Sustainable Businesses

By guest author, Jeni Tyjeski

Consumers today are increasingly aware of the effects that their decisions have on the environment. When faced with the option to purchase a product from a company that has environmentally friendly practices or buy a cheaper product from a company that isn’t sustainable, many people are making the choice to purchase the green product, even if they do have to pay a little more. Sustainable businesses “create products and services that compete on price and performance while significantly reducing humankinds impact on the environment” (Fried, 2014). As consumers seek out the green products more and more, green businesses become more competitive within their market and sustainability becomes a greater subject among the producers, regardless of their size.

I interviewed two Wisconsin businesses that either incorporate green practices into their business or were founded as a green alternative to a heavily polluting industry. Their business practices are environmentally friendly, educational for consumers, and extremely different from each other. Differences within the market are common, though, and Rona Fried, president of, comments that “sustainable businesses operate across all business sectors” (2014). Differences within the green market have been incredibly apparent while interviewing Northwoods Casket Company and Central Waters Brewing Company. Though these two businesses create vastly different products, they both have sustainable practices that set them apart from other businesses within their field. What efforts are these small business owners taking to grow and build their products sustainably and lessen their ecological footprint, and what is the value of a sustainable business? Could other, larger businesses, adopt a greener business approach similar to the paths taken by the companies interviewed?

After the passing of his grandfather, Jonas Zahn wanted to create a casket that was both skillfully designed and environmentally friendly. He also wanted the time spent creating the casket to be time where he could remember and honor his grandfather. What Zahn ended up with was a simple and unique design created with local materials that both honored and respected his grandfather’s memory. Following the creation of his first casket, Zahn further researched the natural burial movement. His first product was a kit that allows other families to spend the memorial time creating a casket for their loved one. After his first design, he continued to do more research and built many more prototype caskets, changing designs and materials to introduce a truly green and attractive product that exceed industry standards. In addition to the local materials used in the creation of the casket, Northwoods plants 100 trees for every product sold. The 100 trees sequester 200 pounds of CO2 in their first year, 4 times
A Simple Pine Box by Northwoods Casket Co.
more than the carbon footprint of Northwoods Simple Pine Box (Personal Interview). Compared to the 2000 pounds of carbon produced from a creation of a traditional steel casket, the Northwoods casket is actually bettering the environment from which their product is made (Personal Interview). One unique quality of the green casket business is their ability to create a product that is extremely sustainable. Brewing, on the other hand, has taken a different approach to creating a sustainable business, focusing on both their product as well as the process used to create it.

In 1999 Paul Graham added his years of brewing knowledge to the Central Waters Brewing Company team. With his understanding of the brewing process he brought passion for sustainable and local practices, which he used to expand the business. Graham, along with his co-owner, Anello Mollica, source a large percentage of their ingredients from local farmers, cutting back on transportation emissions in addition to sustaining local businesses. Central Waters has demonstrated a forward thinking approach to sustainable practices that not many other breweries have. They have two solar arrays at their brew house; one that provides hot water to heat the facility and preheated water for brewing needs. The other photovoltaic array produces twenty percent of their energy needs. Graham thought sustainability was important when choosing the packaging for the products as well. Sourcing the bottles from a green manufacturer and using post-consumer recycled cardboard, Central Waters shows an attention to detail in all phases of their production, a feature that appeals to a generation concerned with the future of our planet (Personal Interview). Though many consumers today are looking for a greener alternative, not all retailers are as willing to supply the newer and greener products to their specific clientele.

Julie Zahn, wife of Northwoods founder Jonas Zahn, commented on the difficulty of changing minds towards greener alternatives. Like Brodwin mentioned, sustainable practices are often thought of as nice, but not practical. It took Northwoods five years and many conversations, trade shows, newspaper articles, press releases, etc. to get the funeral industry to take their sustainable caskets seriously. A large percentage of the funeral directors “have been happy offering funeral options that do not account for environmental impact or sustainability for a very long time and are not very open-minded to change” (Personal Interview). Since green caskets are becoming more popular, and more consumers are looking for the green caskets, the families are pushing the funeral homes to add the green options to their casket offerings. Zahn adds that that is why consumer education has always been such an important aspect of Northwoods’ business plan. Though they can convince the funeral industry to carry their product, unless consumers are seeking to purchase green products, Northwoods efforts will be in vain. A successful sustainable business needs knowledgeable consumers looking for their green products in order to change traditional industry minds and survive in their market.

The practices that the businesses interviewed have implemented are sustainable and community-minded, but Northwoods Casket Company and Central Waters Brewing Company are relatively small businesses. Their products are geared toward select audiences: those looking for a casket or a beverage. What would happen if a larger business, like Wal-Mart, were to create and sell legitimately sustainable products? Though Wal-Mart is not typically thought of as a community-minded business, “big business plays an important role in sustainability due to its legitimizing value in the eyes of the public” (Brodwin, 2014). Though the products produced by Central Waters and Northwoods are sustainable, David Brodwin, cofounder of the American Sustainable Business Council observes “policymakers and others may dismiss it unfairly as too small to matter to the economy as a whole” (2014). Brodwin adds that the entry of large businesses into the green and sustainable market “proves the legitimacy and importance of sustainability as a concept and as a market force” (2014). It proves that sustainable practices work and can be implemented into any business, regardless of size. It tells competitors “’there’s money here’ and that brings more investment capital to help sustainable businesses grow” (Brodwin, 2014). It portrays the realness of the practices, and in turn, the media writes “serious stories about sustainability going mainstream rather than just human-interest stores about mavericks bucking the trend” (Brodwin, 2014). In order for success of sustainability as a widespread marketing plan, smaller businesses need to continue to model the success that they are having and push the larger businesses into action.

Central Waters Brewing Company and Northwoods Casket Company have not only envisioned a company ran sustainably, but also implemented practices into their business in order to reduce their carbon footprint and sustain local industries. “The arrival of big companies offers powerful, credible testimony that sustainable business is indeed good business” (Brodwin, 2014). The foundation of sustainable practices was created by small, grass roots efforts, and is growing into an increasingly important aspect of business ethics. These businesses have created effective plans for reducing their carbon footprint and producing environmentally friendly practices that need to be noticed and implemented by larger businesses. Green producers, combined with educated consumers are putting the necessary pressure on larger businesses to add more sustainable products and practices, helping to make sustainability an industry norm.