What Owners Need to Know About Sustainability – Marty Grohman

What Owners Need to Know About Sustainability - Marty Grohman

Do you see “sustainability” as an added cost for your business? An expense that hurts your bottom line? Then you’re doing it wrong. By injecting sustainability into your business processes, you can reduce expenses, generate more revenue, boost goodwill, and run a more successful company. Marty Grohman from E2Tech shares some of the ways businesses can avoid “greenwashing” and actually get down to being a positive force in their community, all while improving their bottom line.

Rich: Our guest today is the Executive Director of the Environmental and Energy Technology Council of Maine, also known as E2Tech. It’s a statewide nonprofit focused on growing Maine’s clean technology economy.

He’s a former Independent state representative and holds a degree in chemical engineering from Rensselaer. He’s also a fellow podcaster and hosts a podcast for Maine entrepreneurs called The Grow Maine Show, which can be heard on WGAN on Sunday mornings, and he’s a trustee of the Betterment Fund.

In previous roles, he co-founded DuraLife Decking, a composite decking manufacturing company in Biddeford, and was Director of Sustainability at GAF, North America’s largest roofing manufacturer.

As a state representative, he was twice named American Legion Legislator of the Year, an honorary life member of the Vietnam Veterans of America, and won the 2016 President’s Award from the Maine Sheriff’s Association for his work on jail funding on the Criminal Justice Committee.

He grew up in Carthage, Maine, where his family still runs a small farm keeping Jersey cows. He and his wife Amy and their two children live in Biddeford. Please welcome to the show, Martin Grohman. Marty, welcome to the podcast.

Marty: Carthage, Maine, yessah. Send it, bub.

Rich: I can’t fake that. You can tell I’m from away.

Yury: I was trying to fake it.

Marty: You can tell I was home over the weekend.

Yury: My Russian down east is not going to work. So all right, Marty, well thank you for a quite a punch to the show. That’s awesome.

So before we get started today, you also have another podcast. What can you tell us about it, what is it about, how long have you been doing it, what’s the story behind it?

Marty: Yeah, so The Grow Maine Show celebrates Maine entrepreneurs and businesses that are doing well by doing good. So I like to celebrate entrepreneurs, not unlike yourselves, that are giving back to the community. And I’ve been doing, I’m on episode sort of 110-ish. It’s always been a hobby podcast but it’s been fortunate to be picked up by WGAN, that’s definitely changed the game for me and professionalize things. It’s been fun to do and attracted some great entrepreneurs to it and I’m proud of that.

Rich: That’s awesome. And how are you finding your guests?

Marty: You know, more and more they’re coming to me, which is nice. And I’ve had some outreach. I’m always looking for guests where we want to celebrate, as I mentioned, Maine. The premise of it was I had a successful startup in Maine and I felt as though Maine has this negative reputation for startups, and I wanted to seek to change that. And so I wanted to celebrate other Maine startups.

So I have had to work pretty hard for guests in the past. I do travel. I have a Zoom H4N and I’ll come to your place and record you, which I think has been fun and I know it’s good for people to get the word out. So I hope they’ll contact me. And you know, especially with WGAN, we get a lot more reach now.

Rich: Absolutely. Yury and I have found the joy of being in the same room with guests, something I don’t get to do on my other podcast. But it is great to be able to look face to face with somebody as well.

Yury: You know, I could tell the difference. You know, we started recording the podcasts remotely and that’s not as exciting as it is when you’re actually sitting in front of someone and look in their eyes and you can ask the hardest question that you can see if someone is like trying to find their way out of it.

Marty: Yes, I’m not backing out.

Rich: Marty, how did you get involved with E2Tech, and how do you describe the mission of your organization?

Marty: Thank you. Yeah, it’s funny, I was looking through preparing that overly long bio. Thank you for going through that. I had given talks at E2Tech two or three times going back to 2015 about energy matters in Maine and was always aware of the organization. It’s been around almost 20 years. And really what we seek to do is to advance Maine’s clean tech economy. Which is kind of a fancy way of saying, if you’re growing your business by doing well for the environment, using a resource more sustainably, anything like that, we want to help you have frankly kind of an unfair advantage. We think businesses like that can do well in Maine. And a lot of that we achieve, we’re kind of known for forums and events. We will do a deep dive on Maine energy matters and really pick it apart.

And we do something like that pretty much once a month, but we are nonpartisan, so we view ourselves as the main voice of business in the world of climate change, in the world of sustainability. But we do not take positions. We don’t advocate at the legislature or anything.

Yury: Can we talk a little bit about sustainability? I’m really interested what role does sustainability play in a company?

Marty: You know, I’m fired up about that. Yury, thank you for asking. I hope that companies will use sustainability to their advantage. There are simple things that you can do to make your business greener, more sustainable.

For example, this morning I was just chatting with a friend who runs a trucking company and he’s pursuing an EPA certification called “Smart Way” and he has his trucks shut off so they have a four minute limit on their idle and so forth. All types of things like that. He’s doing that for a couple of reasons. One, he wants to save some diesel. The other is great marketing for his company.

You know, he’s a hauler for big a grocery chains like Albertsons and people like that are looking for that sustainable message. So I really encourage businesses to make their sustainability message front and center.

Yury: Do you think starting to be more popular or more widely accepted because of the social acceptance of it or social drive for it?

Rich: Or social pressure?

Marty: Or social pressure?

Yury: Yeah, it depends on the angle.

Marty: Yeah, I mean I’m sort of resistant to that. Honestly, I’ve been doing sustainability work professionally now long enough that I feel like I’ve seen sort of three waves. And maybe the most recent one was in 2011/2012 where, you know, we’ve talked a lot about recycling and it was easy to kind of get grants for recycling projects and so forth.

We’ve cycled back around. Now climate change is very front and center. It’s not my way of saying I don’t believe it, I think it should always be front and center. But I always want business to focus on things where they will also save money because there is a certain amount of trendiness to it, let’s face it.

Rich: Awesome. And that’s how you’re actually going to get people to buy into this long term is not just because of the marketing aspect of it, but because they’re seeing the change there to their bottom line.

Marty: Correct. Exactly.

Rich: So I remember I was a member of a MEBSR back in the day, Maine Businesses for Social Responsibility, and there were like three components to that; people, planet and profits. So it feels – and I just want to make sure I understand – so E2Tech is more focused on the environmental sustainability piece more so than maybe some of the other pieces. And I’m not saying it’s bad that you guys aren’t focused on that, but I just want to make sure I understand what the organization is about.

Marty: I think, yeah, that’s a good way to talk about it. We effectively were an offshoot way back when before my time of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce. And we are focused on those businesses that are doing environmental and energy work. And we want to be a hub for them, but that’s a pretty a big tent.

For example, Sargent Corporation is a prominent member. Cianbro was a prominent member. So we have lots of companies that are in that are constructors, earth movers, as well as environmental consulting firms like Stantec, VHB, Burns and McDonnell. We have quite a few banks that are doing renewable energy finance and things like that.

We really are seeking to educate and convene them. And the issue of the day is definitely a sustainability and particularly around climate change. But we will take on other stuff too. For example, an environmental chemical of concern called PFOS – t’s kind of a wonky acronym – but people call it forever chemicals. We’ve done a lot of study around forever chemicals and forums and events online. So I’m just a glorified event planner. That’s really what I’m trying to say.

Rich: Well it’s interesting because you came back, you know, I’m looking through your bio and you co-founded a decking company, and then suddenly you’re the Director of Sustainability for a roofing manufacturer. Neither of those seem like businesses that jump to mind when I think about sustainability. But I’m guessing your take is those are the companies that maybe could make the biggest impact, or what’s the approach there?

Marty: Exactly. Yeah. Thanks for queuing it up that way. That’s exactly how I feel. So my decking company was built around recycling yogurt tubs, which is all hot filled, airy, like number 5 polypropylene, and then sawdust, which is a waste from making golf tees and tongue depressors and things like that.

And so we had kind of a core sustainability message using millions of pounds of recycled plastic a year. And so I sold my company to a big national roofing company and they didn’t have anybody doing sustainability at the time. This was 2009 so that wasn’t that unusual. So I wrote myself a little job description. I said, “You guys need a Director of Sustainability”. And I took it to the CEO and he’s like, “No, we don’t.”

And so then I cast all around and I found all the competitors in the roofing industry like CertainTeed and Owens Corning were starting to add Directors of Sustainability. And he said, “All right, Marty.”

So, yeah, I did. I focused on recycling asphalt shingles of all things, but they get made into roads and it’s a massive volume, 550 million tons a year. Which is just insane poundage of making a huge difference in kind of a quiet way.

Rich: Hmm. I wish they would put more of those on my street, but that’s a whole other story.

Marty: Yes. The potholes this time of year.

Yury: Well, Marty, as you can imagine, Rich and I are both marketers and we like to play with the concept of marketing and different initiatives or different ideas. So if I’m a business owner or I’m running my company, how can I or should we market our company’s sustainability?

Marty: Yeah. Yury, thank you for that question. That’s a great one. I have a few ideas about this. I think that you should make your green messaging, settle on whatever it is, whatever works for you. It could be that you have programmable thermostats and have a cardboard dumpster such that you’re facilitating a cardboard recycling or maybe you’re composting on site. Whatever it is, pick those things that you can reasonably do in your business and focus on and make them part of your onboarding process so that employees joining can learn what you’re doing and then that helps it become part of your messaging.

Then I have kind of a new idea that I was able to do at one of my companies. And that is to offer a certification, reach out to your customers and develop some type of green certification. Make it credible, no greenwashing, make it legit. But maybe if you work with contractors, come up with a one hour training class for contractors on running a green business or something.

Yury: You mentioned greenwashing, so how do we avoid the appearance of greenwashing?

Marty: You know the gold standard on all these things is to get some sort of third party certification, right? So I had worked on a project where we certified a rainwater harvesting system. So this was a system to collect rainwater and use it for watering your garden. And it’s one thing for me to say that the water that comes off of this product is safe, but it’s another one for me to hire UL to come in and do a whole bunch of chemical testing. So in that case we were able to do that, but it did cost, you know, $75,000 and take nine months or something like that.

So the gold standard is definitely find who the third party certifiers in your particular field are and pursue one of them. But beyond that, you know, I don’t think that’s absolutely necessary out of the gate. I think that the consumer can smell a greenwashing and they’re very sensitive to it. So I wouldn’t even get close to that line. Just be legitimate. Be careful in what you do. And I always tell people sustainability is a journey. And I think authenticity is what consumers are looking for. They aren’t looking for greenwashing. They’re not looking for BS around it. Don’t, don’t make claims you can back up.

Yury: Okay. Gotcha. Thank you.

Rich: We talked a little bit about this in the roofing business, but are there types of businesses or industries that might get a bigger bang for their buck when it comes to sustainability? Are there certain groups that E2Tech is looking at more carefully that can move the overall environmental needle a little bit more?

Marty: I like to focus on commercial businesses, Rich. I am always sort of a table pounder for that. So right now Maine has fortunately a very good solar rate structure for large commercial businesses. Now is the time to get involved with that. And if we looked out the windows here at Machias Savings Bank, I think we could see a lot of opportunities to upgrade energy efficiency systems with rooftop heating units and stuff like that.

So I am always focused on, it seems like the bigger commercial opportunities. I don’t have a problem with residential homeowners, like all of us, upgrading our homes. But I want to see us take on the trucking fleet, take on big state buildings or big commercial buildings. And I think there is a bit of a tendency to overlook those opportunities or not talk about them. So I definitely try to be the guy that does that.

Rich: So a lot of our listeners may not be in a position where they have a fleet of trucks or they have all this construction material lying around that can be recycled or they can buy it. So I’m just thinking to myself, we run a web design firm, digital agency, we’ve got recycled bins, we try and make sure that we’ve got HVACs that turn on and off appropriately, that sort of stuff. But to a company like ours, what would you recommend? I guess there’s two pieces. How do we drive down our costs by being sustainable? And then is it even worth – to Yuri’s point – marketing that, or is that just something we kind of do because it’s the right thing to do?

Marty: Taking those questions one at a time. If you don’t offer composting, we composted with Garbage to Garden, that’s a great program. You mentioned do a Goodwill bin or a collection bin, something like that. Work on employee commute if you can. That’s a huge portion of office company’s emissions typically.

And I also like to say, you get what you measure. So if you are asking about employee commute, I would even say don’t ask about it if you don’t plan to work on it somehow with the carpooling program or free Metro passes or whatever it is. I would do those things and I would also take employee suggestions. That’s always a gold mine. And act on them when you feel they’re appropriate.

And then I do encourage you to market it. I really do. Find an inappropriate way to do it, but it’s important and you should. And you deserve to, you’re making an effort. And I don’t really think businesses win just because of sustainability in the sales process generally, but a lot of times it’s an all else being equal type of sell, or “I might as well go with flight new media. I know they’re working on these things and it’s making a difference”.

Rich: All right, that makes a lot of sense.

Yury: You know, I was just thinking about all these examples and it’s really interesting because with the employee commute, we actually have a stronger business case for remote work. We are creating kind of like a more convenient environment for our people to do their best work without spending hours traveling and polluting the environment.

And on the flip side, as a digital marketing agency, you’re helping other businesses to cut the expenses with the waste of print materials. You don’t have to do mailers anymore. We are doing direct to consumer, whether through digital channels like email or social. So, you know, if anything I think, Rich, you’re saving the world.

Rich: I probably am single-handedly.

Marty: I’ll say something that you might find surprising. I think you should require people to work from home at least one day a month. It’s part of something called “resilient design” that I’m an advocate for. And I can give you a specific example.

Working for GAF, as I mentioned, the headquarters of the company based in Wayne, New Jersey, we’re in kind of a low area. And during super storm Sandy, the entire business’s headquarters flooded. So imagine you’re running a company and your office is just plain underwater. And fortunately GAF had the foresight to require their people, all their customer service people, everybody knew how to work from home. This is my point. So resilient design comes down to quite a few different things. It’s related to sustainability, but it’s about being able to run your business when the grid goes down or that natural disaster happens. And if you do work from home once a month, you know how to work from home.

Yury: Well I am familiar with the resilient concept in like leadership, but what is resilient design and how does it play with the sustainability?

Marty: Well, it can be a lot of different things. It could be, I’ll put you on the spot a little bit, do you know where the gas and water shutoffs in this building are?

Yury: I know where it is in my home.

Marty: Well that’s good. That’s better than a lot of situations. And it wouldn’t be unusual for you to not know that, but a resilient design plan for this building might include knowing those types of things. Actually there’s a Red Cross readiness certification that you could obtain. And so it’s helpful for the business to be able to quickly recover from some type of grid interruption. So maybe the gas and water got turned off and you’re authorized to turn it back on, you know where those are. Or if there is a full on emergency, you can go there and turn them off yourself. It’s a lot of stuff like that.

Resilient design has a community element, too, which is sort of knowing your neighbors. It could even be adding a dog park or something, so there’s a sort of a natural place for people to get together. But a resilient design is something important and I’m passionate about and it is a good business opportunity, too.

Yury: You speak about it as an opportunity. So you saying that’s a fairly recent development, or how should we treat it? Is it a fad or is something that is going to stay here for a long time?

Marty: I think it’s a quiet must for a lot of businesses. Resilientdesign.org is a site, run by a friend of mine, Alex Wilson. And I suggest going through the resilient design strategies that he outlines there. It helps you think about what would happen in case of an electrical grid interruption, fire traffic, meaning you couldn’t get to your office with a bridge out or something like that. And these are real concerns for businesses in this century and being able to plan for them is a real difference maker.

And I think it is another thing that can help you win business because your customers want to know, they probably ask you if you have backups, and it’s just building on that.

Rich: And I understand everything about resilience design in the way you’re describing it and it makes a lot of sense basically planning for disasters. I’m not 100% sure if I understand how that interacts with the rest of your sustainability message. Are those two things tied together, or are they both just good ideas?

Marty: Good question, Rich. Actually they can even run counter to each other. So if I was building a new home and maybe it was in a flood zone and I wanted to put auto deploying floodgates, that might blow the budget up and I wouldn’t be able to afford more insulation. So they can run counter to each other.

Rich: Okay. So we talked about is this something new, is this a trend? What are the trends that you’re seeing in sustainability in business? Like looking at 2020 and beyond, what do you think are some of the things that are going to become more common to speak about, that businesses are going to be more apt to adopt as time goes forward?

Marty: I think so much of it is customer driven. As I had mentioned the trucking company that had heard from the big grocery chain, I think getting pushed by your customers. I think ingredient disclosure is a big, people want to know what is in the products that they eat.

Some people remember a scandal where there was melamine in baby food and things like that. So knowing chemicals of concern is a big one if you make a physical product.

But a very significant trend and a great one is just plain authenticity. I am a fan of saying, “You know what, we aren’t very good at this. We haven’t figured out how to get employees to carpool”, or that may not be the greatest example, but something related to your product. Just come right out and say it and involve your suppliers in the process. And I think that’ll get you results. And it lets people know that you aren’t greenwashing and that you’re on an authentic journey.

Rich: Yeah. And maybe even as you said, so much of this is – and maybe it shouldn’t be – but it is consumer driven. It’s like, what do our customers want? So maybe even engaging them in that process and saying, “We’re looking to be more sustainable and to have a lower impact on the planet. What are some of the things you’d like to see us do?” And kind of get some of that feedback and make them feel like they’re part of that solution.

Marty: Yes, I think that’s really well said, Rich. And you know, it could be coming back to packaging. I worked on a project where in this particular case we shipped nails with the product that we were supplying and the nails came to us in small boxes of like 50 or 60 nails, and we were ending up with all of this box waste to dispose of or recycle. And at some point we said, these are nails, why are you putting them in these cute little boxes, get them to us in a big old returnable tote. And obviously we saved money, and drive that stuff up stream with your supply chain if it’s digital. I’m obviously not quite as savvy in that, but I think there are still parallels and so I think push it up to supply chain and down the customer chain.

Rich: Sounds good.

Yury: Awesome. Well, Marty, we are at the part of the shore where I get to ask my favorite question. I think it’s the favorite question of all the listeners and the guests as well as the hosts, including Cody. So here’s the question, what one thing would you change if you could to improve the business ecosystem here in Maine?

Marty: Yeah, I have a hard time kind of narrowing it down to one thing. And I definitely want to see Maine businesses kind of think big and so forth. I know that something Nancy Marshall says, and that’s really sticking my head right now, but I do have a specific thing and that is around a training wage.

I am from rural Maine and I have seen businesses failing up there because of their inability to onboard people, particularly young people or people who don’t have a specific skillset and related to what the field that they’re going into. So I’d like to see increased support for Maine businesses to offer training and ramp people up the wage ladder. The minimum wage is now $12. I don’t think we should change that, but I think we should soften the blow somehow for businesses that are able to bring in new people and skill them up in whatever that field is.

Yury: That is a great insight. Thank you.

Rich: That was awesome. Marty, you’ve got a podcast, you’ve got E2Tech. Where can we send people to learn more about you online?

Marty: You know, tell them to go to E2Tech.org, because we’ve got some great events coming up. I really get a lot out of people coming to those events, I mentioned I’m kind of a glorified event planner sometimes I feel like that, but we’ve got a couple of great events coming up in March and it’s just a blast to get everybody in a room talking about clean tech or green building.

If you feel like you’re really moving the needle on that stuff, head on over to E2Tech.org.

Rich: Sounds good. And remind us one more time, I know we can listen to you on WGAN Sunday mornings, but what’s the name of your show so people can go find it on their favorite podcasting platforms?

Marty: So the Grow Maine Show, “grow Maine” is supposed to be a little play on my last name, Grohman, which it seems to have been a failed attempt at humor. But anyway, yeah, the Grow Maine Shoe is on iTunes and Spotify and WGAN wherever you want to find us.

Rich: Awesome. Marty, thanks so much for swinging by today.