by Sophia Reuss
As the conversation around climate change continues to heat up around the province, businesses are being challenged to convert all the talk about sustainability into meaningful change. Examples of what this might look like are not hard to find. For Markham businesses, going green is an idea that has taken root. And although the approaches vary, there is a growing consensus: the future must be green.
In 2011, the City of Markham officially adopted the Greenprint Sustainability Plan, which gave the city a target of 25,000 green jobs by 2020. Now just three years out from the 2020 deadline, Markham businesses are embracing the spirit of this commitment. For some, this means creating new green jobs to help meet the target. For others, it means instilling green values in their businesses, encouraging staff eco-initiatives, and building sustainable workplaces. Yet others have found the inspiration to create brand new types of businesses, born out of a desire to be part of the solution to climate change.
The three companies profiled here – Alectra Utilities, EnerGreen Technologies, and Ripple Farms – have come up with different solutions for integrating sound stewardship of the earth with success in business.
PowerStream, a Markham-based energy company, recently merged with Enersource, Horizon Utilities, and Hydro One Brampton to form Alectra Utilities, which distributes electricity to nearly one million customers in Ontario’s Greater Golden Horseshoe area. For the past seven years, Environmental Coordinator Caroline Karovnen has helped Alectra prioritize sustainability, and she argues that building awareness and developing employee communities around sustainability is just as valuable as traditional “green” initiatives, like recycling. To that end, every year in mid-April (around Earth Day), the company runs a sustainability-themed week of activities, workshops, and fairs for staff called Green Week. It is organized by the company’s volunteer green team, and includes everything from “lunch and learns” to high-profile speaking events and cultural programming.
Alectra also supports companies that create green products by hosting a sustainability fair where staff can buy environmental products – everything from eco-cosmetics to laundry detergent and household items. “We’ll also show environmental-focused movies and just generally try to increase environmental awareness,” explains Karovnen.
These initiatives are complemented by policies that encourage environmentally friendly behaviours on a daily basis. One big piece is transportation. While sustainable commute programs tend to rely on available public transit options or bicycle-friendly infrastructure, Alectra has tailored its program to uniquely fit Markham. For example, staff are incentivized to carpool by being rewarded with underground parking. The company also runs a van-pool program, where groups of seven or eight staff members agree to share the cost of maintenance and operation of a single vehicle. Alectra estimates that these initiatives save around 450 tonnes of emissions per year.
But the employee engagement initiatives form only half of the picture. Alectra is in the energy business, which has a significant impact on the environment. Alectra’s Director of External Communications, Eric Fagan, says the energy sector is currently in a state of flux. “We’re going through something similar to what the telecommunications industry went through 20 or 30 years ago with cellphones.” He says emerging technologies “will ultimately give consumers, whether they’re businesses or residential customers, more energy choices.”
To be competitive in this environment, Alectra is embracing the changes. In recent years, it has advocated for wider access to charging stations for electric vehicles and bought several as company cars. It is also working to bring microgrid technology to communities in Ontario. Microgrids are scalable grids that allow customers to run off the provincial grid; they help to provide electricity to smaller populations, remote locations, or communities with diverse energy needs.
With an eye to the future, Alectra argues that going green is a multi-faceted challenge for businesses. Employee engagement initiatives alone won’t cut it. Neither will simply taking advantage of emerging technologies. Businesses in Markham committed to sustainability will need to think holistically and with vision.
“Even as we go forward into Alectra, we’re going to maintain our focus on sustainability, conservation, and going green,” says Fagan.
In the energy business, achieving sustainability dovetails nicely with the industry’s goals and evolution. But for many businesses, the initial steps required to go green can be difficult to discern, and may even appear financially unviable.
EnerGreen, an energy-solution company that manufactures 120 different products, including energy-efficient LED light bulbs, has helped some of Canada’s largest companies take these steps. President Sean O’Leary says that going green can start as simply as choosing a different light bulb, referring to lighting as “a low-hanging fruit”; with some simple changes, it can help businesses save anywhere from 60 to 90 percent of their energy costs or usage. What he says isn’t as simple is navigating the government rebates available for retrofits. EnerGreen has been designed to help businesses address this “major hurdle.” “Rebates can be relatively complicated processes for the more complicated jobs, so EnerGreen simplifies that and wraps it all up into one package,” O’Leary explains.
After lighting retrofits, O’Leary says that building automation is often the next step for businesses committed to going green. This makes facilities “smarter” by ensuring that heating and cooling systems do not run at inopportune times and by automating energy consumption.
While the steps involved in making facilities sustainable can appear daunting – and costly – O’Leary encourages businesses to see these changes as part of the ongoing process of upkeep and maintenance.
“Wherever you have a maintenance upgrade, working with a company like EnerGreen can help you make an upgrade you’re already planning to make while taking advantage of government rebates and putting in a more energy-efficient system,” he argues.
EnerGreen has deep roots in the Markham business community, and recently retrofitted the lighting at the Markham fairground. “Now when I go to the fair I know how much energy is being saved,” he says. “It’s neat to see our product in a place I’ve been going to since I was a kid.”
For Steven Bourne and Brandon Hebor, the team behind Ripple Farms, going green is not the eventual goal, it is the driving force and energy behind their business. The two young entrepreneurs left traditional business jobs in larger corporations to create a new social enterprise that they hope will transform the way we eat.
When Hebor and Bourne graduated from Seneca College’s Green Business Management program, they wanted to create a business that integrated sustainability “not only into what we do but in how we do things.” Working with Seneca’s HELIX program, which supports young entrepreneurs and incubates startups, they created Ripple Farms. Based in the Evergreen Brickworks in Toronto, it is Canada’s first urban farming unit.
Ripple Farms uses aquaponics – the combination of aquaculture, or the raising of fish, and hydroponics, or soil-less growing – to grow plants in a closed-loop system. The vertical farming unit loses water only to the processes of evapotranspiration and nutrient uptake, which makes it considerably more resource efficient than traditional techniques.
“Our main goal is tackling food security on a global scale, but we’re getting our start right here,” Bourne explains. Ripple Farms’ techniques grow organic produce at a higher density than traditional farming; the team intends to sell their wares to chefs and retailers, the “real change-makers in the industry.”
The advantages of this type of farming are myriad. It localizes food supply chains while helping communities realize the potential of urban agriculture as populations rise.
“We’re really trying to bring the farm to the city, to get people to understand how their food is actually made,” Bourne says.
Furthermore, it cuts down on transportation costs. The Ripple Farms team is hoping to drastically reduce the average food-to-plate distance, which is currently around 400 kilometres.
“I think there could be some real benefits to local business in the Markham area, and restaurants especially, who might be interested in partnering with us to see decreases in their transportation costs for food importation,” Bourne notes.
Bourne and Hebor have thought a lot about what it means to go green, and how it is changing the face of business. “It means valuing your business for much more than just a dollar value on a spreadsheet, and understanding the intricate and interrelated social relationships that can be created through business,” says Bourne.
It’s a lesson that many Markham businesses are already embracing. Going green is about more than adapting to new guidelines or taking advantage of rebates: it’s a new way of thinking about value, profit, and the ethical role of business. With change on the horizon, many Markham businesses are positioning themselves to be on the crest of the green wave.