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Why Asian Americans Are Turning To Green Business

By Jenny Chen

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Karl Huie with his Wet Clean system.

Karl Huie is a 2nd generation Chinese American and the owner of Pacific Heights Cleaners, a dry cleaning company in Marin County, California. His parents started the business in 1969. But Huie is bucking tradition – in 2007 he turned his parent’s dry cleaning business to a completely water-based system called Wet Clean. Traditional dry cleaning methods use harmful chemicals derived from petroleum and silicone to clean clothes, Huie said. These solvents are extremely harmful to the environment and to everyone exposed to them. They have been identified by the state of California as carcinogens.

“We would be getting stomachaches and headaches from being exposed to these chemicals,” Huie said. “I knew that it was bad for me, but at the time we had to do what we could to stay in the business.”

Today, more Asian American businesses are starting to turn towards greener alternatives for their business. Rena Nicole, the host of the Rena Nicole Show says that this change shouldn’t be surprising.

“Getting back to nature is getting back to our ancestry,” said Nicole. “The Asians are all about living in harmony with nature.” Nicole cited the Japanese and Confucian principle of hari hachi bu – “eat until you’re 80% full” and applied it to business.

“If we only took what we needed instead of more, just because we could, there would be more than enough for everybody,” Nicole said.

With climate change becoming an increasingly dangerous reality, green businesses have steadily increased in the last couple of years. The number of American businesses with formal green programs in place increased 54 percent from 2010-2011 according to Buck Consultants. A 2011 study by MIT found that sustainability is now a permanent part of 70% of corporate agendas. Most companies now also consider green practices to be vital to remaining competitive and many affirm that these practices are contributing to profits.

The definition of green businesses have also solidified. Certification systems such as B Corporation and Green America’s Certified Business program have cropped up to insure The Green Business Network defines a “green business” as one that has adopted “principles, policies and practices that improve the quality of life for their customers, employees, communities, and the planet.”

It’s not green on all sides, however. Since the recession, the amount of toxic chemicals released in the air has not improved. According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory, “total emissions to air, soil, and water of 27 chemicals that are most prevalent in manufacturing increased a whopping 78 percent from 2009 to 2010, attributed primarily to much larger releases of lead, arsenic, and asbestos.” According to GreenBiz report, softening of regulations in order to allow businesses an attempt at profitability, mostly in metals manufacturing and mining, have been the source of much of this toxic leaching.

But many businesses have found that going green has helped increase their profitability. Theresa Fette, the half-Vietnamese American CEO of Provident Trust has spearheaded a program to make her company entirely paperless. Before this, Fette said, her company went through approximately 3-4 reams of paper every two weeks (2,000 sheets of paper). Now, the company only goes through a ream every month.

“The financial industry is very paper reliant,” said Fette. At the same time, Fette said that switching to paperless helped her company cut costs and organize their clients’ data in a more efficient manner. Fette said because of these benefits, the financial industry as a whole is moving rapidly to a paperless system. According to NRDC, Bank of America reduced the weight of its ATM receipts from 20 pounds to 15 pounds, saving paper, transportation, storing and handling costs, to the tune of $500,000 a year.

But as Kermit the Frog once said, “It’s not easy being green.” Huie’s parents were skeptical when he announced his decision to switch from traditional chemical solvents to a water based dry cleaning system and Huie says this type of skepticism may be why the dry cleaning industry has been slow to catch on to more eco-friendly methods.

Grant Aguinaldo, owner of Envilearn, LLC, an environmental compliance consulting firm, said that the hardest thing about changing to a greener business is the culture change required within a company. “There are lots of generational differences in thinking,” said Aguinaldo. But, he says, with Generation Y joining the workforce, things might be changing.

In February 2013, Mayor Gray announced his plans to make DC one of the most sustainable cities in the world. The city makes information on green rebates, programs, and consultations available on its website www.ddoe.dc.gov

Are you a green business? Asian Fortune would like to hear from you! Email us at editor@asianfortune.com, Facebook us at fb.com/asianfortune or Tweet us @asianfortune_dc

Asian Fortune is an English language newspaper for Asian American professionals in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. Visit fb.com/asianfortune to stay up to date with our news and what’s going on in the Asian American community.

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