Monday, April 28, 2008

Larry's Auto Works: a Certified Green Business

As originally published at


At the recent Santa Clara County Green Business conference, I heard Larry Moore of Larry's Autoworks in Mountain View share his thoughts about being a green business. They have been in business for 30 years and became green certified by Santa Clara county in November 2006, the first certified green business in Mountain View, the town famous for being Google's headquarters. Their environmental motto is, "Keeping our environment safe and healthy is an important part of Larry's AutoWorks. This applies to both our daily work environment and the world environment." What a great example of how a small business can take on big issues and play a role in being a leader in protecting the environment.

Well, obviously as an emergency room for cars, they are most concerned with quality service and customer care. In fact, they have been voted as the best-of in the city in their service area for three years in a row. A customer once said that Larry's is the cleanest and most pleasant auto shop to wait in while your car is being serviced. So green could go hand-in-hand with profit and service. Still, what does a green business certification mean? Well, in Santa Clara County, it covers the following areas:

  • Compliance with environmental regulations
  • Energy Conservation
  • Water Conservation
  • Waste reduction and recycling
  • Pollution Prevention

There is a checklist that you have to complete and proof, but the process itself is free. An auditor will visit your shop and ensure that you do what you claim (e.g. installing low flow faucets, recycling paper and cans) after which you get all the benefits of the program including a green business logo.

For Larry's Autoworks, it is focusing on: (a) pollution prevention, and (b) recycling. According to Larry, they first go for the biggest financial savings, although that sometimes means doing the hard part first. They are rather small and hence do not have a specific department to run the program and track all the savings, but Larry knows that through recycling, they have recouped $14,000 in fees. In his opinion, the financial case IS the biggest reason to go green -- "It would be crazy not to go green, given these numbers!" They were able to save water, reduce electricity cost, reduce chemical usage which reduces workers' comp claims, and recoup money by tracking materials from recycling. Hey, in today's competitive autoworks world, any little bit helps!
One of their biggest lessons in going green successfully has been how important it is to involve the employees in redesigning the work flow. For example, getting recycling to work effectively on the shop floor required an iterative approach. Initially, even though bins were available for separating trash during auto works, the position of bins were inconvenient. By strategically re-positioning them so that workers productivity are not impacted, they were able to change behavior on the floor. "Place recycle barrel before trash barrel -- simple as that!" In addition, Larry also informally audits his supply chain. The purchasing decision is one of the most effective levers for affecting overall change. When doing research and deciding which vendor to obtain supplies from for day-to-day business operations, he takes into account whether the materials are recyclable, whether the vendor/manufacturer provides easy take-back arrangements. In addition, he favors water-based solvent, which is less toxic.
Sure, when it comes to automotive repair, customers care most about a job well-done, about convenience, and about cost, and less about the environment. Still, Larry has found that his shop is able to distinguish itself by creating an environment that is more pleasant for the customer, and appeal to those who care about being environmentally correct. He feels that in general, his customers are concerned about his company being environmentally responsible. As a woman, I would definitely go to a greener car shop, because greener probably equates to a more pleasant environment and a cleaner car repair experience. I am concerned that the myriad of chemicals used do not cause further harm to my health, to society when it is supplied and when it is disposed of. I do not want to pollute the environment with unnecessary waste each oil change. Plus, I personally would feel better if my mechanic cares about the environment. Because, if he can do that, I assume that he is capable of caring well for my car too! Auto body shops are not that attractive a place for me to hang out in. Knowing that they are cleaner makes it a lot more palatable place to visit. Knowing that they are greener just creates a much more pleasant image of the shop in my head that makes me want to spend money there. Well, that's me.

Today, green business certification programs everywhere are running into a bottleneck with more demands from businesses. In fact, all the programs around the San Francisco Bay Area have backlogs and needs more staff to approve the many new businesses wanting to be certified green. With consumers demanding more accountability on businesses, and the increasing PR value of going green, it is not wonder this kind of program is worth considering. If you are interested to find out more, please check with your local Chamber of Commerce, your city government, or your county government for specific details on a program nearby. Here is the Santa Clara County green business certification program with some information on why being green helps the business.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Comparison hybrid mileage

I recently went to a green car show as part of Earth Day and saw that the Camry Hybrid gets 34mpg. My gasoline Honda Civic gets 29mpg... which led me to think, would I incur the cost of switching just for 5mpg extra? Definitely not especially since my gasoline car is only 2 years old. So it was with great delight when someone mentioned this site, which provides a hybrid mileage database. Click here for a comparison chart. Smaller sedans get higher mileage than larger ones (due to weight).

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Happy Earth Day!

I originally published this on Happy Earth Day and remember, be sustainable!

Earthday Today, April 22nd, is Earth Day. Founded in the 60's, Earth Day is intended to celebrate and inspire awareness of nature all around us. It started as an activist movement to inspire the grassroots. Traditionally, the weekend prior to or after will bring many events on environmental stewardships to local communities, sponsored by organizations of all stripes. Beach cleanup, park cleanup, and trail maintenance are examples of stewardship focused events. How about in the vehicular sector? AskPatty found the following events across the sector.

Today, the government is set to release details on the timeline for achieving the CAFE standards increase to 35mpg by 2020 all vehicles. The legislation was passed in the Dec 2007 "2008 Energy Bill" s explored in these AskPatty blogs (results, debate). There is speculation that the government will require the industry to achieve more than half of the overall goal between 2011 and 2015.

A search on Toyota Earth Day on its website and Google reveal a prominent story on the Toyota Earth Day Scholarship, where 15 $500 awards are given out across Canada. Its website features link to how it supports the Earth Day Network, National Arbor Day Foundation, National Public Lands Day, Nature Conservancy, Audubon, and Tree People Eco Tours throughout the years. There were also a number of green-related news releases of recent achievements, such as the Lexus Environmental Challenge for high school students, winning the 2008 EPA Energy Star Sustained Excellence Award. Great job, Toyota!

A GM's website search says that it provides lesson plans on the environment for grades K-12. If you are an educator, check out "Earth Day Way - Every Day". A Google search returned several videos. The most interesting one is a GM media story on recycling rates of cars, which according to EPA has the highest recycling rate (95%) beating paper and plastics.

A Ford website search did not return any hit on Earth Day. In the media, Ford touts its success in cleaning up its operations, though those are not new news. Here's a blogger's a blogger's take which includes the press release.

In Los Angeles, the Wilshire Center is sponsoring an Earth Day = Car Free Day event.

In New York City, the car wash Broadway Bridge Wash and Lube will celebrate its first Earth Day by promoting the dramatic impact proper car maintenance can have on carbon reduction and cost savings at the gas pump.

Meanwhile, US News has this easy-to-read snapshot on the state of green cars. Where are they today? What is available?

The Environmental Defense Fund has this message of hope on Earth Day 2008. Meanwhile, another website for going green just launched today,

Last but not least, while doing all these Googling, I notice the Google homepage has a special graphic to celebrate this special day. I always love these Google arts -- very creative... here it is. Googleearthday2008

Still, why should earth be celebrated only on one day? Why not Earth Week and Earth Month? How about making every day an earth day? AskPatty "Be Green and Eco Conscious" blog section has a lot of information and ideas on how to be greener with your car, your fuel, and your daily life. What is the one action that you can take this month to honor Earth Day? It could be something small or something big... no matter... work it up towards doing more and more.

As for me, I am going car-free today. I am going to enjoy the sunshine and the breeze on my face while cycling around.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Saving gas at the pump helps the environment too

Gaspumps Gasoline is volatile hence prone to vaporization. The smell from your tank, when first opened, is that of trapped and pressurized gasoline vapors escaping. Also when you pump, the splashes within the fuel tank encourages fumes to escape, which is why all pumps in gas stations in the United States have caps on them. Recently, I learned about a way to save gas, that I have not heard of, so perhaps AskPatty readers may also want to learn about it. To get the maximum bang for your buck at retail gas station, here are some tips I received from a forwarded email, which I have since checked against other sources online to verify its claims.

Fuelexpands_2 Firstly, pump when temperature is lower, like in the early part of the day or later at night. The reason being, when the ground temperature is cooler, the gasoline in the underground storage tanks is more condensed, hence you get more of what comes through the pipe. Remember physics? When it is colder the molecules within the vapor move less and are thus more densely packed together in the same volume. So you get more gasoline molecules per gallon! Gasoline expands 1% per Fahrenheit change. Diesel? 0.6%. However, beware that the underground storage tank is huge and more insulated than air, so the temperature does not change as much. This impact is more notable between summer and winter, but then you can't not use gas in the summer. Take this tip with a grain of salt.

Anyway, the science and politics behind it is more interesting. Temperature compensation is used by the petroleum industry when calculating production amount, and when filling up trucks, but NOT at the retail pump. A quick Google search reveals a rather active debate on this topic. It seems that temperature compensation at retail pumps happens in Canada (calibrated to 15C), and in Hawaii (80F), but such is not the case nation-wide. And if you live in the colder state, you benefit more. Download temperature_compensation_slides.pdf .

This means that depending on the temperature (and altitude too... I would guess), a gallon is not a gallon.

Secondly, set nozzle on low.
Those little notches to rest the nozzle when you hands get tired of squeezing them come in three settings -- low, medium, and high. How hard you squeeze the nozzle also affects how much gasoline is vaporized. These vapors get sucked back through the pump via a parallel vapor return system that returns the gasoline vapor to the underground storage system. This system is needed to prevent air pollution and to protect consumer health. The number at the pump may still be running forward as it dispenses liquid gasoline, but the extra churn created by setting the nozzle on high returns vapor to the gas station storage that you don't get credit for! (Do you know that gasoline vapor contains VOC, or volatile organic compounds, such as benzene, toluene and 1,3-butadiene, that are harmful to your lungs and cause cancer in the long run? These compounds also contribute to ozone, smog, and brown haze of summers.)

Thirdly, fill up regularly, e.g. when your gas tank is around half full (or empty -- depending on what type of outlook you have :-P ). This reduces air space where vapor can form. Since gasoline is volatile, it evaporates faster than you can blink... the more air space, the most you lose when the gas cap is popped open. This problem is prevented in industrial storage tanks via the use of "floating roof", which rises and falls with the liquid level inside the tank. Floating roofs are considered a safety requirement as well as a pollution prevention measure for many industries including petroleum refining.

Fourthly, don't overfill.
When you try to overfill a little to be safe, you ain't getting more gas if your station is equipped with vapor recovery systems. This is because when the gas pump automatically shuts off, a vapor lock blocks more gas from entering your car. Excess gasoline will just be sucked back into the storage tank, even if the meter is still running forward.

This EPA website sums it up succintly as well as having nice graphics that illustrates it. Over-topping wastes money, pollutes the environment, and ensures the next person using the pump pollutes too.

If all these steps sound complicated, you are not alone. But with gasoline prices closing in on $4 in California, it makes me willing to adopt some of these new behaviors. Plus, now that I know better, it is just hard to worry about the impact of these vapors to my health... I won't do this just to save money -- the amount saved is decent but quite negligible (estimated $30-$50 per gasoline car per year, or $400-700 per diesel truck per year) but I will definitely be more careful with these vapors for the sake of my health and for the health of those in my car.

Participating in A Local Sustainability Effort


Recently I wrote a blog about how to get involved in the fight against climate change. Today, I thought, I should write about a nifty city program I am involved with along this front -- my contribution to the challenge, if you will -- that has been quite an eye-opening experience. You see, the city where I live (which shall remain anonymous to maintain some privacy) recently commenced a citizens task force to work on sustainability issues. Its stated goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and to make it a more sustainable place to live. As a student of sustainability, when I saw the announcement in the paper, I figure I should apply, since it provides a very concrete way to make a difference right where I live. Giving back is very important to me, as I have received much over the years... and doing something locally, in my opinion, is one of the best ways to contribute energy in the cause I care about.

The thing is, my town will be partially flooded if the sea-level rises as expected by 2050. And my children will be the ones who will suffer the effects most in the future. I can imagine them asking me what I did to help address the problem, ten, twenty years, down the road. Having a negative answer is not an option to me. Plus, somewhere in the back of my mind, is something someone said to me once. That if you see a problem -- "don't just complain about it, do something. If smart people like you don't contribute to solving it, it is such a waste."

So I was pleasantly surprised, when I was selected to be on the steering committee, along with 14 other highly qualified individuals from all walks of life in the community. The commitment, voluntary and unpaid as it is, has been taking a lot of my time, but has been such an eye-opening experience.
This is my first government experience, so that's always interesting. I've worked in corporations, and in non-profits, but the government is a whole different ball game. But as I always say, life is an adventure. New experiences keep it interesting.

We have six months to come up with a list of proposals for City Council to vote on. The city council had previously voted unanimously to sign the US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, and appointed a new Sustainability Coordinator person. Now it is the citizens turn to come up with a list of actionable items that they like to see implemented. Obviously, being a small city, and in times of budget constraint, low-hanging fruits that are easy to implement and don't cost a lot, are best. Focusing on the issue of GHG is also key, as sustainability is such a big topic and different members of the community have different pet topics. And so it started...

Some of the meetings have been a little tedious, though necessary. Being an officially appointed committee means we are saddled with the overhead of public notification, official agenda, and official minutes, not to mention the Brown Act -- a well-meaning state law to prevent secret meetings by government, but also a big handcuff in what we can and cannot do. It took a while to get adjusted to.

The fun really came once we split into little groups to work on specific issues. Each steering committee member chairs a sub-group on a topic that the community wants to work on. For example, there is a Transit and Transportation group, that may work on electric/biodiesel cars incentives, walkability, and bikeability around town. There is a Land Use group that is looking into zoning and sprawl issues, a Built Environment group that is looking into green building code and incentives, a Green Business group that is looking into how our city can extend the county's program and encourage more businesses to get certified.

It has been educational for me to see how very different people from all walks of life come together in a loosely-organized fashion. One challenge that is pretty obvious so far is a lack of common communication protocol. Whereas in a corporate-setting, or in any institutional setting, there is usually a clear culture already established -- hence unspoken guidelines on communication styles -- we are simply interested citizens who do not know each other, and an informal working group not bound by any clear rules. It really takes a lot of leadership and negotiation to keep everyone happy. After all, people are volunteering their time and don't get paid for it...

A definite bonus from this is getting to know folks sharing the same interest within the community. I have made many a new friends and look forward to many more. I have met many kindred souls whom I would be happy to continue working with to make the community a better place in future years.

Right now, this volunteer work is taking a whole lot of my time, but I am quite happy to do as much as possible to make my city a better place to live in. It is also good for my conscience. In recent years I found that it has become harder and harder for me to justify leaving problem-solving on public goods issues to others. Perhaps I am getting older... but it sure feels darn good to be a more responsible citizen.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

McKinsey Report on Consumers and Climate Change

MckinseyIn the recent McKinsey Quarterly, there is an interesting report on a global survey that shows corporations need to account for consumer concerns about climate change. In it, consumers say that a corporation’s performance in addressing the problems of the environment and climate change affects not only how much they trust the company but also whether they would buy its products.

Consumers also expect companies to promote the public good by providing healthier and safer products, retirement and health care benefits for its employees, and much else besides. Their expectations vary by industry and geography. As such, the study concludes, "every business should think about the role environmental issues can and should play in strategy so that they can build trust among consumers and offer products and services that address their concerns."

To read the whole article, sign up for a free account on the McKinsey Quarterly site. This is a useful newsletter for anyone interested in strategic management. McKinsey & Company is a global management consulting firm, the top, if you will amongst the big strategic management firms. They provide advising services to the world’s leading businesses, governments, and institutions. These reports are on-par with the Harvard Business Review in terms of quality, and covers a broad range of business management topics.

The survey focused on the petroleum, food and beverage, retailing, and high-tech industries. They have a common need to tackle environmental issues but otherwise face different societal challenges and opportunities. The study shows that there is a gap between how well company executives perceive they are doing -- in terms of protecting public goods and serving a positive role in society, and how consumers perceive the companies are doing. This gap is wider in Europe and North America, than in developing markets. Environmental responsibility is cited as a key differentiator for companies, as it increases consumers trust of the corporation. However, the survey explores many social issues and is not limited to the environment.

When it comes to desirable corporate behaviors, the top four consumer concerns of those polled are:

  • environmental issues including climate change
  • healthier and safer products
  • pension and retirement benefits
  • affordable products for poorer customers

Executives however, do not have the same priorities. The top two items remain the same, but the next highest were privacy/data security, and job loss related to outsourcing overseas.

McKinsey suggests that as companies focus on their reputation, they cannot ignore the environmental aspect, which would also bring new cost savings and strategic advantage. However, other issues should not be ignored. The report goes on to say that since consumer and corporate concerns about social issues vary by region, it is a complex picture. As such companies still consider these as risks rather than opportunities, even though the market share for environmentally friendly goods and services continue to grow.

Survey methodology: The McKinsey Quarterly conducted a survey of executives in September 2007 and received responses from 2,687 of them around the world (36 percent of them CEOs or other C-level executives). During the same month, McKinsey conducted a survey of 7,751 consumers in eight countries: Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The latter survey explored consumer perceptions of the role business plays in society, the way large global companies deal with sociopolitical questions, and the issues facing four industries—food and beverages, high tech, petroleum, and retailing.

As originally published on

Thursday, March 27, 2008

An hour of darkness

Here's an interesting activity to help spread the word on energy use reduction. At locations around the world, Earth Hour is holding a 1-hour voluntary blackout event to reduce the load on the grid. In the US, the next event is this Saturday, March 29, 2008 at 8 p.m. local time wherever you are. They suggest that you do it solo, or invite friends and family to join the vigil. More than 100 cities across North America will participate, including the US flagships–Atlanta, Chicago, Phoenix and San Francisco and Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.

Originally created by the WWF in Australia in 2007, it has grown quickly into events all around the world.

IMO, this is a good exercise for several reasons:
  1. Trying to turn off all power usage at home or at work is an exercise in awareness. It may surprise us how many appliances, outlets we take for granted. Turning then off in one exercise shows the aggregate effect.
  2. Having a community turn-off event like this can help demonstrate how much power we typically use during that hour. Each household's usage may not seem like a lot, but it all adds up. It is a great community awareness tool, and again, shows the aggregated impact of concerted efforts.
If you are not free at that time, you can just pick an hour when you are, and try going through this exercise. Might be a fun thing to do with the family (at home), with colleagues (at work), or with a group of kids (at school).