Going Green in a Busy World at the NJ Sustainability and Small Business Summit

Panelists (L-R) Randall Solomon, co-founder, Sustainable Jersey and senior advisor, The College of New Jersey; Tom Bracken, president, New Jersey Chamber of Commerce; Jeana Wirtenberg, co-founder and senior advisor, Institute for Sustainable Enterprise; James Gowen, chief sustainability officer and vice president of supply chain operations, Verizon at the annual New Jersey Sustainability and Small Business Summit.

By Debra Falk

Small business owners have a lot on their plates these days trying to keep their businesses going. How can they possibly find the time — and resources — to go green? Those attending the annual New Jersey Sustainability and Small Business Summit at Saint Peter’s University in Jersey City on Thursday were there to find out.

A series of panelists from the public, private, non-profit and academic sectors came together before an audience of about 150 in the university’s Mac Mahon Student Center for an interactive discussion about the realities of going green, its challenges to the small business community and how the long-term economic impact of sustainability practices can equate to smart business. Verizon partnered with the city of Jersey City, the New Jersey Technology Council and to host the event. Panelists spoke on a variety of aspects of becoming a sustainable business, from identifying available resources and tools to initiating new partnerships and sharing best practices with peers.

“Economic development goes hand in hand with sustainability,” said Jersey City Deputy Mayor Vivian Brady-Phillips. “It fosters community development,” she added, referencing tax abatements and job training as ways the city is becoming more sustainable.

According to Adam Zellner, president of Greener By Design, one of the hardest things to get people to understand is that “Energy is a commodity, like milk. Saving money on energy is an asset to consumers.” He stressed that individuals and businesses have the option to shop around for their energy providers, citing that there are numerous companies from which to choose.

But even knowing the benefits, how do small business owners, busy running their businesses, engage in sustainability?

“Go with small wins,” said Jeana Wirtenberg, co-founder and senior advisor for the Institute for Sustainable Enterprise. “Everyone (especially small business owners) is so busy, they don’t know where to start. You know you need to do it all, but not all at once.”

Practical suggestions from panelists ranged from small steps like unplugging devices and setting timers to use less energy when people aren’t present in a building or home to installing water-efficient restrooms, generators and solar panels. Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage cited one example: the Jersey Gardens Mall has 15 solar panels on its roof. It was also noted that the building at the university hosting the conference was built green, utilizing alternative energy sources that enable it to stay running during storms. There are also ways for groups to aggregate their power usage with other organizations to pool resources and expenses. And many major companies, like Verizon and PSE&G, have sustainability and renewal management officers dedicated to finding efficiencies for their companies and its employees.

Sustainable resources in action at the New Jersey Sustainability and Small Business Summit: solar panels help run St. Peter’s University, where the conference was held.

Some panelists admitted that cost can be an issue when trying to “do the right thing.” But there are incentive programs available, and anyone can find them.

“A landlord may not realize that cash is not necessarily needed to make (green) improvements,” said Paul VanGelder, vice president for Power and Energy Market Development, CHA Inc., “but a tenant might.”

In doing their homework, “Sustainability unleashes the talent of the people,” said Wirtenberg.

Panelists encouraged audience members to seek advice from an array of advisors on the subject, from lawmakers to local organizations like Sustainable Jersey, that can help individuals and businesses figure out ways they can go green, without breaking their bank accounts. The New Jersey Chamber of Commerce posts a full listing of seminars and events aimed at sustainable business practices on its website.

According to Tom Bracken, the president of New Jersey’s Chamber of Commerce, sustainable practices make for a better bottom line for businesses and the economy in the long run. “You have to have a sustainable economy and that means sustainable businesses,” he said. “Businesses need to take an introspective look at ways to keep costs down. In doing so, they will inevitably be driven to some aspect of sustainability.”