The regular lightbulbs have long since been replaced by the curly ones. Reusable shopping bags are de rigueur. As is the timing of winter heat and summer air conditioning to coincide with customer traffic.
These days, natural products stores are reaching beyond the usual green practices to employ state-of-the-art strategies to cut energy consumption. Retailers are using solar-powered water heaters, installing high-tech refrigeration systems and relying on sunshine to light their stores naturally.
Many of the strategies are pricey. But from small, independent stand-alone stores to chains, from brand-new construction to vintage buildings, natural products stores are finding more and more ways to go green that are not only good for the environment, but also for their bottom line.
"In our 34 years of business, we’ve always played a leadership role in environmentalstewardship," says Don Smith, co-owner of Foodsmiths natural foods store in Perth, Ontario. "But I always look at what the payback is going to be. As a responsible business that’s trying to stay in business, that’s my major criteria. And we have saved money from the things we’ve invested in.
"Being environmentally responsible saves money. It’s a better way to do business."
Third-party certification programs
Third-party certification programs can help your store figure out where to get the most energy-efficient bang for the buck. A plaque on the wall is a good marketing tool as well. "Third-party certification always helps you cover your bases, and it enforces best practices," says Doug Gatlin, vice president of the U.S. Green Building Council, which runs the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification program. "And studies show at least 10 percent energy savings with third-party certification."
Any store regardless of size can participate in some way in the various certification programs. Costs range from zero for doing things like turning off the lights and water, to a couple thousand bucks for replacing all the lights with energy-saving bulbs and installing low-flow water fixtures, to hundreds of thousands of dollars for installing high-efficiency refrigeration systems or building green stores from the ground up.
The top third-party certifiers are the LEED program and an Environmental Protection Agency program called Energy Star. Both programs use a points-based rating system to assess a store’s environmental performance. LEED focuses on water and energy use, along with green features such as building materials and equipment, while Energy Star concentrates specifically on energy, comparing a building’s energy performance to that of similar structures across the country.
Energystar. Energystar.gov provides detailed requirements for participation in the program as well as energy-saving tips from experts and free tools that can help stores measure and reduce their energy use. For instance, Energy Star’s online Portfolio Manager Tool lets a store track energy and water consumption before deciding which improvements to make.
"It’s important to track your use," says Anna Stark, program manager for Energy Star commercial properties. "If you change to more efficient lights but leave them on all the time, you’re not going to save energy. Even such no-cost and low-cost measures as shutting off the lights and using motion-sensor lights in the bathrooms and back rooms can save 10 percent or more."
The website includes a building-upgrademanual and calculators that can help store owners decide how much they can afford to invest in retrofits based on the anticipated energy savings, and whether it would make sense to borrow funds to finance building upgrades. It also lists energy-saving product rebates.
Among Energy Star partners that have completed a variety of improvements—from lighting and window upgrades to new equipment installation—to win
certification is Richmond, Va.-based Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market.
Leed. This program is primarily associated with design and construction of new buildings and major renovations, but Gatlin says it also focuses on operation and maintenance. "That’s been our fastest growth sector," he says. "With existing buildings, you have real data: a water bill, an electric bill. You can use that information about your consumption to benchmark against comparable properties and adjust your use."
LEED offers different levels of certification—certified, silver, gold and platinum. Each level is based on the number of points earned in six categories, including sustainability, water efficiency, energy use, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, and innovation and design.
PCC Natural Markets’ store in Redmond, Wash., is the first grocery store to earn LEED gold certification, and its store in Edmonds, Wash., is on track for LEED platinum.
Gatlin says because the retail segment of the LEED program is new, there isn’t much cost/benefit data yet. But the Green Building Council estimates that new LEED projects are being built for between zero and 2 percent more than conventional projects, and can expect to save 30 percent annually on energy and water expenses.
Private certification. Some companies charge a fee to conduct energy assessments and provide certification. The Green Business League, based in Plainfield, Ill., charges around $2,000 to assess a store based on about 200 different practices ranging from air quality to recycling. It has certified about 2,500 companies in the U.S. and Canada, including Foodsmiths and Naturally Yours Grocery, which has stores in Peoria and Normal, Ill.
In addition to certifying the business, "we market the company around the area as a green business. They not only save money and use less energy; they often gain business," says M.J. Richmond, head of business development and marketing for the Green Business League.
Naturally Yours Manager Roger Hutchinson says a store customer who works for the Green Business League approached him about getting certified, and now she’s promoting the store to other businesses she works with.
In addition, "a day-care center learned about our certification, and now they are buying cleaning supplies and snacks from us. It’s really a winning
advantage," he says.
Refrigeration use chilling
According to Energy Star, refrigeration accounts for 38 percent of a store’s energy use, followed by lighting at 23 percent, heating at 13 percent and cooling at
11 percent. So it’s no surprise that experts recommend that stores put their, well, energy into these categories when deciding what to upgrade or replace.
Refrigeration. The EPA’s GreenChill Advanced Refrigeration Partnership works with food retailers on green refrigeration technologies and strategies. You can get details about requirements and apply for certification at epa.gov/greenchill. The program has just begun a study to determine costs versus savings of advanced refrigeration systems.
Foodsmiths’ Don Smith made a $500,000 investment in an energy-efficient refrigeration system when he built a new 17,000-square-foot store. Eight compressors ran the old system in the 4,200-square-foot old store, but because the new system only runs the number of compressors needed at a particular time, it can operate with three compressors. Smith doesn’t have any energy-savings data yet, but the system is supposed to be at least 30 percent more efficient than a typical system with one compressor per refrigerator case, he says.
As a less pricey alternative, Naturally Yours spent $3,000 on voltage suppressors to level out the voltage variances that are common in freezer and refrigerator compressors. Hutchinson estimates the suppressors save him about 10 percent on his electricity bill, or $400 to $500 a month.
Lighting. Research shows that installingoccupancy sensors can save between 20 percent and 75 percent of the energy used for lighting. More stores are also relying on good old natural light as well. Ellwood Thompson’s uses natural daylight at the front of the store, says Marketing Director Paige Bishop.
PCC Markets installed skylights at its stores in Redmond and Edmonds, Wash. Special glazing allows 65 percent of visible light to enter while blocking 64 percent of the sun’s heat, the company says. When there’s enough sunlight, lighting fixtures automatically go off.
Hutchinson also recommends checking to see if your store qualifies for local or national energy-rebate programs. He spent about $6,000 to install new lighting and more efficient ballasts in his Peoria store and got back $2,000 from the city utility company.
Heating and cooling. To cut down on air-conditioning use, Ellwood Thompson’s installed a white roof to reflect the sun. And in PCC Markets’ newer stores, mechanical and refrigeration systems are interconnected so that heat generated from cooling food is captured to help power the stores’ hot water and heating systems.
Foodsmiths’ hot-water heating is supplemented by two solar panels on the roof that provide about 15 percent of the store’s total usage. "I figure I’ll see payback in about seven years," Smith says. "That’s not bad. The solar panels are also very visible. People come into the store to ask about them. We’re raising consciousness about alternative energy sources."