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Business leaders tackle climate change

FARMER SPENCER BLACKWELL speaks as part of a panel of business owners that convened at Danforth Pewter in Middlebury last month to talk about their approach to addressing climate change. Shown from left are Sarah Keack, Bram Kleppner, Blackwell and Amy Sheldon. Photo by Gregory Dennis

“Climate change is going to destroy everything you care about.”
— Bram Kleppner

MIDDLEBURY — What is the return on investment for businesses that adopt measures to reduce their impact on climate change?
Economically that can be hard to measure, said Danforth Pewter CEO Bram Kleppner during a public discussion at his company’s Middlebury headquarters on Seymour Street last month.
“On the other hand, it’s almost infinite,” he said. “I mean, the value of the planet is enormous compared with the cost of heat pumps.”
Besides, he suggested, the consequences of inaction are becoming increasingly clear.
“Climate change is going to destroy everything you care about.”
Kleppner joined two other Middlebury business leaders — Bee’s Wrap founder Sarah Kaeck and Elmer Farm co-owner Spencer Blackwell — for a March 9 panel discussion and business networking event organized by the Climate Economy Action Center, or CEAC, which was founded last year to promote a healthy local economy through deep carbon reduction in Addison County.
It was to be the first of many conversations among the business community about how to address climate issues, said panel moderator Amy Sheldon, who is a CEAC board member, natural resource planner and a State Representative from Middlebury.
“I’m on the board of CEAC because I believe in the power of local action, and I think Addison County is well positioned to address the climate crisis and the changes it’s going to require of us and how we do business,” Sheldon said.
Opportunities for action fall into three categories, she said.
• Avoiding further carbon emissions by changing to renewable energy.
• Mitigating the effects of climate change by changing our behavior.
• Removing carbon from the atmosphere through sequestration.
The discussion featured three business leaders addressing climate change in different ways from different sectors.

AGRICULTURE
Spencer Blackwell does not consider himself a climate activist, he said, “but my natural inclinations make what I do more climate-friendly, I think.”
A conserved, 90-acre farm in East Middlebury, Elmer Farm grows more than 35 different vegetables and an array of flowers and culinary herbs, which all get sold in Middlebury.
Blackwell’s approach has always been to minimize the disturbance to natural systems.
“You can kill every weed and bug, but that’s not my style,” he said. “I have a high tolerance for weeds and bugs.”
It’s a farming model that naturally relies on less energy, he said.
“But we’re not perfect,” Blackwell acknowledged. For instance, “we use tons of plastic in our greenhouse and in our fields. But I think our general approach is a little more in line with climate practices than one where you control every element.”
One of the most detrimental things farmers do is till the soil, which ignites carbon and releases it into the atmosphere, he said.
“I hadn’t conceived of growing vegetables (without tilling), but over the last three or four years it has become a goal.”
Elmer Farm still tills, but only a third as much now.
People concerned about climate change are starting to look to food producers for more carbon-friendly practices, Blackwell said, which is an opportunity for businesses like his.

HOUSEHOLD
“Bee’s Wrap came about from me looking for a new way to store food in my home,” said Sarah Kaeck, who founded the company in Bristol in 2012.
Kaeck has developed an all-natural reusable food wrap designed to replace plastic wrap, which Bee’s Wrap now manufactures in a facility on Exchange Street in Middlebury.
“I was not a climate activist, but I’m becoming more of one, really thanks to my employees,” she said.
One of the most significant things she has noticed over the last few years is how much easier it is now to talk about climate change, and about plastic pollution.
“In the beginning days we did not talk about that in our social media and our marketing,” Kaeck said. But that has changed in the last couple of years. “Our customers want to hear more about it. I was scrolling through our social media just this morning. Our Instagram posts that have to do with the climate and information for our readers (received more positive attention) than the posts that were just about Bee’s Wrap. I find this really encouraging.”
Bee’s Wrap was certified as B Corporation last spring. B Corps are legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community and the environment.
“It has been a great opportunity for us to be able to look at all that we’re doing and put measurements on it,” Kaeck said. “We now have ways to gauge how well we’re doing with energy consumption, waste, sustainability.”
The company, which now employs 45 people, recently hired a sustainability coordinator, who leads a “green team,” conducts audits and coordinates education for employees.
But, “there is also a cost for all of this for our company,” Kaeck said, eliciting sympathetic murmurs. “It takes energy to implement new ways of doing business, creating awareness, getting certifications,” and sending employee delegations to Montpelier to meet with legislators. “Not all businesses are able to do that.”
Still, Kaeck encouraged other companies to go for it, even if it means “taking little steps along the way.”

MANUFACTURING
As a company, Danforth Pewter asked itself if there was any other path to take, other than getting to zero emissions as fast as it can.
In the end, Kleppner said, “we didn’t really feel like there was any other choice.”
But Danforth, which manufactures decorative and other pewter items, can’t do it all at once.
“We tried to start with what we could control,” Kleppner said.
Five years ago, the company partnered with an employee to build a solar farm. More recently it partnered with CEAC to install an electric-vehicle charging station at its headquarters.
In between, “we took an inventory of all the ways we pollute the atmosphere. We have five aging furnaces (in our Middlebury building). We have casting pots heated with propane. That’s stuff we can control under our roof.”
The company is working toward solutions, but it has been frustratingly slow, Kleppner said.
“Right now we just don’t have the cash to tear those (furnaces) out and replace them with heat pumps.”
And then there’s all the gasoline employees burn getting to and from work.
“As you know, this is a hard place to make public transportation work,” he said. “We’ve got people scattered from Starksboro to Orwell, and we don’t have $3 million to buy 60 Teslas.”
But, he said, musing aloud, “maybe we can lease two Nissan Leafs and give them to the employees who drive the farthest. And then maybe next year lease two more.” He paused, then shrugged. “I don’t know what the answer is.”
Regardless, the company is committed to sustainability, he said.
“If it takes a thousand years we will keep hammering at it until we get it done.”
For more information about CEAC visit ceacac.org. For information about the companies represented on the panel, visit beeswrap.com, danforthpewter.com and elmerfarm.com.
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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