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Korean Small Businesses Earn More Green by 'Going Green'


Above: Enoch Shin, owner of Turbo Tire in Oakland, Calif., says energy consumption at his shop fell 40 percent after he switched over to a more modern and efficient lighting system. // Photo: Aruna Lee

SAN FRANCISCO -- Korean small businesses in California are challenging the naysayers who claim that economic growth coupled with sound environmental practice is not possible. Thanks in large part to government and private incentive programs, they have come to the fore in implementing emerging technologies beneficial for the environment and their bottom line.

In fact, many owners are “going green” precisely because of the economic benefits.

“Korean businesses have adopted green technologies largely in order to reduce their energy bills,” says Jason Lee, secretary general of the Korean Chamber of Commerce in Los Angeles. The city is home to one of the largest Korean communities in the country.

Statewide there are just over 450,000 Koreans residing in California, according to recent census figures. Many are small business owners, accounting for roughly 2 percent – or 63,365 – of all small businesses in the state, data from the census show. In 2007, the latest date such figures are available, they tallied nearly $33 billion in economic activity.

A Model of Efficiency

Hesperian Cleaners, located in the working-class Bay Area suburb of San Lorenzo, sits along a modest row of businesses just off the freeway linking Oakland to the north and Silicon Valley to the south. In 2007, the store’s owner, Sung Han Lee, switched to a more environmentally-friendly method of cleaning, and has since become something of a hometown hero.

“What do you smell?” asks Lee from behind the counter, before answering his own question: “Nothing, that’s the point!” Lee, who came to the United States with his family as a teenager, opened his business in 1982. For years he, like many other cleaners, used a toxic substance known as perchloroethylene, or perc. California banned perc in 2007, because it contributed to air pollution (it is also a known carcinogen), requiring its complete phase-out by 2023. The decision set into motion a series of changes for the dry cleaning industry.

a_lee_greenbiz5547.jpg Above: Sung Han Lee, owner of Hesperian Cleaners in San Lorenzo, Calif. // photo: Aruna Lee
“For over 25 years I had to smell that odor, whenever I opened my machine,” says Lee. “Because of perc, I was always nauseous and worried about the potential harm it was doing to me and my employees.” Lee switched to the greener wet cleaning -- a water-based cleaning method -- soon after the perc ban went into effect.

A single wet cleaner runs upwards of $70,000. But thanks in part to an incentive program offered by the state to dry cleaners in California, Lee now operates two such machines, which are manufactured per order in Germany and exported to the United States.

“There have been 134 dry cleaners that have been granted awards [like the one awarded to Lee],” says Melanie Turner with California’s Air Resources Board. More than a third of them are Korean-owned. Turner says the fund will continue to be offered, “Until there are no longer perc machines in operation in California.”

Since making the switch Lee’s electricity consumption has fallen by more than half. And despite the term wet cleaning, estimates from the local water district show he is saving an astonishing 673,000 gallons of water per year compared to a traditional dry cleaning establishment.

Seeing the benefits, both to his business and to the community, Lee says he decided to “go completely green,” adopting everything from more efficient lighting to non-toxic paints and reusable laundry bags.

It’s an attitude reflective of the wider Asian American community, and to ethnic communities in general across California. A recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California shows that Asian Americans and other ethnic groups are 20 percentage points ahead of whites when it comes to support for environmental policies. Many believe that rather than waiting for the economy to strengthen, the government should take quick action to address the growing climate threat.

Incentives Help, But More Outreach Needed

Still, not everyone in the Korean small-business community is singing the praises of green tech.

Miae Chung is the owner of Nonpareil Cleaners in Beverly Hills. She invested well over $100,000 into two wet cleaning machines once the perc ban went into effect, but says she’s yet to see that investment translate into financial savings for her business.

“The economy has been so bad … fewer people are willing to pay for cleaners,” she says, adding that some of her customers have complained their clothes don’t come out as well with the new machines.

Chung says that in addition to the financial incentives, the state and private companies need to do more to train store operators in the use of the new machines. Both Lee and Chung say the learning curve with wet cleaning is steep.

“There has to be technical support and education training, alongside the financial incentives, to make these changes successful,” says Chung.

For others, language is the key obstacle to accessing green tech incentives.

Kum Yun Lee is the owner of Seoul Market in San Francisco’s Richmond District. Her store, one of only two Korean-owned grocers in the city, sells a variety of dried and fresh goods catering to Korean shoppers. Rows of refrigerators of varying sizes line the walls, containing everything from fresh or pickled vegetables to cuts of meat, imported soft drinks and Korean beer.

seoul_super.jpg Above: Seoul Super in San Francisco's outer Richmond neighborhood.
“My energy bills typically run over $3000 a month, which comes to about half of what I pay for rent,” says Lee, who opened her store in 2005. She says the situation is the same for other small Korean grocers that she knows.

To save on costs Lee switched to more energy efficient bulbs soon after opening the store, but says the savings have been insignificant. She also says PG&E recently installed a device the agency promised would help reduce costs further, though in the end it created more headache than either she or PG&E might have anticipated.

“The serviceperson came to the store, and installed this device,” recalls Lee, who speaks halting English. “But I couldn’t communicate with the guy at all, and I don’t know what he did back there. Over the next few days I noticed we had a mouse problem because of a hole he created.”

Despite the experience, Lee is eager to learn about incentive programs available to stores like hers, but says she feels the language barrier prevents her and other business owners from being able to tap into what’s out there.

“I cover my daughter’s college tuition,” she explains. “It would be great if I could cut down on my energy bills every month.”

Getting Out the Message

Sungdo International is a Korean-owned textile company in Rancho Dominguez, near Los Angeles. Aided by the Department of Public Work’s Smart Business Recycling program, the company has managed to recycle over 80,000 pounds of mixed paper, plastic and textiles. Data from the program’s website show the company has reduced its annual waste disposal fees by up to $10,000.

The recycling program is one of a number of similar initiatives that aims to help small-businesses in California make the transition to greener practices.

Anna Frankel is with the Green Business Program in San Francisco. The group is run through the city’s Department of the Environment and works to promote green practices among local business owners.

“Since the start of the program in 2005,” she explains, “we have seen more businesses interested in greening their activities and operations.” Certified businesses, she adds, often “see an improvement to their bottom lines from utility savings and increased revenue.”

There are about 198 recognized Green Businesses in San Francisco currently, and while the program does not track ethnic-specific data, Pam Evans with the Green Business Program in nearby Alameda County says, “Most of the businesses certified through our program are ethnic minority-owned.”

In the Oakland area, she notes, “over 120 businesses have been certified, including a number of Korean-owned establishments.”

One such business is Turbo Tire in Oakland. About eight years ago owner Enoch Shin met with representatives from PG&E’s Energy Solutions and Services Department. The program works with some 75,000 businesses across Alameda and Contra Costa counties, sponsoring campaigns, events and sometimes going from door to door to promote energy efficiency.

Executive Manager Greg Hoaglin notes that several hundred Korean-owned small businesses have already gone through the program, and that they are already benefiting from “reduced energy use and energy costs, [while] reducing their carbon footprint and environmental impact.”

Shin says that before going through the program, his shop “was always dark.” At the time, he used a form of lighting, metal halide, that was so costly he had to limit the time he left the lights on, even during business hours. Since installing a more efficient system eight years ago, “the lights are always on. And I haven’t had to switch the bulbs once.”

Shin’s average energy consumption has now fallen by 40 percent, with “savings as high as 70 percent,” translating to nearly $400 a month in electricity bills, or $5000 a year. He says he is now planning to install solar panels, a project that PG&E is helping him to plan out.

For environmental activist Tim Song, such success stories are encouraging. Song is general director of the Pacific American Volunteer Association, one of only a few U.S.-based Korean-run environmental organizations. Located in Los Angeles, the group boasts a membership of over 4000 mostly youth, and organizes a range of activities, including coastal clean ups and routine trips to scour LA’s Korea Town.

“Education is a key part of our mission,” he says, adding that many Korean Americans “are still unaware about environmental issues.” But he remains optimistic. “The fact that our organization even exists shows Koreans care about the environment and want to do something to improve it.”

This work was supported by a 2013 New America Media Energy Reporting Fellowship in collaboration with SoundVision Productions’ Burn: An Energy Journal.