Thinking Sustainably, Living Responsibly

| By Randy Talley, Co-owner of Green Sage Cafe |

Sustainability is a great idea – an essential way of thinking for humanity to embrace. It might also be a great myth – that people can live in a truly sustainable way. Sustainability implies that our activities do not harm the environment, help reverse damage already done, and insure a healthy, viable future for our children, grandchildren, and all other life forms. Our collective behaviors are harming the world faster and more destructively than we ever imagined possible. Still, we must strive to be environmentally and socially responsible and engage in sustainable practices to give ourselves and all other living species a long-term chance to thrive.

Sustainability has become a keyword for business and civic leaders that understand an economic bottom line is not good enough to insure the success of companies and communities. Balancing economic needs is a given, but equally important are the needs for the health and welfare of people, the environment, bio-diversity, clean air and water. We must collectively reduce our environmental footprint, reduce consumption, reduce emissions of carbon and methane into the atmosphere, stop polluting our water supply, stop poisoning our farmlands with pesticides, and ensure the humane and ethical treatment of all people and animals.

Sustainable practices may not add up to perfection, but they will lead us on a responsible and enlightening path. Bold steps in the right direction will surely change the trajectory of the dangerous course we are on and create a mindset of fast-paced improvement. Corporate business leaders like Patagonia, Sierra Nevada, and New Belgium have paved the way for communities and businesses to recognize and change behaviors.

Yvon Chanard, founder of Patagonia, started the company to help generate cash for his less profitable rock-climbing equipment company. At the time, Patagonia was filled with outdoor enthusiasts who had little idea about the negative impacts of the apparel industry. When they learned how dirty the industry was and that cotton was the most environmentally destructive agricultural crop on earth, they chose to use only organic cotton. They made a responsible decision, but even under ideal circumstances, the farming and production of an organic shirt is not sustainable. The process of making one shirt requires 2,300 gallons of water, the amount of water needed to sustain a village of 900 people for a day. Buying any second hand shirt or getting an old garment repaired is a more responsible choice. Patagonia also helped create an international fair-trade standard for the apparel industry to make sure that everyone involved with their products was treated and compensated fairly and ethically.

I co-founded Green Sage Café in 2008 with a mission to do something proactive about climate change and commit to using sustainable practices, including solar panels, energy saving equipment, composting, purchasing from local organic farms and producers, and making pure food with healthy, organic, non-GMO, all natural and humanely-raised ingredients. With the support of the Green Restaurant Association, we made hundreds of environmentally responsible choices to reduce energy, pollution, water usage and landfill waste. Our second store on Hendersonville Rd. was the first four-star green certified restaurant in the Southeast. Our original store is three-star certified and our newest store at Westgate was designed to achieve a four-star rating. Getting certified was a rigorous process that required an audit of every facet of the business including construction materials, equipment and food purchases, supplies and chemical choices, water and energy saving practices, use of renewable energy and energy-saving equipment, etc. Green Sage helped lead a community-wide effort to green 16 other area restaurants, and in 2012 helped Asheville achieve a recognition from the GRA as “America’s first green dining destination.”

Recently, Green Sage enrolled in a sustainability measurement program called RIPL (ripl.co), a local start-up company that created an efficient way for businesses and governments to measure the following specific practices by tapping into our QuickBooks accounting software. They measure: 1. Renewable energy usage; 2. Diversion of waste from the landfill; 3. Purchases from small companies; and 4. Gender equity.

The mission of RIPL is to cause a ripple effect in the supply chain so that, collectively, society purchases a sustainable future. Green Sage Café recently requested that its largest supplier of groceries – US Foods – enroll in the program. We are a tiny customer in the scheme of things, but working hard to inspire US Foods, a giant food service industry supplier, to be a more sustainable, environmentally and socially responsible company. We also asked our coffee supplier – Thrive Farmers – to join us. Their mission already commits them to providing a sustainable economic platform to coffee growers throughout the world. They help over 5000 small farmers make 50-75% more revenue than selling through brokers or to SB’s. So far, we are their only restaurant customer that purchases organic beans. Our local supplier of beef and pork, Hickory Nut Gap Farm, has also committed to enroll in RIPL.

Green Sage received a near perfect score for gender equity. We have equal numbers of men and women in all positions and pay them equally. We received very high scores for waste. We divert over 90% of our waste from the landfill, most of it in the form of food scraps for composting. Cardboard, paper, bottles and cans are recycled. We generate about the same amount of trash per store as a typical household.

Our most disappointing score was our energy score. Even with solar panels on all stores, coupled with the purchase of renewable energy credits for wind-generated electricity from Arcadia Power, our score was low. What we learned was that our electric usage only accounts for 30% of our energy score. Our electric bill accounts for 75% of our total energy bill and because electricity is expensive, we have done everything from using all LED light bulbs, installing PV solar panels, purchasing a smart espresso machine and smart-hood that turn themselves on and off based on need and usage, purchasing state-of-the-art refrigeration system that reduces energy consumption by a third – and still we earned a low score. I was puzzled until Justin Sacks, founder of RIPL, explained that 70% of our score was due to the heavy carbon footprint coming from the use of natural gas for cooking.

We love gas because it heats things quickly, burns clean, and is cheap. But it turns out that natural gas is a nightmare for the atmosphere. The methane released into the air during its extraction, i.e. fracking, is a dangerous molecule and at least 23 times more harmful than carbon in terms of causing global warming. The educational value of enrolling in RIPL was now apparent. Green Sage Cafe, in order to live up to its mission, will have to begin to reduce its reliance on natural gas as an energy source. And for that matter, so should Duke Energy. Now that our electricity supplier is in the natural gas business, they plan to produce power for decades using gas. This might be better than coal in the short run, but consumers and businesses need to put the heat under Duke and tell them to move away from fossil fuels altogether. We need to demand that they provide us with clean solar and wind-generated electricity.

Sustainable thinking leads to making responsible choices at home, work, and in the greater community. As responsible consumers and citizens we can collectively influence businesses and governments through our actions, including purchases, letters, petitions, marches and votes – to make the sea changes essential to the future of life.