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Masters of Green


Local employers excel in statewide  program that sets the green standard for sustainable business practices

Story by Robin Bruecker

Being a good corporate citizen and natural-resources steward is something any responsible business should strive for, and that in itself is its own reward.

A yardstick by which to compare one’s progress among other companies can be useful, however, and a little kudos for a job well done is always welcome.

Enter the Green Masters, a program of the Wisconsin Sustainable Business Council, an entity established through the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Business.

The no-cost program allows businesses an opportunity to earn credentials for its sustainability practices in regard to energy and water conservation, waste management and outreach efforts.

“Businesses from every corner of the state, of every size and from almost every sector” have taken part in Green Masters, noted Thomas Eggert, executive director of the Wisconsin Sustainable Business Council. The program doesn’t provide training or guidance and instead gives rewards and recognition, although, Eggert said, “we have heard from many companies that our application is frequently downloaded as a template for what companies could be doing in the sustainability area.”

That application is about to be re-opened with a few tweaks for the 2014 year. Eggert noted that Green Masters has grown by 50 percent annually, with the current number of participants at 167.

Why should businesses be interested in adopting sustainability practices and enrolling in Green Masters?

“First, I’d tell them that interest in the program should come from within the business,” said Eggert. “My bet is that they have customers, investors, employees, future employees or their supply chain that is interested in what they are doing from a sustainability perspective.

“Second, I’d tell them that virtually every business gets into sustainability because of the cost savings opportunities,” he went on. “Cutting energy use certainly reduces the environmental footprint of an organization, but it also reduces their energy bill. Reducing the percent of raw materials that becomes waste and is sent to a landfill saves on the cost of landfilling material, but also ensures a greater percentage of raw materials are turned into finished product.”

Among those businesses who apply to participate in the Green Masters program each year, the top 20 percent are awarded the designation of Green Masters. Participating companies are assessed on an objective point system which evaluates sustainability efforts.

Why sustainability matters

A handful of northeast Wisconsin employers are among those designated Green Masters by the Wisconsin Sustainable Business Council.

Appleton-based ThedaCare acknowledges sustainability as one of its core values, said Paul Linzmeyer, sustainability leader for the health care provider.

“Businesses and organizations must begin to understand the compelling business case for triple bottom line sustainable practices, and the Green Masters program helps make that case more visible by recognizing successful work and outcomes,” said Linzmeyer.

Another Green Master, contract furniture manufacturer KI in Green Bay, recognizes the value of incorporating sustainability practices into manufacturing and doing business.

“Sustainability principles are an integral part of our core business strategy, products and services, and brand propositions, and, as such, all of our employees are engaged in sustainability,” explained Lisa Evenson, sustainability manager for KI.

Sustainability practices also make a favorable impression with customers, as such practices demonstrate innovation – such as material choice and product redesign – social responsibility, and environmental stewardship, Evenson noted.

Appvion Inc. – formerly known to many as Appleton Papers – was among the businesses that expressed interest in developing sustainability criteria back in 2008. The company’s chief environmental and regulatory counsel, Pam Barker, serves on the Wisconsin Sustainable Business Council Advisory Board.

“Appvion takes seriously its responsibility to use water, energy, fiber and chemicals wisely, which includes continuously seeking ways to reduce consumption and recycle,” said Bill Van Den Brandt, senior manager of corporate communications. “Although our company has a long tradition of environmental stewardship, our efforts became more focused and strategic since we developed a detailed sustainability plan in mid-2008.”

Schneider National of Green Bay regularly submits its sustainability efforts to Green Masters. In the heavy fuel consumption industry of transportation and logistics, Schneider has been committed to energy efficiency for three decades.

“We are very proud to call Wisconsin home. We are equally proud to be one of the most energy-efficient fleets in the transportation industry. The chance to earn a sustainability distinction honoring Wisconsin companies was extremely appealing to our company,” said Steve Matheys, Schneider’s chief administrative officer, who oversees the sustainability team.

Green practices & the bottom line

ThedaCare has numerous sustainability projects taking place at its facilities. Linzmeyer gave a few examples.

“We have been re-purposing single-use medical devices, which saved us almost $800,000 in 2013. We have been diverting almost 100 tons of operating-room waste from the landfill through our recycling efforts. The last several construction projects have diverted almost 70 percent of waste from landfills to recycling.”

The recycling means lower tipping fees for ThedaCare, while the energy-conservation projects have a one- to three-year return on investment, Linzmeyer noted.

Another sustainability project involves increasing the use of locally grown food at ThedaCare facilities. ThedaCare donated funds to Riverview Gardens in Appleton for the construction of five hoop houses, with the intent for the gardens to be one of the food suppliers for ThedaCare hospitals.

“We feel that if we can build a local food hub with an innovative, high-technology information and distribution system, that we can bring down the cost of the local food options and make them competitive with more traditional options,” explained Linzmeyer. “Our mission is to build healthy communities and if we are going to succeed, we must include building healthy, accessible, nutritious and affordable food systems.”

In 2012 alone, KI had 35 material-reduction and recycled-content improvement projects.

Examples included re-designing a table-folding mechanism to reduce the amount of material used; switching from paper-based MSDS, drawings, price lists and work instructions to digital versions; recycling scrap wood for boiler fuel instead of landfilling it; and reclaiming black powder used in powder coating.

The company also incorporates recycled, recyclable and renewable materials into its products, such as bio-based foam or recycled aluminum and steel, Evenson noted. Additionally, KI also has set reduction goals for greenhouse-gas emissions, water use and energy use at all of its North American facilities.

“In 2012, KI Wisconsin facilities saw a 6.2 percent reduction in materials, diverted 500,179 pounds from landfills, and achieved a cost savings equating to $507,201,” Evenson said.

In the paper industry, Appvion was among the first to measure and work to reduce its carbon footprint.

“We have introduced new or redesigned products and design platforms that help make product development ‘greener’ by streamlining product designs to use fewer chemicals, increasing design efficiency to use smaller quantities of chemicals, and substituting ingredients that reduce the impact on the environment,” said Van Den Brandt. For its efforts, Appvion was among the first Wisconsin firms in 2010 to receive the Green Masters designation. It’s earned the Green Masters credential each year since.

Making a case for sustainability

In 2013, marine engine manufacturer Mercury Marine in Fond du Lac also earned a Green Master designation. Since 2011, the company’s Fond du Lac operations have conserved energy in the form of 14 billion British thermal units (BTUs) of building heat. Water conservation equaled 250,000 gallons.

Its products are greener, too. Emissions from Mercury’s outboard engines have been reduced and fuel economy has been improved over the years. A new paint system installed in the Fond du Lac plant in 2011 resulted in a 50 percent reduction in volatile organic compound air emissions and a 50 percent reduction in paint-related hazardous wastes. Almost all of the aluminum used to make engines comes from recycled material.

“We have historically made sustainable activities an integral part of our core business practices, and we began formulizing them under company-wide policies in 2011 to ensure measurement and achievement,” said Mark Schwabero, Mercury president.

Schneider National’s ongoing efforts in fuel efficiency conserve more than 26 million gallons of fuel and reduce more than 300,000 tons of carbon byproducts annually, Matheys noted. For example, Schneider spent $19.8 million in 2012 on incentives that reward drivers for practicing fuel management techniques. The company has been testing natural gas-fueled tractors within its fleet and plans to expand the number of trucks this year.

The insurance industry can go through a lot of office products like paper, electronics and furniture. Appleton-based Secura Insurance, which is new to Green Masters, set up a green committee in 2010 to manage resources and reduce environmental impact.

Numerous recycling efforts at Secura include paper and cardboard, batteries, office electronics, and even employees’ electronics from home, as well as food composting. Printer and copier use is monitored and minimized, with printers on the duplex setting.

Green Bay-based Northeast Wisconsin Technical College created a sustainability team this past year involving faculty and students. Onsite changes to its campus include water filling stations, low-energy restroom remodels, and a building addition that uses advanced energy monitoring software, light tubes and a green roof, according to Amy Kox, associate dean for the energy and sustainability programs.

“The instructor and students in the Energy Management program have completed numerous energy audits for the college and local businesses as part of service learning,” said Kox. “The Solar Energy (program) students submitted grant applications to Focus on Energy for three solar installations on the Green Bay campus and were awarded these grants.”

Sustainable Food & Agriculture Systems program students have a campus organic garden and raised money for a student scholarship by selling community-supported agriculture shares and produce.

“We believe that these programs will provide the educated graduates ready to work, manage and operate green businesses of the future,” said Kox. “We believe we, as an organization, need to live what we teach.”

The right thing to do

For some businesses, sustainability efforts may be made even when they create costs instead of savings.

“Our sustainability plan has a triple bottom line to balance our environmental, economic and social impacts,” said Appvion’s Van Den Brandt. “We consider sustainability in everything we do. In many cases being a good environmental steward provides economic benefits; in some instances sustainability may create additional costs for our company.”

NWTC’s Energy Management team measures the amount of time required to pay back the initial investment in an energy savings project, Kox said, but “payback is not all that is considered.”

“There are some projects that we have done that have a longer payback. We do these projects because they are important to us in terms of how we live our sustainability values and how the project may be useful for our students in terms of exposure to new technologies.”

As KI CEO Dick Resch put it, “Sustainability is about striving for continual improvement every step of the way. To us, sustainability isn’t just about ‘going green.’ It’s a fundamental way of doing business – one that conserves natural resources and reduces waste, consumption and operating costs.”

Robin Bruecker ( has been writing for magazines and marketing departments since 1995.