Fields of green
Is “sustainability” sustainable? Reno-area businesses show how they keep an environmentally focused business afloat.
The theory of environmental sustainability is simple: Use renewable resources, and don’t extract more from the Earth than you can replace.
The concept of business is simple: Make money.
Easier said than done on both counts, but combining the two takes some pretty serious ingenuity. Here in Reno, a few people have found ways to fit sustainability into their business models. A tree-cutting service, an independent school/community center and a battery retailer have each created different approaches to keeping their businesses green.
Remove, reuse, recycle
Los Verdes Arborists, 232-8243
“We started with trying to find a way to take urban tree waste and turn it into urban lumber,” says Darin Bue, the ponytailed proprietor of Los Verdes Arborists. While trees that are removed from city yards and parks typically end up in a landfill, Bue and his business partner, Tyler Mirich (they met while planting sugar pines for the Nevada Conservation Corps), turn the cut trees into building materials. For example, after they removed a couple mature walnut trees from a city lot to make way for construction, they milled the wood into finished lumber using their portable saw. Pine logs they salvaged from the 2000 Martis Fire after it reached the edge of Bue’s Floriston, Calif., property now comprise the walls and beams of new constructions.
“We can’t compete with the prices of Home Depot,” says Bue, formerly a remodeling contractor. He’s well aware that a two-person lumber producer relying on local sources can’t achieve the production efficiency of a large corporation. Instead of selling the pine they harvest for the high price their labor investment calls for or taking a loss on it, Bue and Mirich often use the wood as a barter medium, trading for various necessities.
The bottom line is only their second priority. They’re more concerned with making the point that there are long-term consequences to the way natural resources are extracted. Bue says change starts with the efforts of individuals, and he’s happy to set the example, even though going against the grain of global supply chains requires some sacrifice.
“I’m the guy who has to live with myself,” says Bue. Both men live frugally on Los Verdes’ modest profits. Bue, 47, shares the house he owns with housemates. Mirich, 25, who looks like a skater despite being an outdoorsman, describes his living situation as “kind of camping.”
Neither finds their place on the creature-comfort totem disturbing, though. Sure, they may hunt squirrels and grow vegetables, but that’s a lifestyle choice, not a financial one.
“You can’t live on autopilot,” says Bue.
Back to school
River School at Mayberry Bend, 747-3910, www.mayberrybend.com
A blue plastic 50-gallon barrel sits on the deck collecting precipitation at the River School at Mayberry Bend. “I was able to fill the hot tub with the rain barrel,” says Tom Stille, founder of the school. It’s one of many examples of waste products being put to reuse around Stille’s riverfront property near Mayberry Park.
He’s slowly been turning the place into a school and community center that offers classes in performing arts and sustainability. The school is backed, when necessary, by Stille’s landscape and construction business, Interpretive Gardens.
Yoga, dance and music are taught in an airy studio accented with Buddhist motifs and flooring made of bamboo, which is more easily renewable than trees. Outside, near a rocky slope artfully dotted with native plants, a fire pit area with logs for benches is the venue for classes in organic gardening or special events, such as weddings.
“We try to educate people about sustainable building techniques,” says the school’s only full-time employee, director Monique Monteverde, pointing out various projects around the property. “Herb spirals,” for example, are remarkably simple raised beds for gardening. The walls of the elegantly designed conference room are constructed of straw bales covered with a kind of stucco called “Earth plaster.” (Straw-bale construction, noted for its affordability, effective insulation and environmental friendliness, is such a popular alternative that it’s accounted for in California’s building codes.)
The school strives to be a source of good examples, large and small. Stille always uses both sides of a piece of paper before disposing of it, and he has two holes in his kitchen counter for scraps—one for compost, one for the chickens. On a broader scale, he expresses his goal to help de-industrialize and revolutionize food production by localizing it. As an example of globalization gone wrong, he cites third-world mega-slums in areas where food is exported, but residents go hungry. In keeping with the theory that individual-sized efforts are the first step to attacking global-sized problems, the River School advocates growing your own food and offers advice on year-round gardening.
Kim Swearingen, the Interpretive Gardens office manager, who also lends a hand at the school, puts it succinctly: “You can’t change everything. But you can take responsibility for your own stuff. We really try to do that here.”
Green Batteries, 852-3883, www.greenbatteries.com
“I come from the dark side,” jokes Curtis Randolph, 47, one hand in perpetual animation, the other holding an insulated coffee tumbler. He spent 18 years as a business developer, building and expanding software firms. He thrived on the people aspects of corporate life. His eyes light up when he talks about management and organization. He uses the term “value added” as a noun. But, he says, “The integrity factor was pretty dismal.” Randolph cringed at practices like routine layoffs in the service of a little extra profit.
His last job before going solo was with a marketing company that specialized in promoting brand loyalty.
“There’s nothing wrong with that,” he says. “But there’s nothing about it that makes me say, ‘It’s what I love.’” He decided to apply his business experience to something closer to his heart: renewable energy.
Randolph started by purchasing a small, stagnating business that sold nickel metal hydride and lithium ion batteries. Within a year and a half, Green Batteries has grown into an online retail business that he runs from his house in Galena Meadows. He contracts with an order fulfillment center in Tennessee and runs the call center himself.
“Added value,” in this case, means that in addition to selling batteries, the business provides pages and pages of advice and information about rechargeable batteries on its Web site. Randolph is happy to discuss a business or individual’s battery needs over the phone without pushing a sale, and his e-commerce site has links to groups that promote capitalist-backed environmentalism. There’s also a reading list with Amazon links to books on batteries, business and personal development.
Green Batteries is stable enough to support a comfortable, suburban lifestyle for Randolph and his family. But, in keeping with his style, Randolph says he’ll probably sell the business one day and move on to other renewable-energy projects. For him, the challenge is in the development stage. Meanwhile, he’s content with the switch to a greener business arena.
“I just want to be one of the companies that are part of the solution, not part of the problem,” he says.