Growing a green business: Three small companies make a go of it
One run by artists, another by entrepreneurs, and a third by environmentalists are trying to make conservation pay.
Fireseed Arts' first studio was an abandoned rusting box truck at the edge of the Wayland town dump. What sounds like a real estate nightmare "to us was like living next to an art supply store," says one of the company's founders, Dan Balter, a painter whose canvases include old headboards, trampled cardboard, and discarded fencing. His cofounder, artist and musician Patino Vazquez, makes instruments out of materials plucked from trash piles: professional-grade electric guitars hewn from kitchen cabinets, amplifiers housed in old briefcases, a drum kit crafted from popcorn tins and a ventilation shaft.
Almost four years after moving to its studio at the dump, Fireseed is a promising small business, supporting local artists who rescue and re-purpose items from the trash. With two new brick-and-mortar studios in Framingham and several revenue-generating projects, it's one of a handful of small Boston-area companies attempting to turn ecological sustainability into a sustainable business model.
For Fireseed's cofounders, the goal is to raise awareness of just how much waste we generate — a point they make through visual arts at exhibitions and festivals and through music they perform on their "junkyard instruments" at paid gigs. For two other area enterprises — CERO and GreenerU — the aim is to actually reduce the waste itself. The three companies have taken different directions in the green economy, pursuing the arts, business services, and education. But each is tackling a local piece of the same staggering problem: In 2013, Americans generated about 254 million tons of trash — 4.4 pounds per person per day.
In the studio: Art for the earth
When Patino Vazquez and Dan Balter pitched the idea of an "eco art space'' to the Wayland Board of Selectmen in 2011, they expected to be rejected out of hand. Instead, Wayland fast-tracked it within months. The Department of Public Works gave them space in the box truck, and within the year Fireseed had built its first communal art project: a 30-foot-long fish sculpture covered in "scales" made from 6,000 discarded compact discs.
"People would ask us how we found all those CDs — and what usually happens to them when we throw them away," says Balter. (The answer: Most end up in landfills, where they never entirely break down.) Moby Disc became their calling card at art festivals, a beloved fixture at the Wayland dump, and a model for other projects. The pair hoped that, just as Moby piqued people's eco curiosity, Fireseed's junkyard instruments would do the same. Two years ago, Vazquez put together a four-person "green punk" band that plays gigs at locations that include bars, libraries, and elementary schools. At school performances, band members talk about the importance of recycling, he says, but they don't have to say much; when kids are drumming on buckets and playing Fireseed's 4-foot-long xylophones made from maple floorboards and old picket-fence slats, the message is loud and clear.
Balter and Vazquez never expected Fireseed to make much money, and four years in, it still doesn't. But in a world where arts are often a casualty of school budget cuts and many artists take day jobs to pay the bills, Balter and Vazquez hope they're starting conversations — about material consumption, recycling, and the relevance of art itself. In the end, says Vazquez, they will measure their dividends not just in dollars but also in community experience and influence.
In the city: Trash into cash
For Dorchester's Tim Hall, dollars couldn't be more important. A longtime activist who grew up in the neighborhood, he's spent years fighting for better jobs and opportunities in his community, opportunities he felt never came.
"It became obvious if we were going to fix the job problem, it was going to be by ourselves," he says, pulling a green plastic trash barrel full of food scraps off a loading dock and into his 16-foot rental truck. The green economy offered that opportunity, he says, "and we sure as hell took it."
In 2012, after Massachusetts began considering a commercial food-waste ban, requiring businesses generating more than a ton of food scraps per week to divert them from landfills, Hall teamed up with residents of some of the city's poorest neighborhoods to create an organic-waste hauling company that would help local businesses comply with the law. The company was called Cooperative Energy, Recycling and Organics, or CERO, a co-op with five worker-owners, including Hall.
Their mission was to provide a practical service to businesses in Roxbury, Dorchester, and East Boston when the law took effect in 2014. In doing so, they hoped to create jobs for the community and for themselves. By design, Hall explains, CERO was a communal endeavor: Because it was a co-op, there would be no top-down direction; decisions would come democratically from all the worker-owners. And by holding a direct public offering, with a minimum investment of $2,500, they would share the risks and any profits with their investors, many of whom live in Dorchester or Roxbury.
On a recent weekday, Hall and fellow worker-owner Steven Evans drove CERO's haul truck through the streets of Dorchester and Mattapan, stopping at eight grocery stores and commercial kitchens before heading to a farm in Middleborough to drop off several hundred pounds of scraps for composting. They've learned their many roles — entrepreneur, environmentalist, truck driver, garbage collector — on the job, says Hall. "I don't mind the work, though," he says, smiling. "This is my company."
Launching that company, Hall explains, took the help of several area social-justice organizations as well as direction from other experienced co-ops. As one of a very few local entrepreneurial partnerships between African-Americans and Latinos, the bilingual business is a source of pride for the worker-owners; it was also a labor of love at first, run solely on sweat equity.
With little initial capital, says CERO general manager Lor Holmes, the co-op had no luck with loans from traditional banks, which viewed the enterprise as too risky. As a for-profit business, CERO had a tough time getting foundation grants. So it turned to alternative fund-raising strategies: an Internet crowd-funding campaign on Indiegogo, donations, and interest-only loans from the Cooperative Fund of New England and the Boston Impact Initiative. As of June, they'd raised $340,000 through the public offering and $30,000 in donations — enough to support all five worker-owners at $20 per hour for jobs they'd been doing gratis for 2½ years.
If businesses like CERO succeed, it's a win both for the environment and for the local economy, says Aaron Tanaka, the director of the Center for Economic Democracy, which funds grass-roots efforts, and himself one of CERO's 80-plus investors. "The climate crisis could help solve some of our local economic ones," says Tanaka.
On campus: Everyday eco-consciousness
Activist-owned businesses like CERO are still rare in the city, but area colleges envision a future of socially responsible entrepreneurs. From day one at Wellesley's Babson College, a business school, students internalize the school's emphasis on "Social, Environmental, Economic Responsibility, and Sustainability," or SEERS. Babson graduates have founded several of Boston's eco-minded companies, including Bigbelly solar trash compactors, the Stone Hearth Pizza restaurant chain, and Preserve, which makes commercial items from recycled materials.
For Alex Davis, the college's sustainability coordinator, the SEERS values have made it easy to collaborate with staff and faculty on green initiatives. But five years ago, he says, Babson didn't even have a sustainability office, though the college had long been committed to environmental issues.
What changed? A partnership with GreenerU, a private company that started and runs Babson's sustainability office, where Davis works. Headquartered in Watertown and founded in 2009, GreenerU works with educational institutions to reduce their carbon footprints on both the macro level — upgrading boilers, say — and the personal — persuading students and faculty not to leave lights on all night or take more food than they can eat from the dining hall. Six-year-old GreenerU has worked with a long list of East Coast schools, including Brown University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and Dartmouth College.
Colleges and universities are uniquely poised to become eco leaders, says GreenerU president and CEO David Adamian, one of three founders of the 28-employee company. Educational institutions, as long-term property owners with a mission of producing responsible adults, can invest in visions that stretch decades into the future.
But that doesn't mean they are able to do it, says Adamian, and that's where GreenerU comes in. "We're a little like personal trainers," explains Dallase Scott, the company's director of change management. Her title is apt. While GreenerU employs engineers and experts in green construction to assess institutions' infrastructure, Scott, who studied behavioral psychology, examines how peo ple actually act and then works with them to change their habits.
Confronting institutions about big-picture strategies — changing out inefficient light bulbs, resetting thermostats, installing solar panels, starting a recycling program — is "like telling a couch potato to run a marathon tomorrow," she says. Instead, GreenerU helps schools incrementally implement engineering changes and designs strategies to nudge people toward greener behavior.
College is a critical time when students are making decisions about how they want to live as adults, says Scott, and "we have four years to help lay down good habits."
Good habits, Scott says, start with convenience. At Babson, small behavioral reminders are now everywhere: bottle-filling stations at water fountains, light switches with yellow "Switch it off" signs, and recycling bins next to trash cans.
Larger, systemic changes are less visible. With the help of GreenerU, Babson has constructed new environmentally friendly buildings, implemented a food-waste composting program, and installed energy-efficient boilers. These "invisible'' investments, says Adamian, are the heart of GreenerU's work. Over the last six years, GreenerU has helped clients significantly reduce their CO2 emissions — the equivalent, the company boasts, of saving more than 28,000 barrels of oil and removing nearly 2,600 passenger vehicles from the road. Energy savings can translate to significant financial savings, and it's GreenerU's job to persuade institutions that not only can they afford to make these choices, they can't afford not to.
When GreenerU launched, no one else was specifically focusing on educational institutions as a market for green assessment services and project implementation. Today, the Watertown company is among the most successful in that niche — success that inspires small companies like Fireseed and CERO. For Fireseed, the dream is to support more outreach through artwork. At CERO, the founders envision an urban "eco-energy park" where locally composted soil comes full circle to nourish city gardens and generate power. CERO is already working with Tufts University students to explore the potential of an anaerobic digestion facility, in which compost would produce biogas, a fuel source. But even if those visions never come to pass, says CERO's Tim Hall, companies like his "give us jobs that we're proud to do."
For communities that want to see environmental and economic change, says Aaron Tanaka of the Center for Economic Democracy, some of the most valuable resources are the community members themselves. This is how change often happens, "from the neighborhoods on up."