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John Shepley is our Green Business Editor (2011) and contributes Sustainable Business Insights.  John has worked as an engineer, technical manager, business manager, and management consultant.  Since 1984, he has lived & worked in Baltimore and surrounding areas, with a couple of years in Copenhagen Denmark building a new metro system there.  In 2004, John co-founded Emory Knoll Farms, Inc. in Harford County.  Emory Knoll Farms grows plants exclusively for green roofs.  In addition to serving the green building industry they operate a socially just and sustainable business. 

email: john (at)
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Sustainable Business Insights

I am excited about the Greenroofs & Walls of the World™ Virtual Summit 2011

By John Shepley, Green Business Editor
August 29, 2011
Graphics Courtesy John Shepley

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When I first got the email from Linda Velazquez about the summit, I had a great chuckle at my own inattentiveness.  “Yes, but WHERE is it?”, I said to myself. I read the email twice: Date, check; Theme, check; location?  Location?  Then I caught it: the Virtual summit.  Of course!  This is Linda and Aramis Velazquez we’re talking about here; of course it would be an online virtual summit.

There are a couple of great reasons this event is important.  First, it represents taking their leadership to the next level of bringing in people, ideas, and information together.  It’s quite logical after all. has been aggregating news sources, inviting guest columnists and editors to their site, and participating in many various green roof forums for more than a decade.  The ‘logical’ next step is to get information out in more dynamic ways, with online interactions between presenters and attendees.  And of course, they are on top of the technology that makes such intercourse possible.

Even better though, in my book, is that the summit means none of us have to travel physically to Atlanta (or anywhere else) to attend.  A quick computation on tells me that by NOT flying to Atlanta, I will save 462 lbs of CO2.  Someone from LA would save 1162 lbs. of CO2 by not coming to Atlanta.

Hmmm, Let’s just use 750 lbs of CO2 as an estimate of the median number and assume 1,000 attendees & speakers.  That means that by holding a ‘virtual’ summit, we’re saving ¾ of a million pounds of CO2!  Add to that the expense of lost time and expense of travel, hotels, and meals.  The additional environmental costs of the hotels, rental cars, and other travel related activities contribute even more.

Let’s add it up:

Physical Summit

Virtual Summit

Environmental Costs


  • Air Travel (Lbs of CO2):           $750,000

·        Air Travel: Zero



Dollar Costs:


·        Air Travel: $400 x 1000 =          $400,000

·        Air Travel: Zero

·        Hotel Rooms
      2 nights x $250 X1000 =       $500,000

·        Hotel Rooms: Zero

·        Meals: $200 x 1000 =                 $200,000

·        Meals: Zero

·        Airport Parking: $20 x 2 x 1000 = $20,000

·        Airport Parking: Zero



Lost Productivity Costs:


  • Who knows??

·        Less!

Physical Summit vs. Virtual Summit Comparison

Even this simplest analysis demonstrates the enormous cost of attending a trade show / conference.  And I’m not even including the cost of the time for the attendees, presenters, and vendors.

Now, imagine this for a really large conference and show.  How many people travel to Greenbuild? (I checked, last year there were about 30,000 attendees.  I’m gonna guess that at least ¾ of them traveled to Chicago from someplace else.) 22,500?!!?

Conference goers.

My conclusion is that the financial, environmental, and productivity costs of any conference & trade show are enormous.  But if no one takes the time to think about the aggregated costs, then there is probably very little awareness of the total impact of such an event.

So my hat’s off to Linda and Aramis, to Ralph Velasquez & Tremco for instigating and sponsoring the upcoming event, and to those who embrace the concept of ‘going virtual.’

This is a great example of another principle of sustainable business operations, which I’ve wanted to write about: Awareness.


Being sustainable isn’t about being perfect.  I don’t suppose that anyone reading this will forgo the next conference or trade show they had planned to attend.  But I hope that, if you do want to become more sustainable, you’ll be a bit more aware of the environmental impact of your choices.

Do you look at your electric and other energy bills closely?  The old adage goes “You cannot change that which you do not know.”  It takes me about 5 minutes, every 6 months or so to type our electric bill into a spreadsheet.  Since 2004, it looks something like this, plotted against our revenue:

Emory Knoll Farm's Annual Electricity Usage

For this graph you can see that during the times we were growing the most quickly (Red Line), we were also taking action about our electric consumption (Blue Line).

If I plot the same data differently as electrical consumption as a function of revenue, I can see a measure of our energy efficiency:

Emory Knoll Farm's Annual Energy Efficiency

Eventually, we caught up with economies of scale and implemented all the energy-savings measures we could; and the efficiency graph has leveled out.  But had we not implemented the changes that we did, the graph would likely have stayed at roughly the same level (or gotten even worse).  We accomplished this by doing the things all business could do:

• Installed energy efficient lighting;
• Considered energy consumption when we upgraded our computers;
(Replacing energy hog CRT monitors with low-power LED monitors made a big impact and saves our eyes as well!)
• Installed solar-powered solutions for high-energy consuming processes (Irrigation, in our case);
• When we expanded our greenhouse heat, we eliminated low-efficiency electric heaters and installed very high efficiency hydronic heat.

Do you consider the impacts of the small things, when added together?  The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s new LEED Platinum building was a model of solar engineering and energy efficiency.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s new
LEED Platinum building

Its radical design collects large amounts of solar energy in the winter through a wall of glass on the southern exposure.  Carefully placed louvers block the sun in the summertime while preserving the lovely view of the Chesapeake Bay.

A visit to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation

But a quirk in the building’s ventilation system, when it was new, meant that people in the south side of the building would roast in the winter, and they all started bringing in small desk fans to keep cool.  But people on the north half of the building were freezing.  For them, the home-grown solution was the small ceramic heaters they all brought in to keep their feet warm.  Both the fans and the heaters impacted the electric consumption for the building dramatically, and all the while the ventilation system which was supposed to equalize the two areas was running and consuming energy.  Eventually they worked out the bugs in the ventilation system and the ‘personal’ solutions aren’t necessary.  But all those small units made a big impact.

It’s the little things.  They make a difference, and by paying attention to them, you can save energy which means saving money.  That’s a good thing!


John Shepley
Co-Owner of Emory Knoll Farms

John Shepley has worked as an engineer, technical manager, business manager, and management consultant.  Since 1984, he has lived & worked in Baltimore and surrounding areas, with a couple of years in Copenhagen Denmark building a new metro system there.  In 2004, John co-founded Emory Knoll Farms, Inc. in Harford County.  Emory Knoll Farms grows plants exclusively for green roofs.  In addition to serving the green building industry, they operate a socially just and sustainable business.

John is a founding board member of the Baltimore Biodiesel Cooperative (2004-2009), and has served on the board of the Chesapeake Sustainable Business Alliance since 2006, where he has been chairman since 2009.  John is passionate about renewable energy, sustainable living and business, and promoting a living local economy.  He drives a vegetable-powered truck, and has an electric Mazda RX-7.

John has a Bachelor’s Degree in Electrical Engineering from West Virginia University, 1984.  He lives in Glen Arm, Maryland with his wife, stepson, and two dogs.

Contact John at:

Sustainable Business Insights
Getting Started in Sustainable Business
April 20, 2011

This column is intended for anyone in the green roof industry who wants to run their business more sustainably.  I hope to provide encouragement to those who want to move towards sustainability; useful insights for those who are already on that path; and value to anyone who wants their business to run more efficiently – that is, to spend less and earn more. This last topic is, after all, a central tenet of sustainability.

But first things first.  What is sustainability anyway, and why should you care?  And who am I, and why should you listen to what I have to say?

Emory Knoll Farms / Green Roof Plants

Who am I?

Let’s start with me.  I came into the world of sustainability from my life-long interest in renewable energy.  As a kid, I was fascinated with a small solar panel I somehow obtained, and the notion that it could turn sunlight into something useful – electricity.  Growing up in the rural Shenandoah Valley, I was well aware of the other ways sunlight could be turned into something useful – into apples in the numerous orchards in our area, and into alfalfa hay or corn, which in turn was converted by natural processes into hamburgers, chickens, and eggs.

In college, I learned more about photovoltaics than photosynthesis, and after college I wanted to know more about how to put this knowledge to practical use - and had a ‘someday’ dream of living off the grid.  The realities of the working world, changing jobs, and becoming a part of a family held that dream off for a long time.

In the winter of 2001 I moved to Copenhagen, Denmark. Living among the Danes, I learned a great deal about how sustainability can be an integral part of daily life and business.  Over there, everyone recycles, uses public transportation, and the entire country is covered in large wind turbines that provide more than 25% of their electric energy.

Today, I still live on the grid, but we purchase wind energy credits, burn waste vegetable oil and biodiesel in our family cars, and we try to follow principles of sustainability.  So at least we’re moving in the right direction.

It was also while I was in Denmark that Ed Snodgrass and I decided to start a business together, which you probably know as Emory Knoll Farms, Inc.  From the start, Ed and I wanted to have a sustainable business, and our very first business plans included sustainability initiatives.

When I moved back to the U.S. in the fall of 2003, Ed had already begun delivering plants for many green roof projects.  In early 2004 we formally created Emory Knoll Farms, and began our path to sustainability.  Since that time, I’ve implemented many alternative & renewable energy projects at our nursery, helped to grow our business sustainably, and learned a wee bit.

I also have been involved with the Chesapeake Sustainable Business Alliance (CSBA) which promotes the interests of sustainable, local, independent business in our region.  Working with other business & sustainability leaders has taught me more and more about sustainable business, and has also taught me that I have more to learn.  The next step in my own sustainable evolution is to begin teaching others.  And that leads us to this column.

What is Sustainability?

So, what is sustainability in business or at home?  Is it a collection of crazy ideas, dreamed up by a bunch of tree-hugging hippies?  Is it saving the earth?  Social consciousness?  Starbucks? Activism?

In reality, there can be many valid definitions of the concept of sustainability.  In this world, we typically talk about the ‘triple bottom line’ accounting of People, Planet, and Prosperity.  I’ll try to boil it down to several key ideas, which I will explore further in future columns.

Effectiveness Vs. Efficiency

Definitions: Effectiveness is a measure of the degree that a ‘thing’ actually fulfills its required function.  In this case, the ‘thing’ could be a business process, a tool, a compensation plan…. Nearly anything we use or do.

Efficiency is a measure of the amount of input it requires for a unit of output of the ‘thing.’  For a person with an advanced degree, flipping burgers may not be an efficient way to earn a living, but it may be highly effective if it’s the only job to be had in a failing economy.  In business, we tend sometimes to worry about efficiency too much and not worry about effectiveness – this approach is not sustainable, and it will be covered in more depth in a future column.


In a sustainable world, we must be systems thinkers.  The living world is a system comprised of physical, biological, and spiritual processes.  Those processes are there, and everyone must ultimately work within and respect the constructs of the world in which we live.  People who actively engage and enhance natural processes are sustainable.  They do that by considering all these aspects of their decisions and their actions – as a system.


Lord Kelvin

More simply put, you cannot control what you do not measure.  To run a business well, it’s important to measure things.  To run a business sustainably, it is imperative to measure things.

Realize a Benefit

It may come as a surprise, but being sustainable should not cost a business; it should create real savings or other tangible benefit in a reasonable amount of time.  I’m often asked why a company should sacrifice profit for the sake of social responsibility or ecological improvement.  I don’t know where people get that idea – it didn’t come from me.

As we progress, I’ll share many cases where companies (including Emory Knoll Farms) made a socially- or environmentally-inspired decision which resulted in very real and sometimes even unexpected financial benefit.  The first case is below, in the ‘Re-use’ section.

Be Pragmatic

Sustainability is not about being perfect.  It’s about being aware.  I can list as many UN-sustainable things we do as Emory Knoll Farms as sustainable things.  That’s because we all pay attention and do the things that we can do when we can do them.  As they say, it’s not a destination, it’s a journey.


Repeat after me: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.”  One of the first things any of us think about in terms of ecology or sustainability is recycling.  Let’s say it again, in order: Reduce… Reuse… Recycle…

Recycling used plastic water bottles is good.  Re-using a plastic water bottle lets you avoid buying more plastic water bottles, until it wears out.  That’s better.  But buying a lifetime metal water bottle and using it for a lifetime: Well, simply put, That’s the best!

We’ll also talk more about this simple concept in the future and about how to apply it to nearly all aspects of business.  Get it?


As I said at the beginning, I hope this column will be accepted as encouraging.  I don’t want to overdo the case for sustainability.  Rather, I hope it will become self-evident to the readers as we progress together.  And my approach is to provide sound reasoning, valid case studies, and practical ‘how-to’ advice as well as answers to any questions, doubts, concerns, or valid skepticism – in the spirit of healthy dialog.  I encourage all kinds of feedback.

Action Steps:

Start by taking a close look at your own business.  Get a copy of your P&L and look at the biggest expenses or the materials that drive the business.  Perhaps that’s labor (like it is for us), or items purchased from vendors, or maybe energy.  Whatever these things are, consider them in accordance with the following priorities:

Can you reduce the amount of the things you consume the most?  Or, another way to look at it is, “What in my business is the most easily reduced?”  Make a list.  Include the things you consume the most, and the things that represent the most cost.  Consider each item in terms of whether there are ways to reduce the quantity, their expense, or both.  And then consider whether this is easy or hard, whether it takes investment, and the time scale in which it could be accomplished.

My guess is that you will find a couple of items in the ‘easy to do’ category, quickly, and with potentially significant benefits.  Give it a try!

Recently, I attended a CSBA event, hosted by McCormick & Company (the spice company) here in Maryland.  McCormick’s Sustainable Manufacturing Manager, Jeff Blankman, told of the many sustainability initiatives at McCormick.  Since most of their shipments are pre-bundled packages of spices in cardboard cartons that go on pallets, the cartons don’t need to be as strong.  They save money on the cost of the cartons by making the flaps smaller.  It’s a simple change that literally saves tons of paper each year.  But that’s not the end of their savings.  They also Re-use:

Save and re-use the ubiquitous wooden pallets.

What can you re-use?  Get the drill yet?  Make a list!  Can you staple together some used printer paper as a scratchpad?  Save lumber or building materials for future use?  Combine multiple trips, or tasks into single events?  Re-fill printer ink and toner cartridges?  Do you get wooden pallets?  Save and re-use them, or give them to one of your vendors who can use them.  Can you save and re-use shipping boxes?

McCormick & Company requires all their wholesale customers to break down their boxes and return them to McCormick.  They reuse them several times, rather than let the customer throw the boxes away or recycle them.

You probably already recycle some things.  But I bet you can do better.  Here it is again… Make a list of all the things you currently recycle.  And then consider what IKEA did when they decided to become more sustainable:

Dump All Your Trash Out
You heard me.  Take your business’ weekly trash and dump it all out in a heap in the parking lot.  And go through it.  Take your three lists, and gather your people together and take a good look at what you are sending to the dump.

Do any of the things on your lists show up there?  I bet they do!

Now, identify the things you can add to your Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle lists.  Here are some ideas:

  - Paper or foam cups? Reduce! And Reuse!! Go out to the Goodwill or Salvation Army Store and buy some funky cool glasses & coffee mugs. The money you spend there will be put to good use! Same with plastic utensils.
  - Office Paper? Shame on whoever put it there. Reuse it and then recycle it.
  - Packaging materials? Save & reuse them or recycle the materials.
  - Nasty food waste from the lunchroom? Everyone has coffee grounds. Compost it!

Get the idea?

Next time we’ll talk about the concepts of efficiency & effectiveness, and how they apply to sustainability.  In the mean time, tell me what unique and interesting ways you’ve made your business more sustainable so I can reference them here in the future.


John Shepley
Co-Owner of Emory Knoll Farms

The opinions expressed by our Guest Feature writers and editors may not necessarily reflect the beliefs of, and are offered to our readers to simply present individual views and experiences and open a dialogue of further discussion, debate and research.  Enjoy, and if you have a particular comment, please contact the author or send us an email to:


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