Issue April 19, 2011

Green giants

Meet four Louisvillians who have put their eco-friendly ways to work

Ellen McGeeney is a partner at Grasshoppers Distribution, a local-food distributor seeking to bridge the gap between supermarkets and community supported agriculture, or CSAs. Last year alone, Grasshoppers paid $350,000 to local farmers. Prior to putting her love of local food to work at Grasshoppers last July, she was a stay-at-home mom, and before that, she did turnarounds for private equity portfolios.

LEO: How is Grasshoppers unique?

Ellen McGeeney: Grasshoppers is trying to create new food-consumption models. The grocery store model is flawed. Food is trucked all over and leads to tremendous waste. On the other end, there are traditional CFAs (community farm alliances). You invest in a farmer’s farm … and get what you get. It’s perfect for the farmer, but impractical in the real world. We’re trying to do something in the middle, add choice. To ask (customers) to just eat what we give them is not sustainable.

LEO: How does it work?

EM: We’re trying to get 70 percent subscriptions and 30 percent add-on choices. For example, you can sign up for a weekly subscription. In a traditional CFA, you have to pay it all upfront. I do it monthly. Also, we let folks go on vacation, so they don’t pay when they are out of town.

LEO: Who are your customers?

EM: We have a range: Some people are on food stamps. The bulk seems more middle-class. I don’t want to be just for rich folks — that’s so crummy. My goal is to make this food accessible broadly. We are working on a program with our producers (to reduce costs). If they bring me 3,000 pounds of potatoes, would they now throw in an extra 5 percent at as low a price as they can handle?

LEO: What are some problems you’ve encountered?

EM: One challenge is distribution. With a traditional CFA model you may go to a church (for food pickup) between 4 and 6 p.m. once a week. We are trying more to bring food to where people already are. We’re working with the YMCA to have a drop-off there. We also have corporate drop-offs, so people can get food at, for example, Brown-Forman. Our other big partner is Rainbow Blossom. We have a pickup at their St. Matthews store, and they are now letting us experiment with a pickup at Springhurst.

LEO: Would you consider Louisville a leader in local food?

EM: I think we’re becoming huge. Look at our local restaurants, there is such variety and quality. Consumers are so supportive. If you give them an equal choice they will choose the local option.

 

Michael Drane, 31, has helped make green take-out containers mainstream in Louisville. He did this via his startup company Ecosteward, which makes food containers that compost in as few as six weeks. Local restaurants including Café Lou Lou, Austin’s and the Mayan Café use Ecosteward products. Three years ago, Drane sold Ecosteward to food distributor Creation Gardens, where he is a managing partner.

LEO: Why did you start Ecosteward?

Michael Drane: I grew up working in restaurants. I saw companies providing green solutions for restaurants, but the restaurants were having a hard time implementing them. I knew Louisville had family farming and a vibrant local business environment …

Today, to go green is such a general term it almost doesn’t carry any meaning. You’ve really got to buy a green product from a green company. Otherwise, it’s just someone trying to make a buck.

LEO: How do you go about getting business?

MD: When they feel the pressure from customers they decide to call. (We’ve built) a level of trust and authority in the marketplace, because it’s the only thing we sell. This has allowed us to grow the business steadily, and now the economies of scale are in our favor. There is not a company out there that can sell a compostable take-out container cheaper than we can.

LEO: How do compostable products compare price-wise?

MD: A typical Styrofoam container might cost 12 cents. Mine costs 20 cents. The restaurant is paying for that. The question I pose to restaurants is this: Is the money saved buying Styrofoam more than the money you could make using compostables? If these containers bring in an extra two to three customers per month, you’ve made more in profit.

LEO: So the demand can come from the consumer?

MD: Sure, if everybody focused on their favorite restaurant, and said, “I love your restaurant but would love it more if you used certified compostable take-out containers.” I do that, and I know I’m not alone.

LEO: How far away are we from McDonald’s using sustainable products?

MD: They only do it when their customers appreciate them doing it. If they feel their customers don’t care, it’s not worth the expense. I don’t think they’re looking to be change agents … We are a change agent, we’re out there to generate demand. We believe if you build it, they will come.

 

After she had her first child, Mama’s Hip owner Shannon Stone, 29, sought to not only open a store, but also create a meeting place for fellow eco-minded parents in the Highlands area. The Louisville native has done that, with her three-year-old business quickly becoming a fixture on Bardstown Road. Thriving despite the recession, Stone is now considering whether to add a second location.

LEO: Why did you start Mama’s Hip?

Shannon Stone: I always wanted to own my own business, and after I had my first kiddo, I saw the need for natural parenting resources. Some products, yes, but also activities, classes and a place for people to meet … people with a general interest in natural parenting, breastfeeding, and who are open to cloth diapering.

LEO: What does it mean for you to be green?

SS: It is extremely important to me personally. I wanted to bring that to the business and customers. We promote the use of cloth diapering and breastfeeding, which are extremely sustainable … this kind of parenting is accessible for anyone. It’s not all or nothing. It doesn’t have to be overwhelming.

LEO: What about the products you sell?

SS: We sell a lot of things locally made by moms in our community. Part of our mission is to support them. And we try to carry as many products as possible made in the U.S., which is fairly difficult right now. We mostly sell cloth diapers, breastfeeding supplies and baby carriers.

LEO: How do you keep a green focus?

SS: We keep the temperature steady (in the store), use an electric lawnmower to cut the grass. We recycle all our boxes, paper and waste. We don’t do many printouts, a lot of our information is online. We use fluorescent bulbs.

LEO: What are some upcoming events?

SS: One is The Great Cloth Diaper Change. We’re participating in a national effort to (create) the Guinness World Record for changing the most cloth diapers in any location at one time. What’s neat is all four cloth-diaper businesses in Louisville are participating. And we will have locations at the Louisville Zoo and the Earth Day Hootenanny. We’d love to have 100 people turn out to change a diaper. It’s at noon on April 23 … I think Louisville can handle it.

LEO: Seeing more dads these days?

SS: We are, and we would like to see even more. Dads come to music class. That’s the dad thing.

 

Claude Stephens, 52, is both environmental entrepreneur and educator. For his steady day job, he serves as director of education at Bernheim Forest, a post he’s held for 12 years. Three years ago, though, he and his brother, Chas, started the green business consulting firm Generation 14. His family’s Louisville roots date back to the late 1700s, and their original homestead — built in 1818 — now houses its eighth Stephens generation. “That’s sustainability in and of itself,” he says.

LEO: Describe your work at Generation 14.

Claude Stephens: Creative problem-solving around sustainability. The title of our company comes from “generation seven” thinking. The Iroquois nation had a mandate that whatever they did, they should consider seven generations forward. My brother and I are seventh-generation Louisvillians. If we are thinking seven generations forward, that’s Generation 14.

LEO: What has Generation 14 accomplished?

CS: Specifically, we’ve helped building projects pursue LEED accreditation, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. It’s (an internationally recognized green building certification system) developed through the United States Green Building Council.

LEO: How many businesses have you helped get this designation?

CS: Four, and at the moment, we’re working on a fifth. One is the Bluegrass Eye Center, and another is the (new) Kosair pediatrics center In Crestwood.

LEO: What does LEED certification require?

CS: A building must meet a minimum energy efficiency and have certain site requirements. For example, it must protect storm water runoff during construction. It must have recycling programs in place. Those are the low-level things. (There are also) optional things. For example, to minimize the impact of your roofs, either by having a green living-roof (i.e. plants) or by having a cool roof, which would be a white membrane.

LEO: How do you determine what businesses need?

CS: It’s paying attention to five things: energy, air, water, soil and community. And by community we mean human and natural community of the site.

LEO: Tell me about your work at Bernheim.

CS: It’s in education … The better we get at understanding how nature works, the better we will be at designing ways to live and work in a sustainable fashion. We might meet with people at the visitor center, and they can see how that building is part of the ecosystem, bringing real-world examples to them. They have those personal “aha” moments where they say, “I get it.” I have the great fortune of having those conversations with everyone from elementary students to professional designers.