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Between economics & ecology: the Business Environmental Network

Nearly Three Years Ago, Phil Geller, an engineer with a Silicon Valley firm, collaborated with a handful of co-workers to set up an office recycling program. Meeting outside company time, Geller's group found it a challenge to figure out a system for collecting lunchroom cans and bottles, selling them to an outside vendor, and getting other employees to participate. The company's management was dubious about the program and insisted that it would have to pay for itself.

"It would be really helpful if we could talk with others who've done this elsewhere," Geller mentioned to a staff member at Palo Alto's Peninsula Conservation Center (PCC). And so, a few months after Earth Day 1990, the Business Environmental Network was conceived.

Over the next nine months, the idea grew into a Business Environmental Network (BEN) kickoff conference, organized by the PCC and cosponsored by Apple Computer, Digital Equipment Corporation, local chambers of commerce, and other local companies and organizations. The purpose of BEN is to help businesspeople find information that can improve their environmental performance. BEN now comprises over 90 member companies, mails out over 2,000 copies of its bimonthly newsletter, EcoOpportunities, and sponsors regular seminars and lectures on how businesses can reduce their impact on the environment.

From the start, the network has aimed to spread information that's truly useful to businesses. Rather than taking the perspective that "this is what environmentalists think you should be doing," BEN disseminates "what other companies are doing that is good for the environment." By presenting "success stories" of businesses whose environmentally sound practices are paying off, BEN meets the needs of the 9-to-5 world while accomplishing a "green agenda."

The first BEN conference in 1991 had three types of attendees. The first group consisted of people from companies such as Apple and Xerox, which enjoy a strong management commitment to environmental values; these folks were looking for cutting-edge solutions, such as how to design products for recyclability. A second group was beginning to implement basic programs, such as office recycling and water conservation; they wanted examples from others' successful solutions, so they could show their managers a positive impact on the bottom line. The third group comprised environmentally concerned people working in companies with little interest in "green" issues; these people were looking for personal support as they tried to figure out how to approach their companies.

BEN meets these needs by sharing specific information and case studies through its seminars, networking meetings, and newsletter. Seminars have addressed "Transportation Alternatives" - how some companies are getting employees out of their cars; "Eco-preneuring" - creating a business that meets an environmental need, such as anti-freeze recycling; and "Wrap It Up" - about environmentally responsible packaging (which included a tour of a firm which recycles polystyrene into packing chips).

BEN's "Close the Loop Group" organized what was perhaps the most well-received seminar, "Battery Recycling Alternatives," on rechargeable vs. throwaway batteries. Reps from various companies shared their successes and problems in battery recycling, for both industrial and automotive use.

The network's other major information vehicle is EcoOpportunities, an eight-page bimonthly newsletter. Started with a $5,000 grant from the Palo Alto Rotary Club, the newsletter is available to small businesses for an $89 subscription ($199 for companies with over 100 employees). It features effective environmental solutions in local businesses. One company featured was a semiconductor manufacturer whose well-developed recycling program treats every piece of material that moves through its plant as a commodity with resale value.

Another recent article, describing the problems faced in disposing of fluorescent lighting tubes, lists several Bay Area vendors that recycle the mercury (as well as the glass) from these fixtures. Since a single load of more than 25 tubes is classified as hazardous waste, recycling them can save tremendously on "haz mat" disposal fees, even though the recycler charges for pickup.

Other articles profile people who've spearheaded programs in their companies. For example, one San Jose woman has led her firm from simple white-paper recycling to the recycling of other commodities, such as wire, scrap metal, Styrofoam and low-density plastic. Her efforts have decreased her employer's waste-hauling costs by about $600 per month.

Although some advisory-committee members have helped BEN with fund-raising, their most important role is to be "eyes and ears" for the project. Attendees at bimonthly meetings are asked questions like: "What kind of newsletter articles would be most useful to you?" (The answer: "Articles that show us how to save money and do right by the environment.") "What new issues and ideas have you come across lately?" "Would your company benefit from a seminar about 'What is a good environmental regulation?'"

An invaluable component of the project's human resources has been the BEN interns, most of whom are college students or recent grads. Combining a concern for the environment with a hopeful outlook that businesses can provide jobs while improving their environmental performance, BEN interns have assisted the project in a variety of ways: writing newsletter articles, answering phone inquiries, collecting material for information packets, maintaining the database, preparing business case studies, visiting firms with good environmental practices. During the past 18 months, BEN has had eight interns; some received academic credit from Stanford University, and all were exposed to the variety of ways environmental management is taking shape in BEN member companies.

BEN has encountered a few problems along the way. Chief among these has been the difficulty of funding. In addition to the Rotary grant, four large Bay Area firms (Apple Computer, Advanced Micro Devices, Digital Equipment Corporation, and Pacific Gas & Electric) are BEN "Visionary Members," contributing over $1,000. Although several foundations have been approached for grants, to date none have come through, perhaps because other community needs seem more pressing than assisting businesses in changing their habits. While membership support has been coming in steadily, the recession has limited the funds that many companies can spend on information resources.

Without strong financial support, BEN's growth has been slower than initially hoped for. All the work associated with a start-up has fallen to one paid staffperson and her crew of volunteers. Others considering a similar project should analyze how it will be funded and how much can be carried out by volunteers. Since businesses expect a high level of professionalism, it is also imperative to maintain high standards for work done by volunteers.

Another pitfall to avoid is competition with other groups. In some communities the issue of "corporate greening" is being addressed both by trade associations and by environmental groups. Avoiding turf wars by finding ways to work together increases the quality of services and avoids their duplication. Because environmental management encompasses so many areas, it's important for a group such as BEN to define its niche carefully.

For example, BEN decided not to address hazardous-materials issues. Since this is a heavily regulated field, many other associations and training programs provide haz-mat information; additionally, a high level of technical expertise is necessary. BEN also generally bypasses issues of worker health and safety. "Having defined a more limited scope, we are more effective at addressing the information needs of our target audiences: facilities managers, recycling coordinators, transportation managers, energy engineers, and others who are dealing with conservation programs," project coordinator Candice Stark explained.

Animosity, latent or blatant, between business and environmentalists is another potential problem. The support and involvement of business-oriented organizations have been essential for BEN to achieve its mission. This business involvement opens up the potential for "greenwashing" of corporate environmental problems. But since BEN has grown as an offshoot of the Peninsula Conservation Center, a local environmental group with a longstanding reputation for integrity, its environmental credentials are impeccable.

As businesses strive to meet the growing number of environmental regulations, companies are coming to realize that such issues can be an opportunity, not just a burden. Rather than looking at "what comes out of the pipe," as BEN advisor Rob Shelton of SRI International said recently in EcoOpportunities, Companies are going to the opposite end of the pipe. There you see a whole different set of solutions. You see an opportunity to change your processing. To change the materials you buy - to make some different tradeoffs, not just between profitability and the environment, but between operations, employee training, and capital costs. It's more complex, but in that complexity, some companies have had real breakthroughs such as the $506 million ... that 3M made over the sixteen years of its Pollution Prevention Pays program - by eliminating or decreasing the source of waste, not just treating it at the end of the pipeline.

The Business Environmental Network is a good example of how environmentalists and nonprofit organizations can form productive partnerships with business. The businesses win by getting local, cost-effective help with their environmental problems. The nonprofits win by educating new constituents (and potential donors) and generating revenues to underwrite their programs. The BEN is a great model that I hope other nonprofits can put into action in their communities. Debbie Mytels is Executive Director of the Peninsula Conservation Center.

COPYRIGHT 1992 Point Foundation
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