback and doing the right thing environmentally. There’s a common sense approach to it, but if your objective is to do the right thing, oftentimes doing the right thing also is going to produce good business results and good results for customers.”
“Years ago we tackled the low-hanging fruit and the ‘green team’ initiatives — recycled paper, single-stream recycling,” says Nora Rizzo, sustainability coordinator for the New Haven-based Fusco Corp. “We purchased plant-based cups and plates, eliminated single-use water bottles, performed LED lighting retrofits, implemented electronic waste recycling, hosted carpooling and public transportation campaigns, and purchased video-conferencing equipment.
Rizzo notes that Fusco’s sustainability program has achieved its goals but there is more work to do.
“The connotation of the word ‘sustainability’ has changed drastically over the last decade,” says Rizzo. “It is no longer an option for companies to want to be sustainable; they have to be sustainable. In order to compete, all companies have to adopt the notion that they will need to do more with less.
“Sustainability is now an all-inclusive package,” she adds. “We have to incorporate energy efficiency, dematerialization, health and wellness, resource management, habitat protection and water conservation into every decision. This is the only way to ensure profitability. Companies that rely solely on coal, oil, natural gas, conventional vehicle transportation and municipal water supply will no longer be competitive in the very near future.”
Rizzo points out that builders such as Fusco are at a significant turning point in the construction industry regarding sustainability.
“Rating systems like LEED, Passive House and EPA EnergyStar helped propel green building to the mainstream,” Rizzo explains. “Remarkable organizations, like the International Living Future Institute, are pushing sustainability to the next level. I, along with other Living Future Ambassadors, believe that every building can be net-positive energy and water, and has the potential to restore the natural world. There are so many components that can’t be neatly inputted into a spreadsheet. Environmental restoration, employee satisfaction and productivity, occupant health, and a reconnection with nature are invaluable benefits of a truly sustainable company or building.”
“For our Seymour location, we’ve pretty much done everything from solar power to recycling,” says Karl Weidemann, manager of communication and sponsorships for the Thule Group’s Vehicle Solutions North America/Outdoor, Truck Accessory and Child Transport Systems. “We started a food-scrap recycling program as well as a low-voltage lighting program in all areas that doesn’t draw as much electricity. We have a solar array on our roof that uses 1,800 solar panels providing 30 percent of our electrical needs for the factory here in Seymour. We have our warehouse and factory here and our North American headquarters offices are located here as well, all benefiting from solar co-generation.”
Weidemann says the solar panels were installed about five years ago and immediately began contributing to the company’s electrical savings. He says that there are 50 employees in the Seymour office and about 250 more in warehouse and factory operations locally. The company’s employees take part in other recycling on premises including all excess raw materials, office paper, bottles and cans.
“We use knock-down pallets as a way to reduce plastic pallet wrap,” adds Weidemann. “In addition, we have a full locker room facility so that if employees wish to ride their bicycles to work, they can come in and use the separate showers facilities before work. The program pretty much manages itself. We have an online program that we look at to see what we’re producing on any given day. It’s been great for us.”
Weidemann says Thule’s retailers, many of whom themselves employ sustainable practices, are impressed with the company’s sustainability efforts and the feeling is passed down to consumers as well. The effect on Thule’s profitability isn’t a major factor.
“Most [consumers] want companies that are actively practicing sustainability, so it’s always been part of our mission but it’s also helping our customers to get outside more by protecting our environment,” says Weidemann. “We get that feedback from our website and also when we work with retailers and their customers when we visit stores that carry Thule products. We have a college intern here for the summer, who is taking sustainability studies at school, and he works for us solely on sustainability. He’s got different programs that he’s going to put into place before he leaves at the end of summer. We’re always looking for ways to maximize our efforts.”