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Cathlin Atchison has been a leader in the sustainability and Green Business movements in California for many years. She is the author of the recently adopted City of Santa Cruz Climate Adaptation Plan, one of the first comprehensive climate adaptation plans in the United States.
She has worked in a variety of private, educational and government positions focusing on community involvement and outreach, economic development and sustainability. She has recently retired from the City of Santa Cruz as a sustainability projects manager where she managed the local Green Business Program as well as being the contract manager for the State of California Green Business Network database project. Her efforts have supported the expansion of a local and then regional grass roots program to encourage local businesses to adopt more sustainable practices to a statewide program with over 3,000 certified businesses.
This Spring, Cathlin Atchinson joined the Institute of Sustainability’s (http://www.tios.org) Board of Advisors. She was recently interviewed by Pat Byington, The Green Register’s editor.
The GREEN REGISTER INTERVIEW – CATHLIN ATCHISON
TGR: Can you describe how the California Green Business Network works?
The California Green Business Network provides a framework for businesses to improve how they operate to meet sustainability goals as well as providing online marketing opportunities to promote their products and services on a statewide basis. Businesses can sign up online, work with a local coordinator and receive technical assistance in implementing sustainable business practices. The program provides businesses as well as schools and nonprofits with guidelines that they can use to save energy, water, and reduce waste and pollution. Auditors review facilities and suggest changes to lighting, heating and air conditioning, and plumbing fixtures that will save energy, water and money. Coordinators also help businesses obtain available energy and water rebates and work with the business owners and managers to review business practices and then help establish policies and procedures that will provide environmental and economic savings.
CA: The California Green Business Network (CGBN) started approximately 15 years ago as a loose collaboration between a few California cities and counties with the common goal of helping businesses become more sustainable. The CGBN partnered with local government, nonprofits, local water companies and regional power companies to help businesses implement practices that reduce water consumption, save energy, reduce pollution and solid waste in their daily operations.
As other communities and businesses learned about the success of the program, more communities joined the network. It became apparent that we needed a way to maintain consistency throughout the program while allowing each community to prioritize their own objectives. I am from a coastal community so pollution prevention is a key community value. In Santa Cruz we wanted everyone to understand that everything that goes into the storm drain system ends up in our Bay, which is part of the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary.
Once people make that connection it is a motivator to take the steps to protect our Bay. We also have a landfill that will have reached capacity in 20 or 25 years so finding ways to keep things out of the landfill and extend its life was also important. As a result we have a very strong recycling program, rebates for home composters and a pilot program to assist food services and groceries in food waste collection. So, we see the program as a way of educating people about how their activities impact the environment and then providing the tools for them to adopt these new measures. The result of this collaboration was a statewide set of measures that can be adopted by each community in a way that addresses local concerns while maintaining statewide standards.
Our old individual paper tracking methods made it impossible to track outcomes effectively and was also using a lot of paper-not in line with our objectives of saving resources! With funding from the California Department of Toxic Substances Control the CGBN database was developed and refined. We moved from an all paper to an online system making it easier for applicants, coordinators and the program to understand and track progress. The statewide database allows businesses, communities and the state to measure not just the environmental savings but the economic savings achieved as a result of participation in the program.
We knew we were on the right track when the California legislature passed Assembly Bill 913 in 2011 which identifies the California Green Business Network as the official state recognized Green Business Program with the objective of supporting program expansion to communities throughout the state.
TGR: How did you become interested in sustainability? – And how did that interest move you to help to build the statewide network?
CA: I was still in high school when I attended my first Earthday. This was really the first time I had given any thought to the health of our environment or our own health as a result of impacts to the environment. Because of this growing environmental awareness, in law school I focused on land use and water rights.
One of my responsibilities was drafting the City of Santa Cruz’s first Climate Adaptation Plan, a critical component in building a more sustainable community. Having so many businesses already certified as Green Businesses made this undertaking a little easier. Developing a climate adaptation plan requires participation from all parts of the community. Certified Green Businesses took the lead as they already understood the concepts of building in sustainability and resilience. So having a strong Green Business Program helped not only the businesses, it helped the community as we reviewed vulnerabilities and identified actions we might take to build resilience.
My career was not always focused strictly on sustainability but even when my primary responsibilities were elsewhere I did volunteer for every environmental project that I encountered. I became involved in the Green Business Program while working in the Economic Development Department at the City of Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz is a beautiful coastal city known for its clean air and water with an ocean, forests, parkland and a river. We promoted the City as a healthy place to establish a business where people wanted to live and work. Initiating a pilot Green Business Program seemed to mesh perfectly with our objectives. We built on the nexus between sustainable business practices and the physical and economic health of the community. The program grew from five businesses the first year to over 150 businesses, including all of the food services at the University of California at Santa Cruz, that are certified or in the process of being certified.
TGR: What were the goals and objectives in establishing the Network?
CA: The quality and success of the program is the result of a number of committed members from diverse communities working in pursuit of a common goal of protecting our environment and our people. It was a grass roots effort that was recognized and adopted by the state as exemplary. We saw businesses as key in establishing sustainable practices and promoting those practices and values to employees and customers. We found this to be especially valuable when working with schools and the Universities.
Objectives include reducing energy and water usage, reducing solid waste through reduction of packaging, reuse of products and recycling. Businesses and schools are in a position to change the way things are done. Helping people make those connections, both direct and indirect, between their actions and the impacts of those actions. One area that resonates with employees is replacing chemicals used in daily operations with less toxic alternatives. The program helps them understand that the employer is making these changes to reduce their health risks as a part of a sustainability plan.
Their work environment will be more pleasant and they will be healthier.
The network was established to provide information and support for communities pursuing the same goals. As we grew, the statewide database became a tool to maintain a core of consistency and a high standard in the program but also provided flexibility for communities to prioritize local objectives. Tracking of actual environmental and financial savings achieved by businesses implementing the program was also a key goal. The database provides reports on individual business savings, community savings and statewide savings achieved as a result of participation in the program.
From a few committed agencies, organizations and businesses the program has grown to over 3,000 certified businesses in the state of California. Annually these businesses are saving 88 Million Kilowatt Hours (KWH) of energy; 40 Million Gallons of Water; 230 Million pounds of waste and 1,200 pounds of hazardous waste diverted from landfills; 8,000 gallons of hazardous waste and 39,000 gallons of grease kept out of our waterways and waste water treatment facilities; as well as significant reductions in air pollution, all leading to healthier people and healthier places. This equates to 400 million pounds in Green House Gas (GHG) emissions reductions every year.
TGR: What have you accomplished?
CA: We have created a framework for communities to participate in this program. We have created a guide for businesses, schools and nonprofits to use to make the changes needed to become more sustainable. We have helped these communities, businesses and people implement changes in operations to become more sustainable and we have provided tracking tools so these accomplishments can be quantified. Businesses, communities and the state can show the actual water, energy, waste and pollution reductions as well as dollar savings achieved as a result of participation in the program. They now have a clear guide to adopt sustainability measures that preserve not only the environment but their bottom line. I am excited about the possibility of taking all that we have learned over ten years and sharing that experience with other communities and states to help them build a healthier more sustainable place.
I brought a legal and economic development background to the program as well as experience in community involvement and outreach. I was a strong proponent of metrics tracking as a way to show what could be achieved by participating in the Green Business Program. Businesses see this as a definite value added offering by their local governments when they see the savings that they might realize. It has been my experience that most businesses apply because they want their business to be a positive force in the community. They realize along the way that they are saving money as well as resources, making their business more sustainable in every way.
TGR: How did you get connected with TIOS?
CA: I received a call from Richard Randolph, last summer asking about our Green Business Program statewide database. At that time I was working for the City of Santa Cruz as Sustainability Project Manager and was the project grant manager for the California Green Business Certification Program (CGBP) statewide database. I shared information about the CGBP and building the database with Richard and heard a little about what TIOS was doing. We were in the process of implementing the results of our usability study and I shared some of that as well. During our conversations I became very interested in the potential impacts TIOS might be able to achieve. In California we have learned a great deal through trial and error. I was happy to provide TIOS with what information I could that would help them skip a lot of the ‘errors’ as they developed their program. Richard called me several times as questions came up and I was happy to share what we had learned.
In December I told Richard that I would soon be retiring after 30 years of work in public, private and university settings. I mentioned that I would still be working occasionally with local agencies on a project basis. He asked if we could talk further. TIOS invited me to attend a meeting in Alabama in March to share more information on the California Program. I met with the TIOS team and was very impressed with the enthusiasm, professionalism and the opportunities available to make a real impact. I was also overwhelmed with the warm southern hospitality I encountered throughout my trip. I am absolutely looking forward to returning to the area and getting to know the people and places a little more. I am excited to be able to contribute to these efforts and honored to be a part of the TIOS team.
TGR: How do you see the California network working in Tennessee, Alabama and Florida?
CA: TIOS has the tools to take what we have done in California and replicate it in Alabama, Tennessee and Florida. TIOS has built a program that incorporates an understanding of local needs with the strong measures and metrics developed over 10 years in the California Program. I think that TIOS is taking what we have learned and is building something that will establish the standard for sustainability throughout the south.