Building Sustainable Connections founder discusses her vision for greening the business community and the power of positive action
SoDak 350 is excited to introduce our monthly “Climate Champions” blog series, where we will be chatting with leaders in our community that are doing great work to build a sustainable future for eastern South Dakota.
This month we had the pleasure of speaking with Amber Lively, founder and executive director of Building Sustainable Connections in Sioux Falls. Building Sustainable Connections offers a Green Business Certification Program aimed at awarding organizations that prioritize future-thinking, environmentally sound business practices.
This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Tell us a bit about your journey towards a career in sustainability. How did you first get involved in this space?
So I actually didn’t think of “sustainability” the way we refer to it now when I was growing up - it was just getting by. I grew up below the poverty line, and most of what we did and what we call sustainable actions now was just a part of survival. I took for granted growing our own garden, canning our own tomatoes, making our own pickles and our own salsa, making our own clothes - just making the most of everything. We grew up taking tubs of butter and reusing those as tupperware containers - it was something that we just did to survive, and so I didn’t recognize that that was “being sustainable” growing up, not until I got out into the world, went to college, and started to kind of immerse myself in what I call “throwaway culture” - where everything’s disposable and everything’s wrapped in plastic and nothing’s really fresh.
But every time I’d go home, I’d open the refrigerator door and see leftovers in the butter tub, and I’d be reminded of the styrofoam containers I had in my own fridge - and I would feel this recognition that I’ve drifted away from this way of living. And I would always feel this kind of longing to get back to spreading the message that “less” is truly a better state of mind in a lot of cases.
And so, like most things, it took a really great educator to put me back on track. I took an environmental science class as a part of my undergrad, where the professor really challenged us to take a stance on environmental issues. And there were things that I hadn’t really considered environmental issues, like energy independence. So when I really started to step back and think about it, and I realized that hey look, there are actions that fall underneath this “sustainability” umbrella that people find very inaccessible or unattainable, but it’s truly not. Like I said, I grew up doing it with next to no money at all - it wasn’t an investment, it was just a way of life.
So it wasn’t a direct line from what I wanted to be when I grew up to where I am now - it was a meandering stream to get here, but it just took a great educator to put me on that path and teach me about a future with energy independence. And as somebody who grew up growing their own food, making their own clothes, why wouldn’t I also be interested in also harvesting my own energy? So it just felt like a very natural fit.
So from there, you’ve held a lot of different roles, but you eventually made your way back here to Sioux Falls and founded Building Sustainable Connections. What led you to start this organization and can you tell us a little bit more about what it does?
So the idea for Building Sustainable Connections came from having conversations with people where we’d be really excited. Someone would say, “Oh did you hear about what this business is doing?” or “X business is also doing this.” We sort of had this word-of-mouth network where we were independently telling each other about all the great steps that businesses were taking in our community, but also recognizing that there wasn’t a central location where somebody who was interested in putting their dollars where their ethics were could go and figure out which organizations in the community truly aligned with those value systems.
And so I went to the drawing board and looked around to see what was out there. There are a lot of municipality-owned or operated green business programs, so I talked to the City of Sioux Falls Sustainability Officer. She said there had been one in the past for Sioux Falls, but that they didn't really have the manpower to keep it going. And so off the cuff, I said, “Well what if a nonprofit were to take it on?” and she said “If you did that that would be amazing!” Not only would it solve their staffing concerns, but it would also help with a lot of the things businesses wanted: more than just being listed in a directory on the city website, they wanted some sort of recognition - understandably! They’re doing great work, they deserve to be recognized.
So that’s what we do at Building Sustainable Connections: we offer a Green Business Certification Program so businesses that are taking steps to improve their environmental impact can be recognized for their efforts. We have three levels: Bronze, Silver, and an aspirational Gold level. The certification is tailor-made for Sioux Falls and the local challenges that we face. For example, with all of our issues related to water quality with the river and with dust storms caused by soil erosion, our certification system rewards businesses that prioritize creating more green infrastructure that will help address those issues.
For businesses that are just getting started, Building Sustainable Connections helps to provide a roadmap - whether or not they choose to pursue certification, we have a free downloadable checklist that businesses can look at and identify some very easy opportunities to not only reduce waste, minimize their negative environmental impacts, reduce pollution and erosion efforts in their community, but also to help them save money. A lot of the things on that list will help increase that triple bottom line of People, Planet, and Profit. They are designed to help businesses put forward a business model that not only values profits - obviously, that’s what the end goal of all businesses are, is to be a desirable, profitable organization - but that also invests in the community that it’s surrounded by and the planet that it exists upon.
That’s awesome! So how many businesses so far have been certified or are looking to get certified?
We’ve been in touch with a couple different organizations - and I say organizations because we’re not just for corporations or retail entities, we’re also available for nonprofits, for churches, for any entity that has two or more employees and is not a home-based business. We have one organization that was certified at our Silver level in June, and that’s Americold, a cold storage company down on Rice Street. It was really amazing to tour their facility - they’re doing a lot of great things for waste reduction and energy reduction. And especially considering when we look at the food industry as a whole, we think of a lot of waste being involved, and to have this cold storage facility that’s not only looking to reduce the amount of wasted and spoiled food, but that also has a rainwater collection pond that they’re using to help with their cooling system. It’s fantastic!
It’s been really exciting for me to listen to some of these organizations that have reached out. There’s a church group that reached out, and they have a sustainability book club where they talk about environmental and social justice issues, and they’re looking at investing in solar panels on the roof of their church, which is fantastic! Yeah, so it’s amazing, we’re still getting started, we just launched in April of this year, and we currently have one business in our Green Business Directory, but we’re looking to expand and hopefully see our emblem in the windows of more storefronts in the future.
That’s really exciting! There are so many exciting things going on right here in Sioux Falls. Are there any other trends and developments across the state or the country that you’re also excited about?
Yeah! One thing that’s really exciting is a trend for a lot more municipalities to invest in solar infrastructure and renewable infrastructure as a whole. That’s happening across the Midwest, it’s happening in a lot of cities that I consider sister cities to Sioux Falls, like Rochester and Des Moines, so it’s great to see these trends take off.
The City of Sioux Falls recently had an interactive map where residents could make suggestions for the 2035 Downtown Plan. And what I saw overwhelmingly on those suggestions were residents coming forward requesting things like solar
infrastructure and EV charging stations. There were also a lot of comments calling for more native prairie grass installations throughout downtown, and more shade. That’s another thing that a lot of other cities are trending towards, and the numbers are there to back it up too: in Midwestern cities that have increased their ground cover trees and brushes and stuff by just 10%, crime has gone down by significantly more than that! It just shows that environmental and sustainability issues tie in with safety issues, with health, with economic growth and development. I think we’ll see a lot more improvements even in our own backyard as that gains more traction.
Do you have any advice for South Dakotans who are really interested in sustainability and want to incorporate it into their workplace or their business, or maybe people considering a career in sustainability?
I would say that no action is too small. Every little step matters. I think that when we talk about sustainability, people see it as all-or-nothing, so just helping to overcome that stigma that sustainability means that you have to have a fully electrified fleet and you have to be 100% independent of fossil fuels. And while those things are very important and do make a significant difference, it’s also important to stress the significance of things like printing things double-sided - you reduce your paper waste in half that way. Or doing things like offering paperless invoices so that you have little to no paper - not only will it help reduce your up-front costs, but you’re also able to reduce the amount of paper that’s just thrown away - and especially receipt paper, which can’t be recycled. It’s a discarded item. And if you can reduce the amount of wasted items, plastic, things like that, just little by little those changes add up.
And I think the biggest thing I would also tell someone looking to venture into sustainability is bring a positive attitude. There’s a lot of doom out there, there’s a lot of climate grief, and it can be overwhelming, but if you just focus on the innovative solutions that are out there and the positive actions that you can contribute to, that’s going to make all the difference and it’s going to prevent you from getting burnt out.
I love that! I love that attitude, I think it’s something that people really need in the climate movement is positivity and optimism.
Absolutely! I mean, there’s a time for anger - I mean, you want to be so frustrated all the time because you know this important work and we need to move fast and we’re not moving fast enough. But even so, there’s still movement, and whether it’s evident today or it’s evident in ten days or ten years, there’s still change that’s happening and there’s a lot of innovation that’s coming out of it and I think that that deserves to be celebrated.
I feel like when we look at climate change as a whole, it’s very easy to feel very defeated. It impacts our everyday life, whether it’s through an increase in inclement weather activity, hotter days throughout the summer, prolonged winters, drought - all of these things we can see evidence of in our daily lives. It can feel really helpless. But again, positivity - that there are still innovative actions and there are still great, driven people out there that are working to make a change, that are invested in doing good in the community. To lend your voice, however you can, is really powerful. I think that people don’t realize how powerful one voice can be, especially when that voice has a solution.
Do you know a local climate champion who is doing great work to build a sustainable future in your community? Nominate them for our Climate Champions series by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org