Eco-Enterprise by Sarah Sekula for FirstMonday Magazine

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Published in FirstMonday Magazine in 2009, By Sarah Sekula

By the time 29-year-old eco-preneur Julie Norris cruises into work at 10 a.m., her café is buzzing with activity.

She briefly ignores her extensive to-do list and pulls up a hand-painted, secondhand chair for a quick bite to eat. While nibbling away on a Curty Pie — organic apple slices topped with cinnamon, cream cheese and cranberries held together by a toasted English muffin — she passionately explains her unusual business plan.

Step 1: Open a funky, Shrek-colored green urban teahouse. Next, fill it corner to corner with business professionals, hip-hop artists, grandmotherly types and, of course, sprinkle in a few green-minded folks. Kick in a Co-Op America Green Certification (a distinction held by only 81 businesses in Florida), and Voila! you’ve got Dandelion Communitea Café on the outskirts of downtown Orlando.

The standout eatery is a bona fide eco-sensitive business, from the biodegradable corn- and sugarcane-based take-out containers to the energy-efficient appliances to the fair trade sugar packets and the Florida-grown food. The restroom soap is nontoxic and dye free; the granite tabletops were donated. Even the decorative Christmas lights beneath the tented ceiling of orange and red-striped fabric are LED (lightemitting diode), gobbling up much less energy than the alternative incandescent bulbs. What’s more, Norris’ 14 employees (or “tribe,” as she calls them) all ride their bicycles to work, where bike racks and a shower are available.

“Our goal is to become a zero-waste company,” says Norris. And by the looks of her super-duper compost machine, or Vital Vermi-Converter, which is the size of a minidumpster, she’s off to a good start. The self-contained unit is solar powered and houses thousands of red worms that munch on the coffee grounds, tea leaves, leftover veggies, lawn clippings, napkins and cardboard, converting the waste into fertilizer in a few day’s time.

Surprisingly, the wiggly invertebrates chomp up about 10,000 pounds of green waste a year, so none of it has to be hauled off to the dump. The product’s creators, an Apopka-based couple, first realized the composter’s potential on a trip to Australia, where residents using a similar product reduced organic waste going to landfills by 65 percent in a four-year period.

Less Is More

Beyond Norris’ ambitious zero-waste goal, she plans to incorporate more green elements in the future, like a solar water heater, rooftop solar panels and a bicycle delivery service. When it comes to lightening her energy footprint, “It’s primarily about what I don’t do,” says Norris. “I’m always thinking, How can I eliminate something?”

As green-centric as she is now, it’s hard to imagine her any other way. Yet, it wasn’t until 2001, on a post-graduation backpacking trip through Europe that it clicked. After tasting organic food for the first time, she says, her palate led her to the environmental movement.

Turns out, her relatively new love for all things natural is paying off. At any given lunch or dinner hour, the café line is out the door. Perhaps it’s the tofu-topped “Henry’s Hearty Chili,” loaded with sweet corn and super-secret spices that draws a crowd. Or maybe it’s the art openings and poetry nights that the homey hideaway hosts. Or, it could be the green businesses that are sprouting up around it, together creating a cozy bohemian-style atmosphere, complete with medicinal herb garden, green spa and nearby yoga studio.

Whatever it is, it’s working. And it is proof that the organic movement is not just for Sierra Clubbers and Ed Bagley Jr. types anymore: U.S. sales of organic food increased 22 percent to $17 billion in 2006.

The environmental and sustainability industry is gaining steam, too. What Norris has embraced over the past four years is nothing new to the Silent Million, a group of businesses that, back in the 1950s and 1960s, began adopting business strategies that met the needs of the enterprise while protecting, sustaining and enhancing the human and natural resources that would be needed in the future.

Boosting Your Eco-Cred

When it comes down to it, greening your business can be daunting if you look at the big picture. “Don’t focus on the millions of things you can do,” Norris says. “Focus on what the immediate problems are and determine the most authentic changes you can make.”

The first step is to measure your ecological footprint. Then set your boundaries and goals for reducing it. Consultants, who will analyze your company’s true environmental impact, come in handy.

“The best advice that I can give any organization looking to start some type of green initiative is to start with your ownership and secure the support that you need,” says Panks-Holmes. “From there, you want to start identifying your climate champions and create a sustainability team.”

She stresses that it requires a total corporate commitment to green any company’s products and services. “It needs to be founded on a thorough greening of the entire company,” she explains.

The bottom line — or the triple bottom line in this case — is this: There are long-term benefits to having a sustainability strategy both for good business and for good graces with Mother Nature.

Read the entire article online here.

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