'Enviropreneurs' align business with conservation

Environmental entrepreneurs, known as 'enviropreneurs,' are finding ways to create profitable businesses that also benefit the Earth...

As a child, Carl Palmer watched as development quickly transformed his south Florida neighborhood. The mangrove forests he once explored went through an extreme makeover, giving way to cul-de-sacs and fancy houses.

That experience had such a profound impact on Palmer that he focused his career on conservation. Shortly after graduating with an MBA from Stanford, Palmer and fellow classmate Robert Keith, decided to launch Beartooth Capital Partners, a development company that invests in ecologically important ranch lands.

Their aim is to produce profits while also generating real conservation results.

“The scale of environmental problems is so huge, and I wanted to find a way to make a bigger difference,” Palmer said.

Across the globe, environmental entrepreneurs, called "enviropreneurs," are finding ways to create profitable business ventures that also provide environmental benefits.

“An enviropreneur is a person who finds creative or insightful ways to turn environmental problems into assets,” said Bobby McCormick, a professor of economics at Clemson University.

An enviropreneur "seeks to find ways, as a business person might, to either make money where others see trash, or to use markets, property rights and cunning to solve an environmental mess.”

For the past six years, enviropreneurs have attended a two-week camp in Bozeman, Mont., to learn how business and economic principles can be applied to environmental problems. The workshop is organized by the Property and Environment Research Center, PERC, a think tank in Bozeman that applies market principles to try to solve environmental problems.

“At the time [of the program’s founding], and still, there were programs for teaching leadership skills, but not others for teaching business skills,” said Terry Anderson, executive director of PERC. “The Enviropreneur Camp provides environmental leaders with a basic understanding of economics, finance, contracting, marketing and management so that the leaders can pursue specific projects for improving environmental quality through contracts, property rights and markets.” This year, 17 participants were chosen out of 102 applicants. Each participant is given a $3,000 stipend and free room and board to spend two weeks learning from experts in a growing field known as free-market environmentalism.

Palmer, who interned with Anderson at PERC in 2001 before attending Stanford, is one of this year's scheduled speakers.

Participants attend lectures with titles like “Markets as Organizational Masterpieces” and "Information, Coordination and Control."

They visit Ted Turner’s Flying D Ranch to learn about issues related to endangered species from an environmental expert with the National Wildlife Federation. The program is funded by private donors.

“Everyone learns so much from each other,” said Carol Ferrie, assistant director and coordinator of the Enviropreneur Camp. “Most of it is hands-on. We get into case studies, business and communications, and networking and negotiating.”

Former participants have included a scientist working for the Environmental Protection Agency, an environmentalist who is trying to restore water flows in Bolivia and an educator from Strathmore University who is trying to institute hunting in Kenya as a way to prevent illegal poaching.

Enviropreneurs go beyond the old business model that takes the environment out of the equation and focuses solely on making a profit.

“Generically, companies who persist in viewing the environment as a problem rather than as an asset are going to not make the kinds of money that others, seeing the environment as an asset, can,” McCormick said.

In Little Lost River Valley, Idaho, Beartooth Capital recently purchased a 3,160-acre ranch that lacked road access or good fishing and that was split into two separate parts by a 620-acre piece of property owned by the Nature Conservancy. Despite the flaws, Beartooth saw potential for both profit and conservation.

Thanks to its strong relationships with the conservation community, Beartooth was able to negotiate a transaction with the conservancy, which wanted to find a buyer who would preserve the property from development.

Under the agreement, Beartooth will trade a conservation easement that protects the larger ranch in exchange for ownership of the conservancy’s parcel. Combined, the protected property will be more valuable and attractive to buyers, Palmer said.

“At the end of the day, we make our target returns, and the conservancy gets six times more land protected,” Palmer said. “That’s the goal.”

In Port Angeles, Wash., a company called The Remediators Inc. removes contaminants from soil by using mushrooms, which have the ability to decompose a variety of toxic substances, and thereby make the land usable again.

Using fungi for soil remediation can often be accomplished at a fraction of the cost of conventional soil remediation services, said CEO Sam Nugent, who participated in the Enviropreneur Camp in 2003.

Nugent came up with the idea for the company with a friend after realizing that mushrooms have the ability to degrade petroleum. Nugent says the company is able to make a profit while using environmentally friendly technology on residential properties or former military sites.

“There’s an idea that businesses can’t be environmental, but that’s wrong,” Nugent said. “Businesses should act in their best interests to help the environment. If we all do our jobs, we’ll have the potential to create benefits.”

Because enviropreneurs have two goals, to make money and to produce benefits for the environment, they often face more obstacles than traditional businesses.

“There are all sorts of hurdles to starting this kind of venture,” Palmer said. “The biggest challenge is to make the case to investors. It’s a new and different arena for them where the goal is not just financial, but environmental. We have to do two things well at once.”

Nugent says Remediators’ first hurdle was winning approval from regulatory agencies for a new technology. That changed, he said, after the company was able to demonstrate how effective its method was at cleaning contaminated soil.

“The newness of our company was also a hurdle, and our lack of history made it difficult to start out,” Nugent said. “Now, we have many people interested in what we’re doing.”

Nugent says he wants to expand his company worldwide to make a global difference, but he also has another goal in mind.

“I look forward to the day that I will no longer have a job,” he said, “because that would mean clean soil everywhere.”