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Clean Tech Open: The Top Three Green Challenges for Start-Ups

September 2, 2009

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By Deborah Fleischer, Green Impact

I recently had the opportunity to be a sustainability coach to some of the Clean Tech Open semifinalists. The Clean Tech Open is an organization of leading entrepreneurs, academics, investors and companies, working together to accelerate the development of clean technology start-ups.

In addition to getting support around marketing, finance and intellectual property issues, the Annual Business Competition provides green mentoring and sustainability workshops to help clean tech entrepreneurs integrate sustainability into their business plans.

I was one of five volunteer advisers; over the day we met with a range of start-ups in 45-minute sessions.  They gave a pitch and we then drilled down deeper into the issues associated with the environmental benefits of their product, the life cycle issues raised by manufacturing and the pitch to stakeholders.

I left inspired by the creative, dedicated entrepreneurs, some with a sustainability background and others new to the world of green, working hard to grapple with the challenges of going green. However, it became clear to me throughout the day that clean tech does not necessarily mean green tech.Batteries in electric vehicles, toxic byproducts from manufacturing, electronic waste, petroleum-based plastic packaging, disposable products and the lack of green manufacturing facilities all create challenges for clean tech green entrepreneurs.

What is clean tech?

The Clean Tech Open sees clean tech as, “the end product or service, and sustainability as the key driver in determining the process to get to that end point. Through the training offered and support given, the program ensures that every start-up company – not just the semifinalists – has a positive impact on the environment and the broader community, and to make this part of every phase of development.”

The top three challenges

While I can’t discuss specific companies, I observed three key challenges common to many of the companies we spoke with.

1.  Lifecycle assessment (LCA):  LCA is an approach that considers the cradle-to-grave lifecycle chain involved in producing, using and disposing of a product or service. It forces you to consider materials use, energy consumption and related greenhouse-gas emissions of your product, packaging and transportation decisions.

While larger corporations might have the resources to tackle LCA head on, across the board, the start-ups were struggling with easily accessing good data to help them estimate the key impacts associated with their entire value chain.

As a post on SustainableMinds says, “Paper or plastic? Diesel or hybrid? Extrude or blow-mold? Some of the most difficult problems in designing sustainable products involve making the right choices in materials, processes and transportation methods. However, choosing the options that will actually have a lower environmental impact is much more complex that one would think.”

A few LCA resources for start-ups to consider include Sustainable Minds, Earthster and EIO-LCA.

In a recent post, Joel Makower had this to say about Earthster, “…an open-source consortium that is inviting professionals to upload LCA data and methodologies in order to simplify and “democratize” LCA, while improving the quality by pooling nonproprietary information about products and processes. Earthster is garnering buzz within the LCA crowd as a potential game-changing technology.”

My advice–be strategic and focus on the largest pieces of your footprint.  Avoid petroleum-based products. Think about the end of life and how the product can be recycled or reused. And don’t forget to consider packaging and transportation choices.

2.  Packaging: Many of these clean tech products require packaging and pushing for recycled content and avoiding plastic is a challenge for a CEO with twenty other competing priorities.  I argue that companies can maximize market share by making a commitment to greener packaging.  Key customers and stakeholders are making demands for sustainable packaging.

The Sustainable Packaging Coalition is a great resource on this issue.

They define sustainable packaging as:

  1. Beneficial, safe & healthy for individuals and communities throughout its life cycle;
  2. Meeting market criteria for performance and cost;
  3. Sourced, manufactured, transported, and recycled using renewable energy;
  4. Maximizing the use of renewable or recycled source materials;
  5. Manufactured using clean production technologies and best practices;
  6. Made from materials healthy in all probable end of life scenarios;
  7. Physically designed to optimize materials and energy;
  8. Effectively recovered and utilized in biological and/or industrial cradle to cradle cycles.

The Coalition’s new tool, COMPASS , is a free resource to help companies assess their packaging choices.

However, again, I would stress simplicity.  Avoid petroleum-based plastics and consider bio-based plastic.  Maximize the use of post-consumer recycled content. And reduce the size of your packaging to the maximum extent possible.

3.  End of life: Thinking about what happens to these new “clean” products at end of life is challenging.  How do you create incentives to get consumers to recycle or return a product?  One of the start-ups was considering a rebate program and another planning on using a mailer to make it easy to return the product at the end of its life.

***

Deborah Fleischer, founder and president of Green Impact, works with mid-sized companies to launch green initiatives that encourage innovation and grow market share. She brings expertise in sustainability strategy, program development, stakeholder partnerships and written communications. You can follow her occasional tweet @GreenImpact.

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