Business leaders learn about sustainability at Catawba’s Center for the Environment

Published 12:00 am Monday, November 18, 2013

Nearly 70 business leaders came to the Catawba College campus Thursday for the first “Business Lunch and Learn.” Held at the Center for the Environment facility, the luncheon featured a panel discussion on sustainable business strategies which local leaders could implement.
The event was sponsored by the center’s Campaign for Clean Air in partnership with The Rowan County Chamber of Commerce, RowanWorks and Rowan Cabarrus Community College,
Panel speakers included Schneider Electric General Manager Mark Seifel, Freirich Foods CEO Paul Bardinas, TS Designs President Eric Henry and Industrial Water-Energy Strategist David Schlobohm of the NCSU Industrial Extension Service. They talked about their experience as they have moved toward running or advising sustainable and environmentally conscious businesses and offered helpful hints to those in attendance.
After a buffet-style lunch, funded by Freirich Foods, the panel started by offering a definition of sustainability. Sustainability, they said, was being able to meet the needs of the present generation without endangering the prospects of future generations. Each panel member went on to share his individual story in the move toward sustainability.
Mark Seifel began by saying that Schneider Electric began implementing sustainable practices because of the demand. Many markets, such as the European Market, will not allow businesses to compete for products and clients if they cannot produce a sustainability report.
“We see that awareness of sustainability is rising,” he said. “People in general are more sensitive to sustainability issues whether they are consumers or employees.”
Paul Bardinas had another take on the issue: If businesses move towards sustainability, the community will follow. “Businesses are an engine for progress — they’re often the lifeblood of a community,” Bardinas said.
But businesses often stall in taking that step because of myths that making a business sustainable is costly or involves sacrifices. Bardinas disagreed. When Freirich Foods decided to work toward sustainability 10 years ago, Bardinas said it retained more employees and experienced growth. He didn’t deny that getting started was difficult, simply because of the number crunching involved in figuring out energy usage and waste output. But so far, it’s been worth it.
In the past 10 years, Freirich Foods has started recycling its solid waste, reduced its energy usage, and begun cleaning and reducing its waste water — all of which have led to profits. Bardinas said that every change or renovation the company has made has seen a three- to five-year return rate.
TS Designs in Burlington has taken a more aggressive approach to sustainability. In addition to modifying buildings for solar energy and planting trees to cut back on mowing, TS Designs has decided to control the entire supply chain.
Mainly a screen-printing business, TS Designs is no stranger to cost cuts. But in the late 1990s when other apparel companies were outsourcing to raise profits, Henry said TS Designs officials decided they would save money by becoming sustainable instead.
“Sustainability is a journey, not a destination,” Henry said. “If we don’t start changing the way we do business in this country, there’s not going to be much left for future generations.”
A typical cotton T-shirt can travel thousands of miles before it reaches a store, Henry said. But TS Designs goes from “dirt to shirt” in just 600. By buying raw cotton from local suppliers and spinning the yarn nearby, not only are they able to support local industry, they are also able to offer complete transparency in every step of their supply chain.
While TS Design’s shirts are a bit more expensive than those sold at Wal-Mart, Henry says consumers have to think of the true cost — the cost to the environment as well as the cost to outsourced workers who often make clothing in dangerous and unhealthy conditions. To Henry, a cheaper price tag isn’t worth that cost. And he believes that the power is entirely in the consumer’s hands.
“The only way things are going to change is if we demand it,” Henry said.
David Schlobohm offered tips for saving energy and encouraged business leaders to make their workplace as energy efficient as possible before switching to renewable energy.
“We typically purchase three times more energy than we need,” he said.
Every business has an opportunity to save on its power bill, Schlobohm said. There are two sections to every business’s power bill: energy and demand. By tweaking production schedules so that little-to-no energy is used during high demand hours, businesses can save a lot of money.
Schlobohm also suggested getting an energy efficiency assessment from the State Energy Office and using a program like Portfolio Manager, a free online service that tracks a business’s energy and water usage and calculates greenhouse gas output.
Businesses can also undergo training to become certified in Energy Coordination. These are normally on-site training programs designed to assess energy usage at a facility and come up with a game plan to ensure sustainability.
“It’s designed to zero in on the things you need to know,” he said.
So what are some easy steps businesses can take toward sustainability?
The first step, all panelists agreed, was recycling. Instead of paying to have trash hauled away to a landfill, changing packaging design for reuse or straight-up recycling was much more efficient, sustainable and, in the end, profitable. Seifel said that Schneider Electric has generated more than $56,000 annually from its recycling program in Salisbury alone.
The second major fix is reducing energy usage. Bardinas and Schlobohm suggested getting an energy audit to figure out how much energy is being wasted and what can be done to conserve it. Some easy fixes are switching to more efficient lighting methods, such as LED instead of incandescent; installing lights that work on motion sensors; and putting in insulation. Henry also suggested moving toward energy independence. Other panelists agreed but warned that solar energy could be expensive to install without government tax credits.
“Our hope today was to see examples of the various ways business and industries can get engaged in activities that focus on sustainability,” Center for the Environment Executive Director Dr. John Wear said after the discussion, “and I think we have excellent examples of business leaders in our region who can help other business leaders see what they can do. Once they make those early steps, the next steps are easier and easier.”