Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Sustainable Businesses

By guest author, Jeni Tyjeski

Consumers today are increasingly aware of the effects that their decisions have on the environment. When faced with the option to purchase a product from a company that has environmentally friendly practices or buy a cheaper product from a company that isn’t sustainable, many people are making the choice to purchase the green product, even if they do have to pay a little more. Sustainable businesses “create products and services that compete on price and performance while significantly reducing humankinds impact on the environment” (Fried, 2014). As consumers seek out the green products more and more, green businesses become more competitive within their market and sustainability becomes a greater subject among the producers, regardless of their size.

I interviewed two Wisconsin businesses that either incorporate green practices into their business or were founded as a green alternative to a heavily polluting industry. Their business practices are environmentally friendly, educational for consumers, and extremely different from each other. Differences within the market are common, though, and Rona Fried, president of, comments that “sustainable businesses operate across all business sectors” (2014). Differences within the green market have been incredibly apparent while interviewing Northwoods Casket Company and Central Waters Brewing Company. Though these two businesses create vastly different products, they both have sustainable practices that set them apart from other businesses within their field. What efforts are these small business owners taking to grow and build their products sustainably and lessen their ecological footprint, and what is the value of a sustainable business? Could other, larger businesses, adopt a greener business approach similar to the paths taken by the companies interviewed?

After the passing of his grandfather, Jonas Zahn wanted to create a casket that was both skillfully designed and environmentally friendly. He also wanted the time spent creating the casket to be time where he could remember and honor his grandfather. What Zahn ended up with was a simple and unique design created with local materials that both honored and respected his grandfather’s memory. Following the creation of his first casket, Zahn further researched the natural burial movement. His first product was a kit that allows other families to spend the memorial time creating a casket for their loved one. After his first design, he continued to do more research and built many more prototype caskets, changing designs and materials to introduce a truly green and attractive product that exceed industry standards. In addition to the local materials used in the creation of the casket, Northwoods plants 100 trees for every product sold. The 100 trees sequester 200 pounds of CO2 in their first year, 4 times
A Simple Pine Box by Northwoods Casket Co.
more than the carbon footprint of Northwoods Simple Pine Box (Personal Interview). Compared to the 2000 pounds of carbon produced from a creation of a traditional steel casket, the Northwoods casket is actually bettering the environment from which their product is made (Personal Interview). One unique quality of the green casket business is their ability to create a product that is extremely sustainable. Brewing, on the other hand, has taken a different approach to creating a sustainable business, focusing on both their product as well as the process used to create it.

In 1999 Paul Graham added his years of brewing knowledge to the Central Waters Brewing Company team. With his understanding of the brewing process he brought passion for sustainable and local practices, which he used to expand the business. Graham, along with his co-owner, Anello Mollica, source a large percentage of their ingredients from local farmers, cutting back on transportation emissions in addition to sustaining local businesses. Central Waters has demonstrated a forward thinking approach to sustainable practices that not many other breweries have. They have two solar arrays at their brew house; one that provides hot water to heat the facility and preheated water for brewing needs. The other photovoltaic array produces twenty percent of their energy needs. Graham thought sustainability was important when choosing the packaging for the products as well. Sourcing the bottles from a green manufacturer and using post-consumer recycled cardboard, Central Waters shows an attention to detail in all phases of their production, a feature that appeals to a generation concerned with the future of our planet (Personal Interview). Though many consumers today are looking for a greener alternative, not all retailers are as willing to supply the newer and greener products to their specific clientele.

Julie Zahn, wife of Northwoods founder Jonas Zahn, commented on the difficulty of changing minds towards greener alternatives. Like Brodwin mentioned, sustainable practices are often thought of as nice, but not practical. It took Northwoods five years and many conversations, trade shows, newspaper articles, press releases, etc. to get the funeral industry to take their sustainable caskets seriously. A large percentage of the funeral directors “have been happy offering funeral options that do not account for environmental impact or sustainability for a very long time and are not very open-minded to change” (Personal Interview). Since green caskets are becoming more popular, and more consumers are looking for the green caskets, the families are pushing the funeral homes to add the green options to their casket offerings. Zahn adds that that is why consumer education has always been such an important aspect of Northwoods’ business plan. Though they can convince the funeral industry to carry their product, unless consumers are seeking to purchase green products, Northwoods efforts will be in vain. A successful sustainable business needs knowledgeable consumers looking for their green products in order to change traditional industry minds and survive in their market.

The practices that the businesses interviewed have implemented are sustainable and community-minded, but Northwoods Casket Company and Central Waters Brewing Company are relatively small businesses. Their products are geared toward select audiences: those looking for a casket or a beverage. What would happen if a larger business, like Wal-Mart, were to create and sell legitimately sustainable products? Though Wal-Mart is not typically thought of as a community-minded business, “big business plays an important role in sustainability due to its legitimizing value in the eyes of the public” (Brodwin, 2014). Though the products produced by Central Waters and Northwoods are sustainable, David Brodwin, cofounder of the American Sustainable Business Council observes “policymakers and others may dismiss it unfairly as too small to matter to the economy as a whole” (2014). Brodwin adds that the entry of large businesses into the green and sustainable market “proves the legitimacy and importance of sustainability as a concept and as a market force” (2014). It proves that sustainable practices work and can be implemented into any business, regardless of size. It tells competitors “’there’s money here’ and that brings more investment capital to help sustainable businesses grow” (Brodwin, 2014). It portrays the realness of the practices, and in turn, the media writes “serious stories about sustainability going mainstream rather than just human-interest stores about mavericks bucking the trend” (Brodwin, 2014). In order for success of sustainability as a widespread marketing plan, smaller businesses need to continue to model the success that they are having and push the larger businesses into action.

Central Waters Brewing Company and Northwoods Casket Company have not only envisioned a company ran sustainably, but also implemented practices into their business in order to reduce their carbon footprint and sustain local industries. “The arrival of big companies offers powerful, credible testimony that sustainable business is indeed good business” (Brodwin, 2014). The foundation of sustainable practices was created by small, grass roots efforts, and is growing into an increasingly important aspect of business ethics. These businesses have created effective plans for reducing their carbon footprint and producing environmentally friendly practices that need to be noticed and implemented by larger businesses. Green producers, combined with educated consumers are putting the necessary pressure on larger businesses to add more sustainable products and practices, helping to make sustainability an industry norm.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Could Biodegradable Caskets and Urns be Subject to FTC Scrutiny for Greenwashing?

In the fifteen years since the opening of America’s first modern green burial cemetery at Ramsey Creek, South Carolina in 1998, there hasn’t been a month with as many headline news articles from major news outlets on the topic as there were this past March.  The Green Burial Council estimates that as many as a quarter of America’s aging want a nature-friendly burial absent of concrete burial vaults, steel caskets, and formaldehyde embalming chemicals.  The NFDA hosted a workshop entitled, "It’s Only a Matter of Time: Are You Ready for Natural Burials and Green Funerals?” for funeral directors attending the annual convention in Austin, Texas last October.  Some funeral directors, including Amy Cunningham of Greenwood Heights Funeral & Cremation Services, say the time is now with one quarter of their clients prearranging green funerals.

Biodegradability is the most asked about aspect of green and natural burial alternatives when we receive inquires from families by phone or email at the Northwoods Casket Company.  The Green Burial Council has certified more than twenty firms who market green burial products including caskets, urns, and burial shrouds.  While the 2011 GBC Standards/Eco-Rating system for funeral products never cites the words biodegradable or degradable, nearly every marketer of green burial caskets, shrouds, or urns cites biodegradability as one of their key claims for eco-friendliness.

The October, 2012 update to the FTC Green Guides includes specific guidelines for using the word degradable or any of its derivatives when marketing green products.  The guide specifies that a degradable product must completely decompose into elements found in nature within a reasonably short period of time after customary disposal.  Any degradable claim for items customarily disposed in landfills, incinerators, or recycling facilities are deemed deceptive because these disposal environments do not promote decomposition within one year of disposal.

The guides were open for public comment for two years before the 2012 update.  Cynthia Beal, founder of the Natural Burial Company, commented on the new language for degradable in the proposed update.  She explained that caskets and urns customarily disposed in cemeteries are not likely to degrade (return to their natural elements) in one year as the law now requires.  Marketers of green funeral products use degradable to differentiate from non-degradables such as steel caskets, concrete burial vaults, and urns made from metal or ceramics.  Cynthia Beal stipulated that use of the word biodegradable in this context does not mislead consumers.  The FTC did not adjust the content of the Green Guides to further specify, or make an exception for, funeral products customarily disposed in cemeteries.

What, really, is the relevance of biodegradability in funeral service products?  An accelerated return to its natural elements does not necessarily make any given burial choice greener, or better for the environment, than another.  As a matter of science, the argument is that decomposition, which releases carbon dioxide into the soil & atmosphere, should be slowed and not accelerated if we aim to reduce the degradation of our environment.  Nonetheless, claims of biodegradability are only meant to discern those funeral products that are degradable from those that are not.  However, the FTC Green Guides of 2012 could scrutinize marketers of natural burial caskets, urns, and shrouds for being in violation of the law for using the word biodegradable to describe their products!

Natural burial has shifted from trendy topic to modern movement in the United States just as it did almost a decade earlier in the U.K.  As more consumers research green[er] funeral options and make inquiries for eco-friendly alternatives to the conventional funeral, we should expect scrutiny from the FTC.  The funeral industry has not yet been the subject of FTC scrutiny for greenwashing, but that could change.  Funeral service has been in the crosshairs of the FTC before—recall The Funeral Rule.  Let us keep in mind that the FTC’s primary concern is protecting consumers from deceptive marketing.

What should we do?  Biodegradability is a great conversation starter with families interested in green funerals.  As funeral service professionals, we should be prepared and address this talking point transparently to avoid accusations of deceptive marketing.  We should explain that in a conservation cemetery where the casket is in direct contact with the soil, the availability of moisture and organic bacteria create prime conditions for rapid decomposition of wooden caskets or urns, and shrouds made from natural fabric.  By contrast, the same wooden casket or urn "customarily disposed" in a sealed concrete vault in a cemetery will not degrade rapidly.  There are creative alternatives in a conventional cemetery that can accelerate decay, but in my experience, the family is more interested in environmental conservation than accelerated decay.  It might be time to shift the conversation.

What is better for the environment?  Biodegradability [of casketed human remains] is hardly relevant to the preservation of our natural habitat.  We professionals should take the opportunity to explore other topics far more relevant to “being green” in funeral planning.  Talking points such as carbon footprint, sustainability, toxicity, pollution, and local-sourcing are far more interesting than biodegradability.  Furthermore, these talking points are more easily aligned with an individual’s core values and can better aid families making decisions, especially when choosing between burial and cremation.