Acorn seals plant the seeds of sustainable business

Green Acorn Certified Business logo

Foodies seek out restaurants with Zagat’s distinct burgundy logo, and those interested in patronizing the highest-rated local establishments may look for the “Best of Philly” sign. Now, those who have a greener goal in mind can look for a new seal of approval.

As of mid-January, West Philadelphia businesses that meet certain sustainable criteria became eligible for Green Acorn Certification. This student-run initiative supports the sustainability goal outlined in Penn’s Climate Action Plan, and encourages local businesses to reduce waste, prevent pollution, conserve resources and raise awareness about environmental issues. Certified businesses get a distinct green logo to display in their front windows.

“[The goal] is to provide a tool for students to find businesses that have more sustainable business practices such as more efficient water use, energy use and the minimization of the waste they produce,” says Doug Miller, a College sophomore who helped start the program. “For businesses, it’s a tool for them to promote the good things they do to students.”

The idea was originally proposed last year through the student-run Penn Environmental Group, but didn’t crystallize until last summer when Miller worked for Baltimore’s Office of Sustainability, researching different green business ideas from around the country. He decided to bring a simplified version of that program to Penn. Miller teamed up with fellow College sophomores, Lambros Theofanidis and Ori Kedar, and launched the program in the fall. Sophomore Ariel Pasternak is now also part of the Green Acorn team.

Penn’s Green Fund, a grant program that backs sustainability ideas from the University community, is supporting the current phase of the Green Acorn Certification initiative.

The certification standards vary depending on the type of business, but the ultimate goal is to make the standards achievable so that with a few simple changes, businesses can get on the road to certification. “Our goal is to get people who maybe have never heard of this stuff before say, ‘I can do that,’” says Miller. “We also feel that this kind of thing ... has a positive feedback, that if they reduce water here then they’ll think creatively on their own.”

The certification checklist for neighborhood food trucks includes ways to minimize waste by eliminating the purchase and use of Styrofoam, and ways to conserve water (by not using running water to melt ice or thaw food), conserve energy (by replacing all incandescent bulbs with low-mercury compact fluorescent bulbs) and prevent pollution (by establishing a no-idling policy that requires fleet and personal vehicles to be turned off when loading and unloading). The Penn Environmental Group also has a “Greening Services Directory” on its website, making it easier for businesses to find places that stock sustainable supplies.

Since January, the Green Acorn program has certified eight businesses, including two food trucks (Hub Bub and Coup de Taco), four eateries (Copabanana, Metropolitan Bakery, Lovers and Madmen and Picnic), one small grocery (Milk & Honey Market) and, most recently, PhillyCarShare. They hope to certify places across West Philly, with a goal of reaching all sides of campus.

The group also plans to do a yearly check-up on certified businesses to make sure they continue to meet Green Acorn standards. “We don’t want to sacrifice our relationships with these businesses who have a commitment to sustainability,” explains Theofanidis, “but we do want to show that it’s important to try and improve so you can continue to be a model for the rest of campus, not only ... have a set of standards that were in place a couple of years ago.”

The students have plenty of hands-on experience with green issues. Theofanidis is participating in another Green Fund project to make his fraternity house, the Castle, environmentally friendly, and Miller presented his idea for a “Production and Transportation Facts” label at The Economist magazine’s November 2009 Carbon Economy Summit.

Both Miller and Theofanidis say their current project will help students and others see sustainable changes at places they frequent. “It’s not like some big solar project,” says Miller. “It’s something you can see right across the street and you can support it. It gives students the idea that they can take action to support these businesses because if they give more money to businesses that act this way, then [those businesses] do better than ones who don’t.” Theofanidis adds, “The more widespread it is, the more people think of it as the norm, and that’s a good thing.”

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Originally published on April 22, 2010