Wednesday, May 25, 2022
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NC trend: How firms prioritize sustainability

An electric sign hangs in the concourse of Durham Bulls Athletic Park telling fans about the team’s sustainability initiatives at D-BAP.

“We divert food waste from our kitchens to composting plants versus landfills,” it reads. On popcorn bags, bold black letters read: “The Durham Bulls choose environmentally friendly Eco Select paper, which is 100% biodegradable.”

Sustainability, or living in ways that protect natural resources, has been a buzzword for decades. It’s now become a mainstream theme in the business world as a means of protecting the environment while also helping recruit employees, customers, suppliers and investors.

Recent online job listings showed Levi Strauss in Raleigh hiring a senior director of sustainability at a salary of $200,000 to $250,000. Coastal Credit Union Music Park at Walnut Creek, Ingersoll Rand, Cisco, RDU, and Bayer were seeking people to fill similar roles.

“A number of studies show a trend of employees who want to work somewhere that they think is doing good in the world and where they can feel good about working,” says Heather Beard, executive director of EarthShareNC, which connects businesses and environmental groups. “I used to hear about customers who wanted to know they were buying from a company that is responsible. Lately, I’ve also been hearing companies say their investors want to know about (sustainability efforts) and that they are a responsible company.” 

The Bulls compost 10,000 to 14,000 pounds of food waste a month because “it is the right thing to do,” says Dave Levey, the team’s food and beverage director. 

Here’s a look at sustainability efforts at five N.C. organizations.

Sierra Nevada Brewing, Mills River

Leah Cooper is in her sixth year as sustainability program manager at Sierra Nevada Brewing’s Mills River brewery, which opened 20 miles south of Asheville in 2015. A year later, the site became the first production brewery in the U.S. to achieve Platinum certification for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a certification system for structures designed and built using sustainable strategies. 

Cooper works on a wide range of climate-change mitigation efforts for the Chico, Calif.-based brewer. She evaluates the brewery’s greenhouse-gas inventory, water and energy usage, and waste reduction and builds partnerships with vendors.

“Consumers now want brands with integrity,” she says. “If you are able to create legitimate programs around sustainability and continue to innovate within those areas, your consumers will appreciate that and keep coming back. It builds a sense of brand loyalty.” 

Several sustainability initiatives include reducing cardboard packaging and utilizing a carbon dioxide recovery system. Cooper also worked with American Recycling of Western North Carolina to develop a joint plastics and cardboard recycling center for about 20 breweries and other businesses.

“The vast majority of the projects we implement do have some type of financial benefit associated with them, though it might be hard to qualify as a traditional return on investment,” Cooper adds. 

Renfro Brands, Mount Airy

Renfro Brands, which makes two dozen sock brands including Fruit of the Loom and Dr. Scholl’s, established its Corporate Sustainability Task Force in 2019.

“Companies can create a meaningful impact while capturing long-term value,” says Todd Roeder, vice president of vendor services and sustainability. “Whether that’s consumer loyalty, easier manufacturing processes with compliance to new regulations, employee engagement, or attracting and retaining new talents.”   

Roeder cites a recent McKinsey Global Institute study that found companies with ongoing environmental and social and governance programs show faster growth and higher valuations than competitors, by a margin of 10% to 20%.

 Renfro’s initiatives include:  

–Recycling. Renfro recycles raw materials and packaging. 

–Carbon emissions. The company continuously studies its transportation program to reduce transit times and emissions. 

–Socks to stuffing. Employees donated 170 pounds of socks that were broken down and used as furniture filling. 

SAS Institute, Cary

 Jerry Williams’ first big sustainability project for Cary-based SAS Institute was a 5-acre solar farm in 2008. It generates 1.8 million kilowatt-hours of power a year and marked a groundbreaking alternative energy project in the Southeast, reflecting SAS’ reputation for cutting-edge innovation. “This project really helped drive the growth of the environmental program and helped demonstrate that what we do for the environment also makes good business sense,” says Williams, the chief environmental officer.  

When discussing new environmental programs, saving the planet doesn’t necessarily resonate with all audiences, he says. “If you have a bunch of finance people in the room and you need to secure approval for your next initiative, you better be able to talk to the numbers, too.” Some investments have a good return, while others may not, he notes. 

Williams agrees that sustainability also plays an important role in recruiting employees, vendors, customers and business partners.

“It’s becoming increasingly important to all these groups that they are doing business with good corporate citizens. Customer engagement is probably one of the biggest drivers for organizations to develop or implement sustainability departments,” Williams says.  SAS has seen a dramatic increase in the number of customer questionnaires used to determine the company’s actions related to climate change and other measures.

“They want more than just lip service. These surveys are quite comprehensive, and customers are looking to see that you are tracking the data and performance of environmental initiatives.”

SAS’ initiatives include:

–Solar. SAS has two solar farms and seven rooftop solar installations that generate about 4 million kilowatts of clean energy each year. 

–Charging stations. The Cary headquarters has about 65 charging stations for electric cars.

–Green buildings. About 2 million square feet, or 82% of its office space in Cary, is LEED-certified.

–Measuring progress. Smart devices and building management systems measure energy consumption and related emissions.

Bees. Four beehives help bees repopulate across the Triangle.

Crescent Communities, Charlotte 

Crescent owns 21,500 multifamily units and has 21 million square feet of office, industrial and retail space built or under construction across 14 markets. Individual investors, mutual funds and private-equity partners want to know companies’ goals and performance toward carbon reduction, says Lisa Richards, who oversees sustainability at the Charlotte-based company. 

Hiring sustainability directors “is a trend that’s ramping up rapidly. It’s driven globally and it’s circling down to the Southeast,” she says.

Sustainability encompasses much more than sustaining the environment and monitoring carbon dioxide emissions, she says. “It includes measuring community impact, how we support local nonprofits, how we managed through COVID-19 challenges, and our emphasis on creating a more diverse and inclusive real-estate development community,” she says. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals cover 17 topics including nutrition, women’s rights and zero carbon, she adds.  

Crescent Communities’ sustainability practices include:

–Certified green. Crescent’s new buildings seek LEED or National Green Building Standard Certification. Example requirements for certification are efficient windows and doors so HVAC systems are efficiently used and highly reflective roofing materials so that less heating and cooling is required.

–Data collection. Last year, Crescent started requiring managers of its multifamily communities to gather data on energy use, water use and waste management. Crescent usually sells the communities it builds after construction is completed, but the company will be able to continue measuring their environmental impact.

–Smart landscaping. Plants, green space and natural areas around Crescent’s buildings are designed to have limited irrigation and use native species.

–Easy recycling. Cabinets are designed to accommodate space for trash cans and recycling. Most buildings offer valet waste and recycling programs.

Durham County

Tobin Freid was the second government sustainability officer in North Carolina when she joined Durham County in 2008. The first started in Asheville two months earlier. “My position was created when the city of Durham and Durham County adopted a greenhouse-gas emissions reduction plan and decided to create an office to implement that plan,” she says.

Now cities, towns and counties of all sizes have a point person devoted to sustainability. Freid oversees initiatives for county government operations as well as programs that help residents, businesses and organizations in Durham County reduce their carbon footprints. The city, county and Durham public schools account for only 2% of total county emissions, so encouraging others to act is a key role.

Durham County’s sustainability efforts include:

–Increasing energy efficiency. Freid oversees a $5 million contract that reduces energy and water use in seven buildings by investing in systems that have a 12-year payback.

–Electric car charging. The county opened 12 electric car charging stations in 2012. Last year, the stations were upgraded, leading to 26 port chargers now.

–Reducing urban heat islands. The county partnered with several local and state entities to identify specific areas that experience more extreme heat. These “urban heat islands” often need greenspace to reduce heat. 

–More solar panels and electric vehicles. Durham County is adding solar panels at government buildings and buying electric vehicles to help meet a goal of 80% renewable energy use by 2030 and 100% by 2050.

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