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Small sustainability actions can make a big difference

Features | February 1, 2024 | By: Pamela Mills-Senn

Glen Raven’s Sunbrella® fabrics are designed to withstand all manner of environmental impacts while remaining attractive and functional. The durable fabrics offer a high degree of sun protection and are fade resistant and easy to care for, keeping them on the job longer. Image: Glen Raven Inc.

With sustainability uppermost in nearly everyone’s mind, textile providers and fabricators are looking at ways to reduce their environmental footprint and better manage their social impacts. This makes good business sense for multiple reasons. A brand that has an eco-friendly/people-friendly reputation not only has a better chance of attracting customers than one that doesn’t, but it may also have an easier time recruiting and retaining employees. There are also cost savings associated with becoming more sustainable. Plus, increasingly it’s viewed as simply the right thing to do.

However, this effort isn’t without its challenges, particularly for smaller- and medium-sized companies, says Josh Prigge, CEO and founder of Sustridge Sustainability Consulting. Headquartered in St. Paul, Minn., Sustridge specializes in developing comprehensive and tailored sustainability solutions for small businesses up to large corporations across various industries.

Prigge mentions numerous obstacles, including a dearth of resources and expertise within the company, and even in some cases, a lack of awareness or understanding about the importance of implementing sustainable practices. And although these constraints aren’t impossible to overcome, he says, they can prove frustrating for those wanting to make progress in this area.

Thinking small adds up

Value Vinyls Inc. provides an excellent example of what thinking smaller can accomplish. Located in Grand Prairie, Texas, the company develops and supplies materials for applications used in retail, health care, sports and construction, says Marc Shellshear, general manager. Offerings include durable shade cloth for outdoor structures, customized sign media and heavy-duty truck tarps. 

The sustainability moves Value Vinyls has made include:

  • Running the HVAC systems only when the company is open—all thermostats are programmable, which reduces energy use, consumption and costs.
  • Updating the restrooms with automated soap and paper towel dispensers, reducing consumption and costs while improving health.
  • Consolidating the printers rather than having individual ones, reducing the need for ink cartridges and paper.
  • Purchasing all supplies, including snacks, in bulk, reducing costs
    and waste.
  • Allowing flexible work schedules, including remote work. “Working remotely is a viable way to reduce your employees’ collective footprint,” Shellshear says. “It will not only reduce carbon emissions, but it can also help reduce food and plastic waste, as employees can prepare their lunch right in their home kitchen.”
  • Providing motion-activated lighting in some areas and offices, which reduces energy consumption.

“And many of our teams are now using paperless notebooks,” he adds. “Did you know the average office worker generates about 2 pounds of paper waste every day? Fortunately, today’s technology can help us use less paper.”

The company is also in the process of changing its interior lighting from fluorescent to LED bulbs, which use less energy, give off less heat and have significantly longer life spans than fluorescent bulbs, he says. They are also more reliable, he adds, resulting in less time required to repair/maintain the fixtures—additional cost savings. 

“Look for things you can implement easily and work your way up to the larger items or those that will make the biggest impact, such as lighting upgrades,” advises Shellshear, adding that exploring sound attenuation options is the next sustainability challenge. “As you can see, even small things added up can make a huge difference, so look for what you can do as a start.”

Shellshear says the company implemented many of these initiatives a few years ago. Most of these decisions were financially based; ROI was reviewed for some as well.

“Each item was researched and recommended by the vendors of those specific items as far as the selection process, while we let them know we were looking for cost-effective sustainable solutions,” he explains. “Start by walking around the shop and offices to determine what is feasible and what makes good financial sense; then look for sustainable options or alternatives.”

Value Vinyls has implemented various sustainability strategies that have enabled the company to reduce its environmental footprint, and in the process, create more environmentally friendly fabrics. These rolled-up fabrics reflect some of the company’s custom colors, construction and formulations. Image: Value Vinyls

Assessing and identifying

Prigge advises smaller and medium-sized companies to first conduct an assessment to identify the sustainability issues key to the organization. Establishing sustainability metrics and the key performance indicators and forming teams to implement the initiatives would follow.

“Leadership teams, sustainability officers and department heads should be actively involved. Employee engagement is also crucial. Vendors and suppliers play a significant role. Companies should assess their suppliers’ sustainability practices and consider including sustainability clauses in contracts. Collaboration on joint sustainability projects can also be highly beneficial,” says Prigge.

Focusing on daily sustainability practices is a good way to kickstart these efforts, says John Gant, director of sustainability for Glen Raven Inc. Headquartered in Burlington, N.C., and with a presence across the global marketplace, the company delivers a variety of fabrics and solutions to industries such as shade, marine, window, furniture and more. The Trivantage® distribution and Glen Raven Logistics businesses are both under the Glen Raven umbrella.

“Start with the trash can,” Gant suggests. “What goes in that could go elsewhere or be repurposed? Or even reduced? What changes could be made to reduce the amount of waste altogether?”

Glen Raven launched its Recycle My Sunbrella program in 2010. This gives its domestic customers a way to participate in recycling used Sunbrella® fabrics, such as cutting-table waste and scraps, awning covers, boat covers and upholstery, with the company’s textile recycling partners converting these fabrics into new industrial products. And its efforts didn’t end there.

“Most sustainability ideas follow similar themes, and for good reason—we all need a safe place to work and live,” explains Gant. “As an example, in 2019, a Glen Raven team worked together and identified a key set of principles that fit our culture, products and markets, and those informed a new set of sustainability goals.

“These goals focused our efforts on tangible ways we could do good—by becoming a more thoughtful employer or by becoming more strategic in the ways we support the communities and schools where we operate,” he continues. “We also focused on key environmental opportunities, like taking a more responsible position regarding the broader impact of energy use and the opportunity to select renewable energy.”

Some of the key opportunities the team identified include becoming 100% powered by certified renewable energy by 2025 and also using five times more recycled raw materials by that same year, among others.

The ProVantage Outdoor textile was developed for stadium wall padding. The fabric incorporates extreme UV protection additives. Its smooth matte finish also makes it easier to clean than textured finishes, prolonging both appearance and usefulness. Image: Value Vinyls

Involve your partners

Shellshear says Value Vinyls has significantly reduced power consumption and costs, while keeping pricing lower for its customers (see sidebar for an ATA energy-savings member benefit). He says that because of their expertise, suppliers have played an essential role.

“We simply asked them for pricing for the standard item, whatever that was, and an option for a more sustainable item as well,” Shellshear recalls. “We also consulted with them on what made sense and what had an impossible ROI. There are consulting firms that are experts at this as well.” 

Gant also suggests reaching out to distributor and supplier partners, exploring what opportunities there might be to work together and support the company’s sustainability desires. Glen Raven’s recycling partners have also been integral to the success of the Recycle My Sunbrella program, he says, enabling the company to connect its customers to the “circular economy” and to help keep nearly 1 million pounds of fabric out of landfills. The company’s goal is to help customers recycle an additional 1 million pounds by 2025.

“One key partner is the South Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation Agency,” Gant says. “They have an operation which provides specialized services near our factory in Anderson, S.C., where they provide important services of sorting textile waste and repackaging salvaged materials to be sent forward in the supply chain.”

In 2010 Glen Raven launched the “Recycle My Sunbrella” program, allowing domestic consumers to participate in the company’s recycling process that breaks down Sunbrella® fabric, providing a way to dispose of scraps, awnings, boat covers, upholstery and more. Image: Glen Raven Inc.

Prigge mentions “frameworks” like GRI (Global Reporting Initiative) and standards like SASB (Sustainability Accounting Standards Board) as two potential resources. The former promotes environmental, social and economic sustainability; the latter focuses on the financial impact of sustainability. Certifications like ISO 14001 and B Corp are additional sources of guidance, he says. Sustridge also offers bespoke solutions, including greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions consulting and zero-waste management as well as helping clients develop supplier codes of conduct.

It’s also essential to stay abreast of the trends and regulations around sustainability, he says, describing regulatory compliance as a “moving target that requires continuous monitoring and adaptation.” Engaging stakeholders to get their feedback on a company’s sustainability efforts and where improvements are needed is important as well. This engagement can take various forms, such as customer surveys, community outreach programs and other strategies, he says, explaining this offers organizations the chance to not only fine-tune their initiatives but also forge stronger relationships with their customers.

“Consider sustainability as a long-term investment, not just a short-term expense,” Prigge advises. “By integrating sustainability into your core business strategy, you’re positioning your company for long-term success and resilience. Sustainable practices often lead to cost savings and revenue generation over time, offering a return on investment that goes beyond mere financial metrics to include social and environmental capital.” 

Pamela Mills-Senn is a Seal Beach, Calif.-based freelance writer.


SIDEBAR: ATA member sustainability benefit

APPI Energy’s consulting services can recommend ways your company can save energy. Its services include:

  • Data-driven procurement solutions and consulting
  • Suggestions on how to reduce and manage electricity and natural gas costs
  • Efficiency measures to track and decrease energy consumption 
  • Lowest prices available among many vetted, competing suppliers

This benefit is available to U.S. ATA members. For more information, contact Kathryn Allen at +1 800 520 6685, info@appienergy.com.


SIDEBAR: Striding forth

GuildWorks LLC created more usable space for its “City Square Shade” project for an office complex in Phoenix, Ariz. Mar C. Ricketts, principal and founder, says the company’s membrane suppliers “offer 100% truly recyclable materials” for its projects. Image: Elizabeth Schlueter

Located in Portland, Ore., GuildWorks LLC prioritizes sustainability efforts both in its company practices and in its design approach. The company offers temporary and permanent lightweight tension fabric structures that provide maximum coverage while using a minimal amount of material, says Mar C. Ricketts, principal and founder. Their lower weight reduces transportation impacts, requires less heavy equipment and machinery, produces less waste during construction and also achieves greater installation efficiencies. Additionally, Ricketts says that GuildWorks’ membrane suppliers “offer 100% truly recyclable materials” to the company’s projects.

“I started the company knowing that tension structures are sustainable and can lead to material reductions in architecture,” he says. “After that base start it has taken some time to roll out more detailed efforts towards sustainability.” 

Even so, the company has made noteworthy strides by purchasing sustainable power and implementing a company recycling program that allows employees to bring their hard recyclables—polystyrene, batteries, number-5 bottle caps and some plastics—to work and the company handles the recycling.

GuildWorks also looks for ways to support the community and donates its products and services to local nonprofits. In addition, it has taken steps to increase the amount of health care costs it covers and has “slowly” raised its pay rates to a living-wage level. Although it is not a B Corp., Ricketts says GuildWorks has implemented many of its standards to make the company more sustainable. All of these measures demonstrate that sustainability goes beyond just environmental concerns, encompassing socioeconomic impacts as well.

“The most important thing that a company realizes is that they are in the business of sustainability,” he says. “They need to sustain themselves and their employees’ lives and understand that doing so matters. They should look at how they help their employees and their community. Then they should look at how they help the earth. Little steps can add up to make a big difference and might not cost that much.”

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