Sustainable Business Insights
Getting Started in Sustainable Business

John Shepley of Emory Knoll Farms


By John Shepley, Green Business Editor
Sustainable Business Insights Intro Column
April 20, 2011
Graphics Courtesy John Shepley





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

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:

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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