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Green movement runs from food to venture funding

Sustainability in food service industry

Eric Peterson //July 22, 2015//

Green movement runs from food to venture funding

Sustainability in food service industry

Eric Peterson //July 22, 2015//

Rules to do business ethically:

Define “Sustainability”

Matt Hamilton, sustainability director at Aspen Skiing Co., says it’s imperative for businesses to define what sustainability means to their organization as the first step in developing policies.

“We define sustainability as being in business forever,” he says.

That means looking at the big picture and spending lobbying dollars accordingly.

“For too long, the outdoor industry has taken its impact for granted,” he adds, pointing to some big numbers:

  • 6.1 million jobs
  • $650 billion contribution to GDP

“That’s bigger than the financial-services sector,” Hamilton says.

If global warming impacts snowfall in Colorado – or else heats up the Northeast – that could impact the ski business in the Rockies or beyond, Hamilton says. “They’re less likely to go skiing in Colorado if there is warm weather in New York.”

To this end, Aspen puts its money where its mouth is when it comes to global warming. “We’re active supporters of Protect Our Winters,” he says of the mission-based global snowsports activist group. “We see it as a critical vehicle to engage the snow sports community.”

Hamilton says sustainability goes beyond ensuring clean water and mitigating fires. “All of that’s for naught if the businesses can’t operate.

“It’s not only the ski areas, but the communities we operate in and making sure they’re strong, vibrant places to live,” he says. “Attracting great workers is important for us to grow our businesses in Colorado.”

That translates to Aspen Skiing Co. signing an amicus brief for the Supreme Court in favor of marriage equality and adopting a policy giving employees two paid days for volunteer work.

“Businesses need to speak up about these issues,” Hamilton says. “When companies start out [developing a sustainability plan], they usually look internally. With the climate issues we’re facing, it’s shortsighted to not be looking externally to see how we can influence policy at a state or national level.”

Re-evaluate your supply chain

Chipotle Mexican Grill recently made waves by announcing it will remove GMOs from its restaurants. The Denver-based fast-casual food business has consistently pushed for local, “responsibly raised” ingredients.

“Sustainability isn’t really the goal. The goal is to make the very best food we can,” says Chipotle’s Director of Communications Chris Arnold. “It just happens that the best tasting ingredients are those that are raised in ways that also respect the environment, farmers and the animals themselves.”

Founded in 2004, Mad Greens just opened its 14th Colorado location, and the Golden-based company will open 10 more salad-centric eateries by the end of 2015, including its first out-of-state forays in Arizona and Texas.

Marley Hodgson, Mad Greens’ keeper of the faith/chief strategic officer, says the new locations were chosen in part because of access to local produce. “We could have gone north, but we knew we were going to have a better time with local sourcing to the south,” he says.

“Mother Nature plays a big role in affecting our supply chain on a regular basis,” says Hodgson, pointing to the California drought as the industry’s top challenge.

Hodgson says Mad Greens sources locally in Colorado as much as it can (it operates a Denver-area farm in the summer in partnership with Golden-based Agriburbia), and sustainability is just part of the payoff. Freshness is another: Colorado produce hits the table in two days, delivering “superior culinary quality,” versus six days for California-grown ingredients.

But there’s a holistic philosophy at Mad Greens. Sourcing is evaluated economically and environmentally. “If it’s not economically sustainable, something has to give eventually,” says Hodgson. “And if it’s not environmentally sustainable, that’s also going to come back to roost.”

Don’t recycle: reuse

“Reuse is the highest and best use of any waste,” says Damon Carson, founder and president of Repurposed Materials.

He describes the “waste hierarchy,” with the landfill at the bottom, burning waste as fuel just above it, and recycling between burning and reuse.

Melting a retired ski lift cable is recycling, while using that same ski lift cable as-is for an anchor in a fishing net is “what we call repurposing,” says Carson.

The company sells municipal street-sweeping brushes to ranchers as backscratchers for livestock, conveyor belts for garden edging, and old parachutes as canopies for backyard weddings.

“A recycler would just chip them up,” says Carson of the parachutes, rather than figure out a new use.

Why? “America has tons of money and we’re lazy,” says Carson. “We just buy new.” He sums up that mindset: “‘I can get it in red, I can get it in medium. Buy!’”

In the U.S., buying secondhand products comes with “a stigma,” he adds. “But does repurposing make more sense environmentally or economically? It makes sense both ways.”

It follows that Repurposed Materials is booming, with 1.5 acres northeast of Denver in Henderson, and satellite facilities in Chicago and Atlanta. Sales have doubled in the last two years and Carson plans to open new lots in Texas and the Northeast soon. “Our calls come from every corner of the United States,” he says.

Invest sustainably

“What we’ve been doing is following the consumer,” says David Haynes, managing director at Greenmont Capital Partners in Boulder. “The boomers started it, but the Millennials are picking it up and running with it.”

Greenmont is currently invested in two Colorado companies: Louisville’s Door to Door Organics and Longmont’s Madhava, both of which are Certified Benefit Corporations, meaning they’ve passed operational assessments to provide positive societal, environmental and/or work force impact.

The typical exit involves a sale to strategic buyers. “The large companies are sniffing around small companies for growth stories and innovation,” says Haynes. “What we’re seeing is younger companies picking up and moving to Boulder just to be part of this ecosystem. We’re thrilled. It’s a very supportive environment.”

A rising tide lifts all boats – and attracts those looking for a better place to surf

It’s a line you hear over and over: Boulder is the 50-yard line of the natural foods industry. And that sort of national perch makes for a magnet when companies are looking for a better community to do business.

Two cases in point: Yummari and Quinn Popcorn. Both relocated to Boulder County in 2014.

Yummari, maker of “endurance nuggets,” came from New York in April. Founders Jason and Catherine Walsh visited Dallas, Las Vegas and Boulder before settling. “Boulder was the hands-down, obvious choice,” says Catherine. “Our products fit right into this amazing climate for healthy lifestyles and natural food companies.”

She says she was sold by a Naturally Boulder event with 130 people during her visit in early 2014. A year later, she’s on the organization’s board.

Yummari was able to get organic certification in Colorado, something that proved difficult in New York. Same goes for like-minded partners and services. “I’ve met all the people who were difficult to find in New York,” says Catherine.

Quinn Popcorn traded Massachusetts for Colorado in early 2014 and brought five transplants to Boulder. “We had considered moving way out west to San Francisco, but that wasn’t really right for Quinn,” says Kristy Lewis, founder of the “farm-to-bag” microwave popcorn company.

But Boulder was. “We just feel really at home here,” says Lewis. “It was important to be around people who understand what we want to do.”