Let’s Grow Better

Let’s Grow Better


By Jo Fleming, Executive Director, California Green Business Network and YaVette Holts, Founder and CEO of Bay Area Organization of Black Owned Businesses (BAOBOB)

We offer free services to businesses that give them an advantage, provides funding and resources, and promotion. Any business in California can take advantage of our services. Does that make our service equitable? Equal yes, but equitable no. 

Large businesses hire sustainability professionals and make a significant effort and investment to operate sustainably. Why? Because it pencils out, and their customers like it. Small businesses don’t have the resources or know how to do this. That’s why the Green Business Program was first created in Alameda County in the mid-90s. Small to medium-sized businesses needed a framework and guidance to operate sustainably. The program was wildly successful from the start and grew from one California County to 42 different municipalities and 7 other States in two decades and over 4200 Certified Green Businesses. But that growth has come with some gaps and blind spots.

In 2013, we overlaid a map of California showing the locations of our Certified Green  Businesses with the newly developed CalEnviroscreen map. We were horrified to see that there were little to no Certified Green Businesses in the communities most impacted by poverty, pollution, and lack of education…just to name a few of the data markers used by CalEnviroscreen. We knew we needed to do better. We wanted our program to benefit the communities that most needed it.

We formed an AdHoc Committee, brought in key people that were working on environmental equity around the state. We spent the next five years adding Green Business Programs in areas colored red and orange on the CalEnviroscreen map. We started filling in the map. But as we were celebrating our efforts, we realized while we were filling in the map, anecdotal evidence indicated that we were still reaching more affluent, white-owned businesses. We were still missing a large swath of the demographics of our State. We needed to step back and take another, harder look at how we let businesses know about our services. We started working with trusted Community Based Organizations to reach Black, Brown, Indigenous, Person-of Color (BBIPOC) owned businesses.

“I’m on your website. There’s nothing here that tells me this program is for my community.” Those were the tough words that YaVette from the Bay Area Organization for Black-Owned Businesses (BAOBOB) recently gave Jo from the California Green Business Network (CAGBN). The CAGBN wants BBIPOC owned businesses to gain the Green Business advantage. We want more Black-owned businesses to get certified, save money, gain a marketing advantage. We connected with YaVette to see how we could make that happen. 

Businesses are growing better by looking toward sustainability as a guiding principle. 

The key pillars of sustainability are human, social, economic, and environmental.  By taking a close look at some of the external costs to society of doing business  (externalities that generally negate both growth and profit) we can all grow better together. Too often a community’s quality of life falls to the wayside and profit-focused businesses are allowed to pay low wages, generate toxic byproducts and careless waste. When we allow that, we all lose. Certified Green Businesses move their businesses toward sustainability, improving the defense against the external societal costs of doing business. Their employees are happier and their patrons grow more loyal and frequent.

A funny thing happens when an organization whose focus is on sustainability in business operations has to take a deeper look at its own human and social aspects of sustainability. We have to be honest with ourselves and our stakeholders on where we are and what we need to change. That honesty has been liberating and can lead us to pursue necessary change with urgency, but it can also be scary. 

It reminds us of the vulnerability our businesses feel when they first enroll in the program. “I’ve got to be honest with you. I don’t think we’re doing any of this. I don’t know that we can do any of it! We’re just so busy staying afloat as a small business.” We hear this often! Our response: “It’s not as hard as you think it might be. We’ll break it down into manageable chunks. We have resources and will help you every step of the way. The advantages of Green Business Certification will help your business grow.”

“I was impressed by how quickly they made the change.  I mean, you had the photo changed out before we finished the call!”  That kind of responsiveness is what’s needed and that’s our commitment to integrity.  Action over posture.

CAGBN and BAOBOB are working together to introduce Black-owned businesses to the strongest benefits of Green Business certification and to be responsive and supportive in the certification process.  What we’re learning in this collaboration will positively impact so many of our community partnerships throughout the state like The Fresno Metro Black Chamber of Commerce’s Fresno Green Business Program,  The Fresno Hispanic Foundation. The San Mateo Green Business Program, El Concilio in East Palo Alto, the Peninsula Chinese Business Association and the Hispanic Committee of the San Mateo Chamber of Commerce. 

It rang clear as a bell, in a recent conversation with YaVette. She said she wanted to lead our campaign with the phrase “Let’s Grow Better”.  Right then I realized that it applies as much to CAGBN and our own programming as it does to the businesses we are committed to serving. This is going to be a great year for growing better.