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Greywater Systems Are Sweeping The Nation- Why Not Chicago???

Across the country, and certainly the world, people will speak the praise of integrated greywater systems in the modern homestead.  In dryer climates, particularly non-urban, these are often considered part and parcel of an efficient, comfortable abode.

(simple layout from

(simple layout from

The folks at EcologyAction in Santa Cruz have shared a nice article looking at how this phenomenon continues to sweep the community there.  Such re-use systems have gotten great exposure as both “hip” and functional since the early 70’s (especially with popular publications like Shelter , by Lloyd Kahn.)  But it seems we continue to have arguments as a modern American culture as to whether these approaches are truly sanitary and “worth-it.”

In the recent piece from the Santa Cruz Sentinel, author Gretchen Wegrich looks at how it is not merely aesthetics or a new sense of responsibility that has citizens turning back to the classic laundry grey water system, but true need.  Things are getting dryer in most of California, and the nation- greywater is becoming a must!

So why has Chicago continued to drag its feet on water use codes?  Far from outlawing the practice, Santa Cruz County is actually paying some residents a $75 rebate for customers who install greywater irrigation systems! You’ll hear it’s because of population density, but increasingly, just as we saw with food plots in front yards, cities and towns are waking up to the understanding that these sustainable methods can, and indeed, often MUST, be a part of a contemporary approach to dwelling design.  Chicago has the luxury of copious volumes of fresh water…  Will this remain our excuse for waste?  While others in our world, nation, and, in fact, Illinois pay higher and higher fees for water use?  Will we continue to demand that residents water their shrubs with highly processed, impeccable drinking water?!?  I’m hoping we’ll see the Second City follow up its recent push for a sparkly Green image by modernizing their water use codes, and letting us use of our washer run-off for our backyards.  It’s safe, fun, and gardens love it!

Posted in Chicago, Design, Sustainable Business.

Now we’re talking! Windy City Separated Bike Lane Makes Its Debut!

awesome. Superawesome. Big step in the right direction imo

Chicago Department of Transportation is installing Chicago’s first protected bike lane!

Some will argue sharing the road means a complete and seamless integration of bike, auto and pedestrian traffic.  But

I don’t think there’s much in the way of moving forward unless you separate the traffic, or find a way to ensure both drivers and bikers are educated, policed properly, and sober/capable… As those things seem difficult in even the most pro-active of communities, and a very very far way off in this, the city of 1800’s ethos, physically dividing the paths really seems the only way to significantly increase bike transit while at least minimizing door checks, swerves and intersection bungles…

Posted in Chicago, Design, Travel.

The Basics: Why Should Your Small Enterprise “Go Green?”

(feature piece from my work with the Non-Profit, Winning Workplaces.  Again asserting that we, as a society, must see green practices as essential and inseparable from legitimate and robust business tactics.  Original publication here)

Why Should Your Small Enterprise “Go Green?”

Efficiency sells better than sex these days.  Waste is increasingly a flagrant faux pas.  And yes, green is, and HAS BEEN, the new black. In biz speak, efforts by organizations to “go green” are paying dividends beyond fundamental gains/saves to the local environment.  More small enterprises than ever are warming up to the notion that they can save money, boost the value of their brand and make a difference in their communities by implementing green workplace practices.

Their customers certainly seem to be moving in this direction. Research by Colorado-based nonprofit Conscious Wave finds that consumers have established a nearly $230 billion stake in the U.S. marketplace devoted to health and sustainability.

And they’re not alone – more workers are realizing the benefits of greener workplaces as well. Bob Willard, a former leader at IBM and the author of “The Next Sustainability Wave,” conservatively estimates that 20 percent of job candidates are drawn to businesses that tout green practices.

The following are accounts of three very different small organizations, encompassing a range of industries, that made the decision to go green inside their workplaces. While they vary in their green initiatives and how they have gone about implementing them, they share one commonality: They are all solid workplaces made even stronger through their focus on doing more to harm less on this planet.

Let There Be (Efficient) Light

The government’s Energy Star program reports that U.S. small businesses could save more than $15 billion a year by cutting their energy consumption by 30 percent. In order to manage costs while remaining competitive as an innovator in the metal forming industry, Illinois-based IRMCO has joined this club. Despite its origins as an old-line manufacturer in a warehouse facility that has served the firm for four generations, the family-owned business is showing that a workplace with a rich history needn’t hesitate to adapt.

It starts with the simple things. “If you’re not in a room, shut the lights off,” says IRMCO’s Operations Manager, T.J. Kerkman. He claims it used to be common practice for his staff to arrive and turn on every light in the warehouse. Now, following an energy audit of the company’s electrical usage last year, it’s lights out when the last employee leaves a room.

For More Information: Easy Steps Toward a Greener     Workplace

Useful Web Resources

Numerous groups across the country offer free energy audits for businesses and nonprofits. In addition, provides a basic but effective online tool to help you evaluate your usage. Kerkman describes the results of IRMCO’s energy audit as “eye-opening.” “We’re looking at last year’s electric bill and this year’s electric bill and … we’re talking a 50 percent savings,” he says.

LEED-ing the Way

Recently, Christy Webber Landscapes, a growing enterprise that develops projects at commercial and residential properties throughout the Chicago area, took advantage of an opportunity to build a new central office that would be LEED certified. Much touted, the designation means that the firm’s facility meets or exceeds U.S. Green Building Council benchmarks for building design, construction and operation. Besides LEED’s obvious environmental benefits, it carries a level of national recognition for facility construction and – HR managers take note – the promise of a higher-quality work environment for potential hires.

Currently, Christy Webber’s facility makes use of solar and geothermal heating/cooling, a vegetative roof cover, weather-responsive lighting, rain water conservation and methods for harnessing wind for power and ventilation. The result is a facility that now uses 55 percent less energy than the average commercial property, according to Midwest Real Estate News and Chicago Building Congress.

The landscaping firm’s transition to LEED certification is even more interesting given its diverse (and often seasonal) workforce, for whom even the notion of recycling was new. To match inside practices with its environmentally friendly facility, the firm’s existing “Green Team” helped to establish the following workplace initiatives:

• Small recycling bins on everyone’s desks
• The use of only “green” cleaning products
• Substituting flatware for plastic ware
• Using the dishwasher only once per day
• Training supervisors on how to practice conservation in the field

Mission-driven Take-home Practices

Seventh Generation, a Vermont-based marketer of environmentally responsible household products, uses many of the same eco-friendly measures as the two firms mentioned above. In addition, they are working to encourage employees to use green behavior far beyond the workplace.

The company offers a unique benefits package that includes subsidies for employee-purchased hybrid and electric vehicles and financial assistance to help workers build greener homes. Manager of HR Stephanie Lowe says these incentives evolved from the firm’s core value of “regenerative thinking.” This concept, no doubt, trickled down from President Jeffrey Hollender, who also defines his role as “Chief Regeneration Officer.”

Gregor Barnum, director of corporate consciousness, points to a focus on critical design – not only in the development of its products, but also in shaping employees’ lives. “We’ve got 60 different employees, with different lifestyles. The way we look at it, that’s 60 designers on our team,” Barnum says.

In 2005, the company let its employee-designers loose to shape their work environment when it moved into a new facility in its hometown of Burlington. Design consultations between the entire staff and the building architect yielded eco-friendly measures including carpets made from recyclable materials and a place in the firm’s parking garage to plug in their company-subsidized electric cars.

The (Triple) Bottom Line

As these examples of green workplace practices show, small enterprises can go small or big, and as deep into the pocketbook as they feel comfortable. (IRMCO and Christy Webber’s measures in particular show that going green can actually cost nothing or next to nothing at all.) And as we’ve illustrated, beyond making sound business sense, a move toward a more eco-friendly workplace can align actions with core values and, thus, boost the brand.

The point is to do something. There is a sense of urgency behind all eco-friendly workplace practices, as Fast Company magazine pointed out in summarizing its green-themed list of the “Fast 50″ growing companies. Indeed, as the magazine also stated, “Companies of every size and in every part of the world are now waking up to humanity’s impending and interlocking crises, and the vastly lucrative rewards that solving them might bring.”

(Diane Stoneman contributed to this article.)

Posted in Design, Sustainable Business.

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Thoughts on the rise of “Technomads” … are we, in fact, “taking less” home from our travels?

Mr. Sean Bonner has an interesting piece featured on BoingBoing this month,

kicking around thoughts on the growing tendency toward the “Technomad” and “neo-minimalist” identity in culture… Lifestyles made light by ease, efficiency and slightness of technology have lead o travel patterns (for work, pleasure, LIVING what have you) defined more by concept and experience and less by need for bulky luggage and equipment (or, additionally, the means and ways to carry, protect and house such gear.)

Bonner offers some considerate observations from his own journeys… prompting what I feel is a great conversation on the changing role of not only the need for gear in travel, but the way in which we approach possessions and settlement in general.  It’s a conversation ripe for assessing our drive to collect and retain trinkets & treasures gleaned from these chapters in our lives… a look at how it seems many of us may collect and drag around less and less in our lives given the changing role of gear and communications…

I dig it.  I dig it.  But the drive to survey, collect and return with treasure remains strong in me… lots of us, yea?  All them stones and stories from places and people… This fella Sean hits on some solid questions… and truths… but I haven’t perused enough of his material to get a feel for his photo trends… Carry what you want… but much of this, his use and ownership of “things…” relies on slightness and ease of new technologies & means of communication… how exactly does a re-evaluation of possessions and sense of self adapt on the road… versus merely getting re-packaged given new tools?

Given a re-assessment of self and ownership, how many photos will he collect?… what would such data and impression collecting have looked like 70 years ago?  heavy. fragile. and demanding a storehouse upon his return… (Again, even having a place to retain/preserve these impressions would have tied the individual more to a particular place and to the accompanying an accumulation of ~things~…)

Posted in Design, Travel.

Definition/promotion of “Local” food leads to head-smashing

Head-Butts and Fist Fights in Portland over definition/promotion of “Local” Foods…

Sure, fighting is wrong, but if you’re gonna be drunk and head-butt someone…

“I thought there was more than adequate number of farmers [here] to pull pigs [for Cochon 555] from Oregon. I told that to local chefs involved in the event,” says Bechard,… who admits that he was in both fights…”They are self-promoting this event and their [out-of-town] farmers. It should have promoted our farmers.”

(Bechard, an attendee at the food event, was angry that Lowe had allowed a pig from Iowa (the winning pig, in fact) to be used as part of the Portland Cochon 555 competition.)

*Entertaining link from Willamette Week featuring some good quotes from the chefs/combatants

*But a more ~contemplative~ discussion at NYTimes looking at the PDX region in the larger “Local” dialogue….

Posted in Sustainable Business.

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The Dust Bowl was ignored until politicians themselves were choking on the dust in DC. What will it take to change our petroleum policies?

After years of ignorant abuse of the earth, “Black Sunday” hit on April 14, 1935.

In previous months, Hugh Bennett of the Department of Agriculture had been the first to declare that this was a looming disaster and mostly man-made, but no one in power would support his concerns.  He was in the middle of giving a speech to a mostly unresponsive congress demanding they do something about the mess, when the windows went black with dust from the western wasteland.  It was the worst dust storm the nation had seen and pushed the otherwise lazy, greedy and short-sited culture to acknowledge the damage they had done.  Today the oil shows up in Louisiana, then the Keys.  This spill is horrific.  Every politician and American who had looked the other way in facing our addiction to oil and profits over conservation could use some face to face time with this spill.  Perhaps when it rolls onto the feet, fancy suits and manicured lawns of politicians and businessmen on the East Coast, we might, might see some change.

Now, after Deep Horizon well has been bleeding countless thousands of crude into the ocean, many opposed to criticism of the industry will demand a list of specific measures which should have been undertaken to improve the cleanup, arguing that “they did all they could” or “mistakes happen.”  Thank you Kentucky Tea Bagger Rand Paul for voicing such short-sightedness in his delicate critique of the Administration.  Citing Obama’s reponse to the spill as “really Un-American in his criticism of business,” Paul added, “I think it’s part of this sort of blame-game society in the sense that it’s always got to be somebody’s fault instead of the fact that maybe sometimes accidents happen.”

Not being a petroleum engineer, nor a politician familiar with the oversight of these operations, I don’t know much about what specifically could been done to prevent this fuckup. But it seems to me, as someone who drills holes into things on a fairly regular basis, that if you stand to make millions doing it, but can’t be bothered with how to do it correctly or spend the money to ensure that it’s done correctly, then you’re a dickhead and a fool. When this dickheadery and foolishness is the industry standard… and in fact business spends a good deal on making sure they can spend as little as possible to keep the process “just safe enough”… things go wrong on a large scale.

The problem is ultimately demand for petroleum products and a market which promotes prices which are unrelated to the toll on the environment actually incurred by their extraction, processing and use. Similar to cheap food that gives you cancer, we as a society fail to the see the actual cost of loss and repercussions surrounding the oil industry, and simply whine and complain when gas prices are too high, or the businesses that prosper from this technology are forced to take a financial hit. BP will never be able to pay for the damage from this spill, as ecological loss is not a monetary loss, and remains irreversible even if partially repairable.

There are many guilty parties here, including, in a very real sense, those civilians who do not take these repercussions into account when making everyday decisions about use. BUT, there are some royally fucked up situations, such as the one before us in this spill, where at some point, specific people decided or were told to make decisions which would put the people and environment of that area in real risk in order to avoid investment in proper safeguards and/or alternatives to what now (and for some time) should be unequivocally seen as a destructive technology.

Set morality aside and we’re still left with a very very incompetent company chasing profits and neglecting stakeholders.

Posted in Sustainable Business.

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Sustainability is not a luxury! (Why a Green City Guide?)

The weather is gorgeous and the water is glistening blue here in Chicago. 

It’s easy, perhaps, to forget that there is right now a very, very large patch of the North Pacific Ocean covered in trash- a floating field of all the world’s plastic discarded into rivers and landfills over the years.

While a soda bottle might have been thrown “away” in 1983, it may still be sailing the oceans blue somewhere northwest of Hawaii, free to float for decades until decomposition finally takes hold.  Some bits will end up in the bellies of unfortunate sea life, and some bits will make it to the plates of diners in LA and Japan, tucked into their crab dinners and shrimp cocktail.

Headlines from every corner of the globe, from Main Street to remote jungles, deserts and waterways have highlighted the interrelated world in which we live.  Our place on this planet, our lives and actions, have never been truly separable from our wider communities and environment.  But the realities of this interdependence have never been more palpable.  It’s the full report of our follies in High-Fi, 24-hour updates.

The effects of our choices are laid bare in every story that comes across the net describing another endangered species, bankrupt business or displaced and impoverished people.  The world seems a lot smaller these days.  And it is now more than ever that we must recognize our potential for making a difference!

pacific gyre

Sustainability is not a luxury.  It is, and has always been, a necessity.

By definition, those actions that are “sustainable” are those that do not rob from the future to satisfy our whims and fancies now.  Sustainable development, as defined by the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987, entails simply an approach that meets the

needs of the present “without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”  Most ecosystems and cultures have survived for eons because of natural, self-regulating processes of sustainable adaptation.  If you scrap the future to live large today, you don’t stick around for long.  We’ve spent the last couple generations creating a very consumptive and destructive society, under the assumption that expansion is always a good thing.  But there will certainly be no government “bail out” waiting for us when we finish trashing this planet.  It seems like a simple concept, but how many choices did each of us make today that truly took this into consideration?

Posted in Chicago, Sustainable Business.

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New Green City Guide to Chicago!!!

Coffee to brew, lunch dates to make, rush hour to avoid and weekend getaways to plan, birthday presents to buy and water heaters to fix, “dry-clean only” labels and new bars of soap, cake mixes to consider and maybe even an affordable bottle of wine!…  Not always a lot of time to stop and ponder our impact on the world when we’re just trying to get through our day.

Not to worry,  Natroplis is here to help.

With so many different products and services claiming to be “green” these days, it can be a lot to dig through. But good choices can make a world of difference!  As Carolyn Merchant puts it, consumers these days must assume their role as “active participants in the destiny of the webs which they are a part.”  Ecological Revoutions: Nature Gender and Science in New England. University of North Carolina Press, 1989, p. 270.  Looking globally, carbon dioxide emissions were 35% higher in 2006 than in 1990, and rising. Observed environmental changes, including loss of glaciers, rise of sea levels and shifts in plant and animal ranges will certainly lead to some pretty terrible losses in ecological diversity. ­Droughts will only exacerbate already unstable political regions (the U.S. not withstanding) and the fight for dwindling petroleum products will prove only a preview of the nastier fight to come for clean water rights.  The global economy has tanked due to precisely our love for borrowing against the future, and after everything, you still might find yourself standing in a grocery store wondering if there isn’t a better way to wash your clothes that doesn’t involve neon pink, carcinogenic goo packaged in a container that will never decompose.

We have here a tool for navigating a much needed revolution in each of our lives.  Natropolis is a means for exploring our role in this exciting transformation and an open forum to discuss and understand the what’s being done around you. Through a focus on environmental, personal and community programs and services, the Natropolis network highlights local approaches which address the larger issue of sustainability.

Natropolis is primarily a green city guide, focused on activities, services and products around Chicago, with an emphasis on environmental sustainability.  But if we have learned anything in recent years, it’s that tackling merely one aspect of the sustainability dilemma will not do.  As highlighted by the 2005 World Summit on Sustainable Development in New York, to be effective, action on sustainability must integrate a focus on the environment, society and economy.

Although it is critical that there is cooperation between these realms, in practice this often entails negotiation between competing interests.  It can be challenging, but each choice we do face can make a difference.  Each feature of the website, from the Restaurant Guide to our Webinar Series and Calendar of Events includes content that is relevant to each of these cornerstones.  The key is educate oneself and “recognize interdependence,” a universal concept highlighted as one of the Hannover Principles for sustainable design. It’s about having the right tools at hand to act accordingly.  It’s about helping Chicago to develop as a city of conscious consumers and make this community, and our world, a little bit better where ever we can.


Green Building and Landscaping – Exciting Times for the City on the Lakespring chicago

The city of big shoulders has always been a hotbed of architectural innovation, and Green Building in Chicago is taking off.  The Chicago Green Building Council (LEED) and the Center for Green Technology are involved in more and more projects each week, as businesses and individuals are swept up in the beauty and efficiency of sustainable design.  The construction of an average home (2,000 square feet) usually results in 8,000 pounds of construction waste and every year in the United States, 136 million tons of construction and demolition waste are tossed into landfills. This debris amounts to more than half of all trash in landfills!  Add to this the energy and resources squandered through inefficient building technologies (heating, cooling, water, etc.) and it’s clear there’s plenty of room for improvement. Keep an eye out for deals at the constantly evolving selection at the Rebuilding Exchange for some great recycled building components!

Families and business are building green all over the Midwest and supply stores like GreenMaker, GreenWerks and the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) are popping up to meet their need for materials and fresh ideas in eco-friendly construction and remodeling options.  Architecture firms like Doug Farr Associates, Nathan Kipnis Architects and Zoka Zola are putting the Windy City on the map for progressive design.  And green real estate is a blossoming trade with almost every major broker in the city insistent that a portion of their agents undergo licensing through such programs as LEED. Some offices, such as LivingRoom Realty focus directly on eco-friendly properties and are equipped with a full staff of certified agents.

With the array of shops like Green Home Chicago furnish the inside of your home, you can live healthy and super mod.  Natural interiors by design firms like Wolfson Earth Finishes have become hugely popular for their organic components and stunning sophistication.  And how’s about a sweet sustainable urban garden for your Midwestern abode? Chicago Specialty Gardens is there to ensure yours neighbors grow adore your responsible plantings, be they in the front yard or rooftop! In fact, with the growing collection of sustainable landscaper resources, such as the Midwest Ecological Landscaping Association, Safer Pest Control Project, and Pure Prairie Organics, the savvy Chicagoan can create quite a piece of sustainable paradise right here on the “Third Coast!”

Green Business- The Triple Bottom Line: Making the Moola, Making a Difference

Chicago knows business.  We are, and have been for generations, at the cross roads of commerce for the nation and world.  Once the hog-butcher of the world, and today a city with still many farm kids running around in suits, this city knows its agriculture, and it certainly knows the power of trade.  It boasts a myriad of colleges, institutions and universities, lending recognition the world over for its innovation.  It’s a city of straightforward values and a champion for the value of hard work.  And in 2008, we sent a local hero to the Whitehouse.  Chicago is showing the globe what business looks like done right.

Planet, People, Profit – It’s THE simple recipe for doing business in the modern world.  Efforts to improve the condition of all three define what a successful business looks like in a progressive economy.  As author Andrew Savitz puts it, “Sustainability respects the interdependence of living beings on one another and on their natural environment. Sustainability means operating a business in a way that causes minimal harm to living creatures and does not deplete but rather restores and enriches the environment.”  (The Triple Bottom Line ) Increasingly, companies doing business in Chicago are coming around to this full understanding of effectiveness, and the groundwork for green business is being broadened by owners of large and small operations alike.

The Chicago Sustainable Business Alliance lists over 100 local members with numbers climbing every month.  Meanwhile, Foresight Design hosts networking opportunities and workshops weekly, with more curious and enthusiastic guests at each event.  Demands for professional services among members of such an active and environmentally responsible business community have been fielded by firms like TerraCom communication specialists for years and the demand just keeps getting greater.

In fact, Green and socially responsible MBA’s are popping up all over the national academic scene, and Chicago institutions are developing their programs to retain their stake in the business world of tomorrow. Take a look at programs and events being developed at IIT-Stuart School of Business in Chicago ( and Northwestern MSLOC ( Across Chicago, professionals are acknowledging that Healthy Employees= Healthy Profits= Healthy Community= Healthy Environment!

Sustainable Agriculture- Keep an eye out for Organic, Local and Delicious!

Chicago is a city surrounded by some of the most fertile land in the nation, and we’re a city that knows how to eat well.  Just because we live in a metropolis doesn’t mean we can’t find incredible fruits and veggies pulled from the earth- often within a short ride from home! CSAs have allowed us city dwellers to have a stake in, and reap the delicious rewards of nearby organic farms.  For a lead on exploring Community Supported Agriculture, check out Local Harvest.  And remember, there are community gardens throughout the city thanks to neighborhood organizations and non-profit groups.

Another fine example of someone helping put great food in the hands of Chicagoans is Growing Power, a non-profit that helps to provide equal access to healthy, high-quality, safe and affordable food for people in all communities.

Local Eateries

Beyond the farms, this city is full of incredible dining spots from just about every corner of the world, open just about every hour of the day.  Organic and exciting, try Crust for delicious pizza , Frontera for tacos or Handlebar for some ragin’ organic Huevos Rancheros.  Maybe Uncommon Ground for greens grown on the rooftop garden or Lula Café for incredible butternut squash or blackened tilapia.  Toss in a trip to Chicago Diner or Green Zebra and you’ve got everything from full feasts to fancy drinks.  Looking for a new spin on Chicago’s official dish?  Try Drew’s Eatery, in Lincoln Square for an organic, grass-fed (read: REAL) beef hotdog, and maybe one of their delicious and organic vegetarian alternatives (like spinach, feta and turkey OMG!)  And of course there’s always room for desert!  Head over to the Bleeding Heart Bakery for some of the best organic cookies, cupcakes, and ice cream you may ever find!

Energy/Resource Initiatives

Resource management in general is finally coming into its own here in the Midwest, and Chicago is becoming an incredible example of how one of the world’s largest urban centers can remake itself as a conservation-oriented metropolis.  For decades now, non-profits such as The Chicago Recycling Coalition and The Resource Center have enabled Chicagoans to make better decisions about how they control their consumption, and how they handle their waste.  Add to this the leaps Chicagoans are making in energy efficiency through such technologies as locally designed wind-turbines and geo-thermal systems such as Indie Energy and Optimal Energy and we see a city becoming closer and closer to independence and sustainability every season.

Personal – Whole Mind & Body, for Everybody!

Progress in tackling the issues of sustainability often begin at home, and where better to begin than with your own health and wellness?  It has often been said that the more connected we are to our sense of identity and inner self, the more aware we are of our environment and our relation to it. Holistic approaches to health and well-being have blossomed in Chicago over the past several years, including exciting new options for nutrition and bodywork.  Herbs, supplements and tools for aromatherapy are readily available and a growing community of practitioners offer sessions and seminars in acupuncture, massage, meditation across the city.  All in all, Chicago is city ripe with possibilities for exploring and nourishing the Whole mind and body!

A healthy lifestyle includes challenging and enriching activities, and Chicagoans know how to live it up!  Yoga has taken off in the city, and you can often see folks taking advantage of the nice weather and beautiful parks we have here to practice their tai chi and chi gong.  The path along Lake Shore Drive is a blast all year round, but definitely comes alive in the summer.  It’s no secret Chicagoans enjoy their jogging and biking!  But the city and it’s surrounding area is full of options for the more adventurous of us- including many miles of trails for hiking and biking, as well as great spots for kayaking, windsurfing, rock climbing, fishing, sailing! Outdoor adventure and responsible options abound in the greater Chicagoland area, and Natropolis is there to share will you some of the finer spots for exciting outings, cultural exploration local travel adventures.

Posted in Chicago, Sustainable Business.

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A Visit to New Belgium Brewery: Here’s to Healthy People, Healthy Profits and a Healthy Planet!

Sure, New Belgium Brewery makes pretty fantastic beer. But they didn’t win one of our Top Small New Belgium Tasting RoomWorkplace awards for simply making a tasty product.

Pay their central offices a visit and you’ll get a taste of exactly what’s behind their remarkable success- a completely embodied dedication to the basics of the Triple Bottom Line- healthy People, healthy Profits and a healthy Planet!

The secret brew may start with great ingredients, but it’s a corporate culture that flows through every person, building and artwork in their workspace that ensures a proper pour in the end. Place even one foot in their Fort Collins “Mothership” facility and you’ll see what they’re all about: Eco-Conscious architecture, lots of light, bright colors, employee bikes everywhere and trails extending from the front door to miles of pristine Rocky Mountain beauty.  This is indeed a fit and friendly establishment.

The other week brought me to Fort Collins to visit with Katie Wallace, New Belgium’s Sustainability Specialist, and I couldn’t help but feel as if I was stepping into a temple of healthy, responsible business.  When the office messaged her of my arrival, I was told it would just be a short wait while she biked back from running an errand (this is November in the Rocky Mountains!)  New Belgium walks the talk, that’s for sure.New Belgium Tasting Room

New Belgium even went toe to toe with their much-loved hometown when the city demanded they expand a new parking lot to accommodate more vehicles.  “Not gonna happen,” said the Brewery, as so many of their employees walk, carpool or bike to work.  Known for bucking the status quo in terms of how a business should operate, New Belgium understands that it’s not always easy being green. Sometimes you’ve got to draw a line in the sand, sometimes you overspend and sometimes you get blasted for not doing enough… but the Brewery argues that such measures are good for their staff and the community alike.

As was mentioned in my coverage of the organization in our Top Small Workplace media, New Belgium represents one of the most vocal advocates for a Triple Bottom Line approach. As Katie explains, at her first All-Staff Meeting their CEO & Co-founder, Kim Jordan mentioned that a company’s greatest asset is indeed their people.  Not your buildings, your big stainless steel tanks, but your people.  “I truly feel as though I am a member of this New Belgium family and more than just an employee.”  This wholistic approach to business has been maintained in nearly all aspects of the company’s operation since it’s founding in 1991. Comprehensive asset analysis and True-Cost evaluation go hand in hand at New Belgium, and the brewer has been one of the most visible examples of a manufacturer keen on addressing eco-responsibility in all aspects of their product line. New Belgium Gear

Their staff even voted to make use of all-renewable electricity back in 1999!  Since then they’ve been the largest private consumer of wind-power electricity, buying all of their electricity through the first city-sponsored wind program and off-setting through credit purchase any non-renewable fuel consumption.  Despite the increase in cost per kilowatt-hour of 57%, which impacted employee’s profit sharing pool, staff were all for it from the get-go, and the company remains one of the most visible advocates for renewable fuel in the business world.

The New Belgium tasting room is adorned with dynamic art installations championing bicycle culture and responsible yet Bacchanalian celebration.  Works titled “Salvation from Consumption” and “Grain to Glass” entertain visitors while they sample the newest brews.  Such pieces illustrate, quite colorfully, the details of their cradle-to-cradle approach to production, with stats on CO2 generation following emissions from harvest to packaging and frosty pint glass.  Says Wallace, “A beautiful and distinguishing aspect of Sustainability in the business world is that it is a very collaborative and transparent effort. By commissioning a Life Cycle Assessment of the Greenhouse Gases emitted during the entire life of a 6 pack of Fat Tire, New Belgium has started to look beyond its limiting walls.  Through sharing this enlightening information, we hope to inspire others to do the same.”

Indeed, education, and New Belgium’s signature “Advercacy” campaigns (advertising + advocacy) have reached throngs of consumers, partners, vendors and competitors, helping steer the beer market toward greater environmental and social responsibility. Their “Follow Your Folly” campaigns  and programs such as their well-known Tour de Fat festival serve to highlight environmental causes while also providing advertising space for New Belgium’s delicious beers.  The Tour de Fat has raised more than $1 million over the years for local non-profits in the cities it visits.  Says Wallace, “When we feature environmental organizations in our ‘advercacy’ campaigns, we give them the art so they can use it to get the word out through their own avenues.  All of these efforts have helped to highlight the good work that New Belgium is doing while positively affecting the environment and local communities.

And, my friends, bicycle advocacy, recycling, and water conservation have never tasted so good! As I raise up a smooth pint of their very winter-friendly 1554 Enlightened Black Ale, I’ll leave you with New Belgium’s working definition of sustainability, that we all may gain a taste of such delightful inspiration:
“With regard to environmental sustainability, we believe in:
* Lovingly caring for the planet that sustains us.
* Leadership through environmental stewardship.
* Stewarding natural resources by closing the loops between waste and input.
* Minimizing the environmental impact of shipping our beer.
* Reducing our dependence on coal-fired electricity.
* Protecting our precious Rocky Mountain water resources.
* Focusing our efforts on conservation and efficiency.
* Supporting innovative technology.
* Modeling joyful environmentalism through our commitment to relationships, continuous improvement, and the camaraderie and cheer of beer.”

Well put.  Very well put.

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King Arthur Flour- Two centuries of commitment to Quality and Community

The most recent of the “Success Stories” I write for our non-profit Winning Workplaces features King Arthur Flour Company, voted Top Small Workplace in 2008 and an outstanding example of sustainability in business as it pays off for employees, consumers, community and environment alike.
A brand familiar to generations of Americans, King Arthur Flour Company represents the nation’s oldest flour company and the single largest educator of home bakers in the world. Founded in Boston in 1790, impressive growth has accompanied the company’s transformation from a small, fifth generation operation to the 100 percent employee-owned business seen today.

Most recently, as a founding member of the “B Corporation” certification project, King Arthur has again embraced transformation as a means to remain competitive, finding great success through their longstanding commitment to a quality product and the triple bottom line.

“King Arthur Flour’s commitment to quality and ideals probably hasn’t changed much since the 18th century,” argues employee-owner Beth Latchis, Senior Programmer/Analyst in the firm’s IT Department. Having only been with the company nine months, she explains that such principles, though not new to King Arthur, are still a thrill for her.

“It is very refreshing to work for an organization that’s actively committed to the environment, its employees and the community,” she says.

Indeed, King Arthur’s history is rich with stories that speak to its distinct character.

“Frank Sands’ grandfather would hire Irish workers in Boston 100 years ago,” explains CEO Steve Voigt, “when a lot of other shop keepers were hanging out signs that said ‘No Irish need apply.’ It always was in the company’s DNA and we’re just making it more and more explicit for all of us, internally and for our customers.

In 1891 the company demanded that its product remain unbleached and sold to all dealers at the same fair price. Inspired by the mythical King Arthur and his insistence on sitting alongside his knights as peers at the Round Table, the ideals of strength, purity and honesty continue to permeate the business and strengthen their brand.

“King Arthur Flour has always been known for creating the best flour available,” explains Travis Oman, Team Leader in the Customer Service department. “Now we’re helping to blaze a trail for other socially responsible companies to follow.”

For decades the company operated small scale and independently, actually shrinking to the point of having only three employees in 1990 (with revenues of $3.5 million). But a pivotal switch to push items through catalog offerings meant huge growth, eventually leading to 160 employees in 2009 and 1,500 product offerings. Roughly two-thirds of the business involves flour production, but one-third has become direct-to-consumer services through their physical store, mail catalog, and an award-winning online presence that includes Facebook and Twitter pages in addition to the King Arthur website.

“As more and more small companies were subsumed by large companies, KAF was flexible and courageous enough to create an organization that is multifaceted and able to stay competitive,” adds Latchis.

In 1996 legacy owner Frank Sands felt like the company needed to make another big change. In a move to avoid the classic model of union-management relations in which a union must protect the workers against a management drive solely to maximize value to the owners, papers were drawn up to sell the 200-year-old company to its staff. Revenues at the time were $14.5 million.

“The classical model,” explains Voigt, “does not include the workers. So when you have a model that is 100 percent owned by an ESOP, it isn’t an ‘us-them’ situation.”

It took until 2004 for the company to become completely bought up by its associates, but it’s a move that has cemented success for the organization: Revenues jumped 124 percent from the start of the sale, to $32.5 million. After being named a Winning Workplaces/Wall Street Journal Top Small Workplace in 2008, King Arthur made this year’s list of America’s fastest-growing private companies in Inc. magazine, and has remained one of the fastest-growing companies in Vermont since going ESOP.

Accolades and sales growth have naturally translated to employee recognition – something the company takes pride in and does in a way that fits their culture. “Knighting” ceremonies honor long-term employees and “Vesting” ceremonies mark an employee’s vested stake in the ESOP account. Even the stationery awarded for a job well done has the image of a knight on horseback and the stamp, “A message from an owner.”

Travis Oman calls the Knighting ceremonies a “truly unique and terrific experience,” and P.J. Hamel, a Senior Editor with 19 years tenure at the company, says such activities, though whimsical, are worthwhile.

“I love to see a colleague celebrated. The ceremonies themselves are touching, funny, and memorable,” Hamel says. “Bottom line, they’re an opportunity for us all to say thanks to one another.”

Giving back is a theme that plays out at a high level at King Arthur as well. It was one of the first companies to distinguish itself as a “B (Beneficial) Corporation” and the first to utilize the B Corp logo on product packaging.

The title is reserved only for “purpose-driven corporations that create benefit for all stakeholders, not just shareholders.” To become certified, B Corporations must meet comprehensive and transparent social and environmental performance standards, and amend their corporate governing documents to incorporate the interests of employees, community and the environment.

As Hamel puts it simply, “It reinforces our 200-plus-year history of doing the right thing.” And doing the right thing has continued to pay handsomely: from 2004, when the sale of the company to its employees was completed, to today, revenues have increased over 100 percent to $67 million.

Company: King Arthur Flour
Web site:
Industry: Food manufacturer, catalogue, retail, school
Location: Norwich, VT
Number of Employees: 160
Sales: $67 million

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