Exploring a Real-World Model of Sustainable and Circular Business in Pittsburgh

October 10, 2019

Hyper-efficient buildings, circular clothing and fashion, sustainable manufacturing, eliminating food waste, innovation in energy—the Pittsburgh business community painted a perfect picture of what a system-wide approach to sustainability and a circular economy look like in action. On October 1, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Corporate Citizenship Center, with support from Covestro, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, and the University of Pittsburgh, led several business leaders on an interactive tour to different companies and organizations in the greater Pittsburgh area that demonstrate how the city has gone from the heart of U.S. steel manufacturing to a nationally significant example of sustainable business.

Delegates represented manufacturers, major distributors, academic institutions, business associations, and investment managers, among others. They brought and benefitted from fresh ideas on how to leverage sustainable principles and practices in their own operations.

We began the day with our partners at the Allegheny Conference where CEO Matt Smith detailed some of the initiatives the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce is undertaking to stimulate sustainable business alongside Pittsburgh’s public and private sectors, including supporting legislation that would bolster net-zero city buildings and electric vehicle use in the area. Councilman Corey O’Connor shared projects the City of Pittsburgh is exploring, such as programming to make solar energy systems more accessible and affordable to Pittsburgh residents. It was a fitting backdrop for the rest of our day of informative tours and productive conversations around sustainable business.

The Tower at PNC Plaza

Our first site visit was the headquarters of one of the largest financial institutions in the U.S., The Tower at PNC Plaza. The Tower, a state-of-the-art high-rise in the heart of downtown Pittsburgh, has achieved LEED Platinum status, the highest certification awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council. Built by renowned sustainable architecture firm Gensler, the skyscraper combines an array of cutting-edge energy efficient and smart building technologies, including adaptive HVAC systems that allow it to “breathe” with natural outside air, automated blinds and window tinting to limit overwarming from sunlight, an on-site stormwater reuse system, and locally-sourced building materials. PNC has a strong, long-standing commitment to sustainability, and The Tower is used as a strong signal to their stakeholders that these practices can and should be a centerpiece of good business.

Knotzland Bowtie Co.

The location of our next stop was a bit more unassuming than the massive sustainable skyscraper, but equally interesting. Founder and CEO Nisha Blackwell runs Knotzland Bowtie Co. out of a quaint, cozy storefront outside of downtown Pittsburgh that’s smartly appointed with reclaimed furnishings, lighting, sewing equipment, and displays of her circular product. She, along with the seamstresses she trains (30 of them and counting), rescue excess textiles from other clothing and fashion companies (or anyone willing to give them fabric—she showed us a beautiful piece made from excess airbag material) and upcycle them into repurposed pieces with a story behind them. Knotzland’s creativity is an excellent example of how to divert materials from the waste stream and give them second lives as valuable products. And it’s an impressive proof of concept—Nisha and her seamstresses can churn out roughly 500 unique hand-crafted bowties in a month, and their products have reached sustainably-conscious customers across the U.S. via e-commerce.

Philips Respironics

Next we stopped at Philips’ Respironics manufacturing facility outside of downtown Pittsburgh, where they assemble some of the most advanced CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) and ventilator machines in the world, all in a zero-waste to landfill environment. The zero-waste standard is just one measure the Respironics team takes; they look to attribute 15% of total revenue to circular products and services, such as expertly refurbished versions of their machines by the end of 2020. The operations staff is constantly examining and reexamining their robotics-supported processes to ensure everything runs as efficiently, safely, and accurately as possible. These above-and-beyond sustainability and safety measures at the plant reflect Philips’ global leadership in corporate sustainability, a company that, in addition to zero waste, circular applications of their capital equipment, and more, aims to power all of their operations with renewable energy by the end of 2020.

412 Food Rescue

412 Food Rescue, a crowdsourced solution to curbing the 40% of food that is never consumed in the U.S., is situated in some “tasteful” sustainable digs, complete with a fully-staffed kitchen that makes use of some of the surplus or unwanted food that their platform recaptures. The heart of that platform, an Uber-like mobile app, first connects volunteers in the area with sources of unused food and then routes them to drop sites conveniently placed for food insecure communities to access. This process redirects fresh and healthy food that would otherwise go to a landfill, which would waste the host of resources that goes into producing that food and emit harmful greenhouse gases as it decomposes. It was exciting to hear that their platform has helped rescue roughly 7.5 million pounds of food via over 2,000 app-users to date and that they are quickly spreading to new cities such as Philadelphia and Cleveland. They have been featured in Pittsburgh Magazine and selected into ReFED’s first-ever Nonprofit Food Recovery Accelerator, supported by Walmart Foundation in partnership with +Acumen.

Energy Innovation Center

Our final destination on the tour was the Energy Innovation Center (EIC), a nonprofit research, incubation and training facility focused on supporting emerging clean energy technologies. The EIC is housed in the former Connelley Trade School, and is a registered historic landmark turned LEED Platinum facility. To transform the space into the energy-efficient center that it is today, Covestro contributed both technical expertise and the materials needed, such as polyurethane insulation products and floor coatings. This seems to be a fitting transformation: where students once learned bricklaying and plastering, auto mechanics and plumbing in the early- to mid-20th century, bright minds from startups, academic institutions, and other groups now hone their skills developing the next generation of sustainable energy solutions.

In the closing remarks, Covestro’s Head of Sustainability Rebecca Lucore shared context about the company’s role in the EIC transformation and insight into Covestro’s broader contributions to its Pittsburgh community, as well as to the global community through the company’s unwavering focus on the UN Sustainable Development Goals to carry out their commitment to make the world a brighter place.

All in all, the day was a motivating one. The innovation from the sites visited was only matched by the energy of the tour hosts and guests that participated. It was a good reminder of what is possible when communities come together, businesses challenge themselves to do better, and great ideas are shared.

Learn more about the CCC’s Sustainability and Circular Economy program. If you’re interested in bringing a Business Delegation Tour like this to your city or region, or to stay informed on future tours, please contact Peter Fadoul.