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The fine green line

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Monday, June 01, 2009


Jim Houser of Hawthorne Auto Clinic in Portland has greened every corner of his shop, from using locally re-refined motor oil to shuttling customers in hybrid cars.

Oregon companies rely on green seals and local support groups to show there's substance behind their sustainable business claims.

By Michelle V. Rafter/ Photos by Robbie McClaran

First came green, then greenwashing.

The country’s green movement has led some companies to slap eco-friendly labels on their goods and services without actually changing how they make products or operate their businesses.

For example, the head of a Portland green business program recounts walking into an area bakery recently and seeing a display of sustainable flour. When asked about it, the establishment’s owner “was annoyed,” the program manager says. “He said, ‘I had to put all that crap about sustainability out there because that’s what I have to do if I’m going to do business in Portland.”

“It wasn’t part of the company’s culture,” the program manager says. “That’s the ultimate greenwashing.”

In such a hype-filled environment, conscientious company owners are anxious to separate themselves from imposters by showing customers they talk the talk and walk the walk.

Their dilemma: figuring out the best way to do that without sounding like they’re greenwashing, too.

Some companies purposely don’t say much about what they do. “A lot of legitimate companies are scared to talk for fear of being labeled greenwashing,” says Simon Dunn, a sustainability business consultant from Vancouver, B.C., who spoke at a University of Oregon sponsored greenwashing forum earlier this year.

One answer is green seals, the little green logos that can be found on everything from laundry detergent to paper products to carpeting. By allowing an outside organization to monitor how its goods are produced or its business operates and then grant a seal of approval, a company can show there’s substance behind its green claims.

If it were just that simple. According to sustainability program monitors and other experts, the country’s green love affair has sprouted more than 350 green seal or eco-monitoring programs tracking 3,200 products, and not all are created equal. Some require companies to go through rigorous testing or annual inspection of their entire supply chain, but others are little more than window dressing. “No wonder greenwashing exists. Who’s able to keep track of all that?” says Peter Korchnak of Semiosis Communications, a Portland green marketing agency.

The key, according to local and national sustainability experts, is vetting seal programs to make sure there’s something behind the fancy green logos, and then picking the ones that best suit an individual company’s needs. Some Oregon companies opt to align themselves with local green seal programs because it’s easier to monitor the monitors and get involved in the process.

Luckily, companies don’t have to sort it all out by themselves. Thanks to Oregon’s well-developed network of sustainable business support groups and public agencies, company owners can get advice and support on just about every aspect of their green efforts.

Exaggerating claims is only one of the six sins of greenwashing that sustainability industry experts point to. Others: making products sound greener than they really are, making claims that are difficult to substantiate, and making claims that may be true but are irrelevant or inconsequential, such as claiming a product contains no ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons, which have been legally banned for 30 years.

In 2008, UO associate professor of advertising Kim Sheehan helped launch the Greenwashing Index to raise awareness of the issue. To date, consumers have posted more than 180 print, TV, radio and billboard display advertisements to the Greenwashing Index website, rating how well product claims stand up against greenwashing measures on a scale of 1 for “authentic” to 5 for “bogus.”

“Consumers get very upset over the use of the word green,” Sheehan explained at the greenwashing forum. “There’s no definition of what it means. It’s a real hot button.”

Business owners Jim Houser and Elizabeth Dally spent 26 years greening their Southeast


Hawthorne Auto Clinic has been honored for its ongoing sustainable business practices.

Portland auto repair shop, Hawthorne Auto Clinic, and have gone to great lengths to document their efforts.

The irony of running a green business in an industry demonized as one of the world’s biggest polluters isn’t lost on Jim Houser. He’s even joked that he fixes “gas-guzzling, carbon monoxide-spewing hunks of metal.” But the couple’s quest to go green is no laughing matter. Houser and Dally have left no aspect of their 5,000-square-foot Hawthorne District repair shop unreformed, from using locally re-refined motor oil and anti-freeze to shuttling customers around in an electric hybrid car to buying carbon offsets.

True eco-conscious companies like Hawthorne Auto Clinic incorporate sustainability into their operations as well as their products and services, use local suppliers and extend their green practices to employees and customers, according to Robyn Shanti, coordinator of Sustainable Business Network, a Portland green business network. If a company is “great at lessening their impact on the environment, but doesn’t have the social-equity piece, if they’re not treating their employees equitably and paying them a living wage, to us that’s greenwashing,” she says.

One of the ways the 16-person Hawthorne Auto Clinic puts those concepts into practice is by buying carbon offsets from Climate Trust, the Portland-based nonprofit that runs an offset program for customers who commit to a year’s worth of regular maintenance. Last year the car shop paid a total of $3,000 for offsets, including $400 for itself and the balance for customers, Houser says.

The repair shop provides showers and bicycle racks for employees who ride to work and TriMet passes for bus riders. They’ve put four mechanics through training to work on hybrids and provided other training opportunities — one reason many on their crew have worked there a decade or longer.

To monitor their sustainable business practices, Houser and Dally work with the Pollution Prevention Outreach Team, a consortium of eight public agencies that oversees the Eco-Logical green seal program for Oregon auto shops and landscapers. Auto collision and repair shops that apply to the Eco-Logical seal program must comply with detailed standards developed by the consortium and the North American Auto Trades Association. They also must submit to an onsite visit by a team of PPOT inspectors that goes through a 21-page checklist before deciding whether the shop can earn the seal.

Houser and Dally opted to work with the local seal program because it’s well monitored, and as a local service provider, they know their customers would want it, Houser says. Also, “It made more sense to go with local programs because they’re investing in educating people locally,” he says.

The auto shop also voluntarily complies with standards that are stricter than those the Environmental Protection Agency requires for auto industry businesses of their size. They’re also active in Green America, a national nonprofit that promotes green business, and the city of Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.

For companies that are serious about their green efforts, those types of associations can pay off. The Bureau of Planning and Sustainability recognized Hawthorne Auto Clinic with one of its Businesses for an Environmentally Sustainable Tomorrow (BEST) awards in 2008. “They’ve done an incredible job of taking a business not traditionally considered sustainable and identified opportunities for energy savings and efficiencies in ways a lot of businesses could learn from,” says Jaime Valdez, sustainability adviser for the city’s BEST Business Center, which supports local businesses’ green efforts.

Green’s not just something Hawthorne Auto Clinic does as an afterthought, adds Heidi Kahn, a senior planner at Metro’s Sustainability Center and 2008 BEST award judge. “It’s very much a part of who they are,” she says.

In addition to local green seal programs, Oregon companies can get help from a variety of private and public agencies. Besides sponsoring the BEST awards, Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability offers free evaluations of companies’ energy consumption, recycling and business operations, and steers them to agencies that give out cash incentives, rebates and loans for green upgrades.

Companies that join the Sustainable Business Network of Portland have to meet standards that are stringent even by green standards. Companies must be locally owned and keep as much of their purchasing and sales in the local economy as possible “so there’s a recirculating business effect,” Shanti says. “That makes them automatically sustainable in our opinion.”

Last year the Sustainable Business Network of Portland began a monthly tour of one member’s facilities, a show and tell of green strategies to help other companies ramp up their own efforts. The tour has visited a restaurant, grocery co-op, furniture store and mortgage office. The organization’s also videotaped six of its members talking about their sustainable practices “so people can hear from the horse’s mouth how they did it, and how they communicate that with their customers,” says Shanti.

Both the Sustainable Business Network of Portland and The Rogue Initiative for a Vital Economy (THRIVE), based in Ashland, belong to a national network of 70 local sustainable business support groups. Along with its other efforts, THRIVE promotes sustainable agricultural practices and collaborations between Southern Oregon farmers, ranchers, chefs and food processors.

Elsewhere in the state, organizations such as the Oregon Environmental Council and UO’s Institute for a Sustainable Environment offer workshops and other training on sustainable business practices. This spring, the OEC hosted a series of day-long seminars on low-impact development and storm-water retention for contractors and developers in Eugene, Medford, Grants Pass and Central Point. In April, the institute kicked off Climate Masters at Work, a 10-week course to teach small- and mid-sized businesses how to cut energy consumption. As part of the course, companies have to spend 25 hours doing a greenhouse gas inventory of their business and sharing the results with business partners or with a community business group.

Despite all the available local and national resources, companies that have comprehensive plans for greening their products and business practices are still a rarity, says Valdez, with Portland’s BEST Business Center.

In the long run, going green isn’t just good for the environment and the community, it’s good for business, Valdez says. By using solar power or other forms of alternative power, companies can reduce their energy bills “and on days that they’re not even open they can be generating power and putting it back on the grid,” he says. “In recycling and reducing waste, it reduces the number of visits a waste hauler has to make,” and that saves money.

Besides helping themselves, what companies like Hawthorne Auto Clinic have done is show other small businesses that environmental consciousness isn’t some abstract concept and isn’t greenwashing, but is something they can accomplish. “People can see it doesn’t have to be this big, dramatic, huge change,” says Shanti. “It can be done in smaller increments.”



0 #1 which bakery?Josh 2009-06-05 16:07:11
Which bakery?
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Matthew Buck
0 #2 Journalistic standards -- The fine green lineMatthew Buck 2009-06-15 13:54:02

I read the following opening to your recent article on green seals with some dismay.

The country’s green movement has led some companies to slap eco-friendly labels on their goods and services without actually changing how they make products or operate their businesses.

For example, the head of a Portland green business program recounts walking into an area bakery recently and seeing a display of sustainable flour. When asked about it, the establishment’s owner “was annoyed,” the program manager says. “He said, ‘I had to put all that crap about sustainability out there because that’s what I have to do if I’m going to do business in Portland.”

“It wasn’t part of the company’s culture,” the program manager says. “That’s the ultimate greenwashing.”

How do you justify publishing an opinion by an anonymous informant based on the anecdotal rendering of what appears to be a 2-minute conversation?

If your reporter was at all curious about substantiating that opinion, it would have taken a matter of seconds to confirm the facts of the matter before slandering several local and regional businesses that have made serious commitments to sustainability.

In fact, there is only one sustainable flour brand in the Portland market. It’s Shepherd’s Grain (http://www.shepherdsgrain.com/), a brand owned and promoted by 32 farm families in Eastern Oregon, Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho.

Ironically, given the thrust of your article, all Shepherd’s Grain farmers are, in fact, third-party certified by Food Alliance under standards which address safe and fair working conditions, conservation of soil and water resources, reduction of pesticide use and toxicity, and protection of wildlife habitat.

These standards were developed with the assistance of researchers at Oregon State University, Washington State University and other institutions. They have received support from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. They have been reviewed by Consumers Union, National Geographic’s Green Guide, and other consumer education and protection initiatives and found to be both meaningful and credible. They have been endorsed as means to concretely demonstrate sustainability in Green Seal’s certification program for restaurants and food service, in the Green Guide for Healthcare, and in the Sustainability Tracking and Rating System developed by the Association for Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.

Audits of the farms were performed by International Certification Services, an organization accredited by the International Standards Organization (ISO).

Now which local bakery that uses Shepherd’s Grain flour could have been the business in question in your story?

Is it Grand Central or St. Honore? That would be curious, because both of these businesses have committed huge amounts of time over the years helping the Shepherd’s Grain farmers test and bring their flour products to market.

Could it be Ken’s Artisan Bakery? Well, didn’t Ken Forkish just publish a lengthy piece in Northwest Palate Magazine explaining why he converted his bakery to Shepherd’s Grain and why he thinks it’s so important?

Perhaps it’s one of the many other local bakeries that support Shepherd’s Grain? Huh, now that I think of it – isn’t bread mostly made from flour? So if a bakery switched to a third-party certified sustainable flour, wouldn’t that qualify as “changing how they make products?” And if they paid what has historically been as much as a 15% premium to buy the primary ingredient in their product from a sustainable source, wouldn’t that represent a major commitment on the part of the company?

You owe Shepherd’s Grain and every bakery in Portland that uses their flour a very humble public apology.


Matthew Buck

Matthew Buck
Assistant Director
Food Alliance
1829 NE Alberta, Suite 5
Portland, OR 97211
Tel: 503-493-1066, ext 22


"Good Food for a Healthy Future"
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Michelle Rafter
0 #3 Responding to commentsMichelle Rafter 2009-06-16 10:53:31
The source the reader refers to was recounting a conversation, not rendering an opinion. My source did not share the name of the establishment in the anecdote, so I cannot comment on the reader's speculation of which shop or bakery it could be. More to the point, my source's greenwashing claim was not about sustainable flour, nor the bread the establishment baked. It was that the shop were selling a sustainable product to be perceived of as green by customers rather than for making substantive changes to their actual business operations, and that fits into sustainability experts' definition of greenwashing.

Michelle Rafter
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Ron Marsh,  Tigard OR
0 #4 Journalist grammar, and reader hyper-reactionRon Marsh, Tigard OR 2009-06-18 11:55:57
While I support Ms. Rafter's defense of her article, I WAS dismayed to read "the shop were selling..." More to the point, however: where in the world could ANYONE find ANYTHING in her article that even MENTIONED Shepherd's Grain, much less implied ANYTHING critical of their product and/or their efforts towards sustainable practices?!? Just because you're paranoid doesn't necessarily mean anyone IS out to get you, Mr. Buck! Sheesh.
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Jim Houser
0 #5 Timely articleJim Houser 2009-06-28 14:41:09
Thank you for your timely article, “The Fine Green Line”, highlighting the significance of green seal programs in establishing the credibility of those businesses who are working hard to "green" their companies and our corporate culture. It is always nice to be recognized, so it is especially rewarding to see mention of the City of Portland's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, the BEST Business Center and Portland's BEST Award program.

Of special importance, in the same month that Oregon Business is focused on the 100 Best Green Companies to work for in Oregon, the Pollution Prevention Outreach Team (P2O), mentioned in the article, has just certified the 100th Oregon vehicle repair shop to meet the P2O certification criteria.

Also of note, one of the automotive businesses among your top 100 Green Companies, Carr Auto Group, has achieved P2O certification of its Carr Chevrolet store in Beaverton.


Jim Houser
Hawthorne Auto Clinic, Inc.
4307 SE Hawthorne Blvd.
Portland, OR 97215
503-234-4230, fax
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0 #6 Review Businesses on Green QualitiesJonathan 2009-06-28 19:54:52
With the increased information out there about being green and the ongoing education, their is a green leaning resource for the Portland area, GreenPosting.or g that features businesses including Hawthorne Auto Clinic for patrons to review regarding sustainable attributes.

Here is the link to Hawthorne Auto Clinic's posting:
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