By Alyssa Hurst
Image and renderings courtesy of the National Aquarium in Baltimore
Each year, the National Aquarium in Baltimore saves $230,000 on energy costs. Those savings are not the result of cost-cutting measures that leave visitors shivering and fish in the dark. They’re the result of going green.
In fact, the aquarium’s CEO, John Racanelli, has made conservation part of the aquarium’s mission — and that is making a difference beyond the organization’s balance sheet. Each year, the National Aquarium’s energy upgrades have stopped 27 million pounds of CO2 from entering the atmosphere. Its power purchase agreement with Constellation and OneEnergy Renewables allowed a Cambridge, MD farmer to keep his land, by turning it into a 22-acre solar farm that produces 40 percent of the aquarium’s energy needs each year. The farm has a 4.3-megawatt output and stops so much carbon from entering the atmosphere that it could be considered the equivalent of planting 75,000 trees.
The National Aquarium has stopped selling disposable water bottles, and instead offers reusable, branded bottles for the same price, along with filler stations. What’s more, in a move that Racanelli says has really brightened up the place, the aquarium replaced every single light in its 35-year-old building with LED bulbs. Better still, it replaced its massive, locomotive-like boilers and chillers with smaller, energy-efficient versions.
If Racanelli can do it, so can you.
Planning for the long-term
Adopting greener practices isn’t just about creating a more sustainable planet. It’s also a crucial element in sustaining business. And yet, there is still plenty of resistance to the movement.
“Companies still think of sustainability as this siloed add-on that they are supposed to be doing,” says Samantha Wittchen, co-founder and principal at iSpring, a sustainability consulting company.
“If you’re a leader, you’re heavily invested in this. You can’t afford not to be,” says Robert Kuhn, senior director and principal advisor at Kuhn Associates Sustainability Advisors, LLC. “But that’s maybe 1,000 companies. There are 300,000 companies in the country. So there is a segment in the business world that is a variant. Either the drivers aren’t sufficient … or they’ve got other issues on their plate or it’s too hard. “
Kuhn lists three primary reasons companies should be taking sustainability more seriously: the opportunity to save money, a chance to mitigate risk and the ability to attract capital.
There’s no doubt that implementing serious sustainability measures can be costly upfront. Replacing every light bulb in your building, as the National Aquarium did, costs money. Racanelli says that early on in his tenure, the aquarium performed roughly $350,000 in energy-efficiency changes. But those changes pay off. Years later, and with $230,000 annual savings in energy costs, Racanelli says, “Doing things in a sustainable fashion usually, almost invariably, doesn’t just help the environment — it also helps the bottom line.”
“It will insulate you from things like big price fluctuations in areas such as energy and water,” says Wittchen. “It helps you be more confident that … down the line when you’re doing your long-range planning, you have a better sense of what your costs are going to be so you’re not looking at these exploding costs and all of a sudden you’re in the red.”
Going green means mitigating risk
Risk mitigation is one of the biggest arguments in favor of embracing sustainability, according to both Wittchen and Kuhn. Before founding Kuhn Associates, Kuhn inherited the management of an old company that worked in chrome plating. Chrome, Kuhn says, has a “very, very nasty environmental profile,” and the company did its work with inefficient, old equipment. One day, a regulator showed up and handed the company a failing grade on its inspection.
“He basically said, ‘Here’s the deal: You can no longer continue the process until it’s repaired.’ We put our revenue at risk,” says Kuhn. If a leak had occurred, the onus would have fallen squarely on the shoulders of Kuhn personally. Ultimately, Kuhn got out of the business.
Kuhn’s former employer hadn’t considered the risks of operating in such an environmentally unfriendly way. And with many companies unfamiliar with the practices of each link in their supply chain, this is a very real problem.
“Maybe you are making money hand over fist today, but what’s going to happen tomorrow when … your license to operate has been taken away because you depleted the water supply for this one community, and now they are all in a drought,” says Wittchen.
Being a good actor
The final piece of the puzzle is attaining capital, and to do that, a business must consider stakeholder pressures, including those from consumers and investors. “Today, smart investors are getting a little more savvy about the long-term impacts of business activity. They are starting to price those into stock valuations,” says Kuhn.
What’s more, Kuhn says as customers take a greater interest in environmental sustainability, they can choose to support businesses that make such endeavors a priority. “Companies and people are suspect today. There’s a little bit of a lack of trust, so there’s an impetus to be a good actor,” he says.
Racanelli agrees, and adds that American consumers aren’t dumb: “If you’re looking at two companies that produce the same product, and you know that one does it in a way that is resource efficient, is endeavoring to do right by the planet, is trying to reduce its footprint … 99 percent of consumers will turn to the one that is doing it well.”
Follow-through is on you
Under Racanelli, the National Aquarium has made a cultural shift, and is now wholly devoted to conservationism and sustainability. In addition to making internal adjustments to better the environment, the aquarium acts as a leader in the community, pushing its efforts outward. Its 48 Days of Blue campaign attracted 15,000 steady sign-ons. The program encouraged people to make changes to their daily lives, such as discontinuing use of products with microbeads, and in a survey, 98 percent of people said they were sticking with the practices they had picked up, says Racanelli.
The National Aquarium’s new urban wetland, a planned redesign of the waters around piers three and four in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, hopes to revitalize the area with something that is not only beautiful, but also beneficial. “That will produce about an acre of living marsh grasses, a variety of species … and that of course is all oxygen-producing,” Racanelli says. “We really do think it can be another renaissance started here in Baltimore.”
Racanelli’s background in ocean conservation and his passion for inspiring people through the National Aquarium’s mission are the catalyst for its sustainability and conservation programs. But at many companies, getting the CEO on board with such efforts is the most difficult, yet most important, step. “I do think a lot of it rests on [CEOs]. And they don’t necessarily need to know how to do it; they just need to be behind it,” says Wittchen.
Wittchen points to automaker Ford as an example. “They were going down their path … for a while, which was not particularly sustainable. And then all of a sudden, you see Bill Ford Jr. say ‘Hey, we need to do something about this.’ … You just get that person in that role who says, ‘No. This is a priority and we are going to do this.’ And I think it can do a lot for changing how the company runs.”
It’s great to add team members with a passion for sustainability, but without support from leadership, and the purse strings they pull, you won’t get a win. “We’ve seen companies where they’ve established a director of sustainability, but they don’t empower them,” says Wittchen. “They don’t give them any budget, they don’t really give them any leverage over different departmental managers, and those programs do not succeed because … nobody takes them seriously.”
Says Racanelli, “If we are not leading, then who else? If we’re not leading, I don’t know who could be.
“People are amazed. They are amazed you can do all of this within the framework of a medium-sized business. For us, it all ties back to our mission-based organization, and I think this ties back to businesses as well,” he adds. “I think once we start stepping up and taking a lead, other organizations tend to follow.”
Going green 101: Tackle your bulbs and waste first
Environmental problems are abundant, and they don’t all have hard and fast solutions. Deciding to help is one thing, but tracking down the end of the ball of yarn is difficult. No one company can tackle all of the world’s problems at once, and while businesses are in a good position to move the needle, it’s easy to get overwhelmed.
“You think ‘God, these challenges we face are so great — climate change, ocean acidification, loss of habitat, extreme weather… all these things that are happening.’ It’s easy to feel hopeless,” says John Racanelli, CEO of the National Aquarium.
And this is where companies fall off the wagon. “I see the biggest breakdown is in companies putting their money where their mouth is,” says Samantha Wittchen, co-founder and principal at iSpring. But, says Racanelli, “Every little endeavor does count for something.”
“There are still companies who aren’t doing anything,” Wittchen says. “You have got to start somewhere.”
Wittchen’s advice for a true sustainability beginner: Start with the low-hanging fruit. Swap out light bulbs like the National Aquarium did, or start by taking a closer look at waste. “We always say that waste and recycling is kind of a gateway drug to larger sustainability. One of the areas companies can look at pretty easily is what happens with their waste,” says Wittchen.
“You can easily start taking a look at, how much waste do I produce? Where do I produce it? What is the composition of that waste? … Am I sending as much for recycling as possible? … I think that’s a good place to start because it’s one of those places where you can generate a quick win,” she adds.
Robert Kuhn, senior director and principal advisor at Kuhn Associates Sustainability Advisors, LLC, created a paradigm called the “four Ps” to guide clients through the process of becoming more sustainable. These help businesses identify the four areas of business that create the biggest environmental and social impacts, and include places, people, processes and products. Once companies have an understanding of this framework, Kuhn says it’s important that they focus. “Which of all of those possible things is most important? Where should they start? We say, ‘What’s the most material thing for your business?’ It could be that you have a serious water issue. So let’s start there.”
From there, information gathering can set a company up for a successful project. Kuhn says a cross-functional team can help bring issues to light. “Get people from sales, get people from marketing, get people from finance, supply chain … all these people together to talk about what possible problems are, and use that framework,” he says.
Just like Wittchen, Kuhn cautions companies to start small: “Get a handle on what matters and start in one place. Start with one issue and run a pilot program. Do not take on your whole business. Focus on one product line, one specific issue, one supplier. See what you can do.”