Launched on Earth Day in 2016, the Asheville Workplace Challenge recognizes the efforts of local companies as they do their part to create a more sustainable future for Western North Carolina.
A partnership between the city of Asheville and Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, the AWC provides self-assessment tools to help local businesses lower costs, reduce their environmental impact and gauge their progress toward more sustainable operations. Based on the number of points each business racks up on its self-assessment, participants earn level designations from platinum to gold to silver to bronze.
While Asheville city government has established aggressive goals for reducing carbon emissions, the impact of the city’s actions only goes so far, says Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer. Citing “a great eagerness in our community on an individual and a business level to participate in slowing global climate change,” the mayor points out that the AWC provides businesses with support, guidance and recognition for their efforts.
The program’s initial goal was to enroll 50 companies in each of its first and second years. As the second year came to a close, 63 local businesses had signed up to participate.
Now, in conjunction with the work of the Energy Innovation Task Force, AWC organizers are exploring new options for expanding participation and engagement in the program.
Under new management
A joint effort of the city, Buncombe County and Duke Energy, the EITF’s job is to identify and implement strategies for reducing energy use, with the ultimate goal of avoiding or delaying the planned construction of a natural gas-fired “peaker” plant dedicated to providing power during periods of high demand, says Amber Weaver, the city’s sustainability officer. Based on the current rate of demand growth in Western North Carolina, Duke Energy proposes to build the new plant in 2023.
While the task force’s role is to identify existing and possible new programs to encourage energy conservation among residential and business users, a marketing arm of the effort — the Blue Horizons Project — has been charged with getting the word out. Through funding contracts with the city of Asheville, Buncombe County and Duke Energy, as well as other grants, Asheville’s nonprofit Green Built Alliance has taken on administration and community outreach associated with Blue Horizons.
According to Sam Ruark-Eastes, Green Built Alliance’s executive director, taking on responsibility for running the AWC alongside other outreach programs makes perfect sense. The trend, he says, has been for Blue Horizons to take on “outward-facing” projects aimed at promoting wider use of existing incentive programs to both individuals and businesses.
“We’re now at this point where we’re going to start taking [AWC] applications and start viewing those and also promoting it in the community,” he explains. “We are there to help people not only check a box but also figure out how to make a change that can help them save money and resources.”
Of the 63 businesses currently participating in the AWC, two have achieved the platinum level, the program’s highest.
(Ten companies are rated as having attained the gold level, 14 as silver and 13 as bronze. Another 24 companies have registered for the challenge but haven’t yet completed their scorecards, according to Bridget Herring, the city’s energy program coordinator.)
Platinum-rated Green Sage Café has implemented many of the strategies included in the AWC checklist for businesses — especially in the waste-reduction category. Each of the company’s three locations sends only one bag of trash to the landfill every week, says Seth Cole, community coordinator for Green Sage.
“That is less than the average American household,” Cole continues. “Composting and recycling is the easiest and probably most impactful thing other restaurants can do.”
In the future, Cole says, the café may start using reusable to-go boxes to reduce waste even further. Customers could place a deposit on the reusable to-go box when they pick up their first order. The deposit would be applied to the customer’s next order upon returning the box.
At Printville, a printing company with five locations in WNC, conscious choices have made a difference. During its participation in the AWC, the company has worked to eliminate waste and increase its use of sustainable products. For example, Printville uses paper with at least some recycled content and chooses inks that won’t harm the environment, owner John Long says.
“Unlike offset printing that uses inks with alcohol in them that are washed away, our process doesn’t use those types of inks, so nothing we use goes into the sewage system,” Long says.
Being part of the challenge meant doing what was right, according to Long. “It’s a [philosophy] that has developed over the years,” he says. “We just want to do what’s right for our community and for the environment. Many of the requirements for AWC we were already doing, so it was an easy thing to accomplish.”
As the company expands, keeping an eye on environmental responsibility will continue to be a priority, Long says. For its new facility, the company has hired a land planner to ensure that environmental considerations are integrated into the design.
“The land planner is key. They make sure that you obey all the right laws and that things like your rainwater runoff go to the right place,” Long says. “They’re important to make sure you do the right thing for the environment.”
Going to the dogs
A silver-certified AWC participant, the Asheville Humane Society’s sustainability efforts include installing energy-efficient lighting, using donated paper to line the floors of transport kennels, making interactive toys out of donated materials and implementing a scheduled naptime for the animals at the shelter every day. From 1-2 p.m., the shelter closes its animal areas to the public and turns off the lights, a simple measure that not only calms the pets but also saves money on energy.
The Humane Society’s future plans include strategies to reduce waste, water use and energy use on the campus of the Buncombe County Animal Shelter in South Asheville. The nonprofit plans to evaluate solar energy options with SolFarm Solar. The shelter will also move to paperless adoption contracts and will include a section on sustainability goals in its staff newsletter.
The efforts of AWC participants and other local businesses are critical to achieving the EITF’s goal of avoiding the need for the new peaker plant, says Corey Atkins, the chamber’s vice president of public policy.
“From the research, we basically saw that there were six days during the year that required this new plant,” he says. “We all thought surely we could find ways to manage that usage. We all thought, ‘Let’s not spend billions to take care of those six days.’”
Green Built Alliance’s Ruark-Eastes is on board with that goal and says the AWC provides companies with an opportunity to be recognized for their leadership and values.
“It being Asheville, this is a progressive community, and people who care a lot about social environmental causes — we vote every day with our dollar,” he says. “And so businesses that choose to express their values through sustainability can attract customers that also have the same values.”