Mike Berlin

April 17

In paint-speckled jeans, tattered Nikes, and a black zip-turtleneck, Jason Salfi, co-founder and partner of Comet Skateboards, doesn’t come across as the CEO type–but then again, he is the CEO of a skateboard company, and a green skateboard company at that. The skateboards Comet produces aren’t just environmentally friendly on a superficial level, like Natalie Portman’s line of designer vegan pumps or C-IN2’s collection of men’s bamboo briefs. Comet has committed to environmentalism on a deeper level: green-collar jobs.

Green collar jobs are part of an emerging social justice movement in which businesses attempt to honor the environment in every step of their production and organization. Environmental justice activist Van Jones has called this business strategy the “green-collar solution,” and it includes both professional jobs (the heads of renewable energy companies, the designers, and the accountants) and manual labor (the builders, the installers, and the maintenance workers). Jerome Ringo, president of The Apollo Alliance, offered a succinct explanation of the green sector on NPR’s All Things Considered: “When we talk about production of wind turbines for example, someone has to design those wind turbines, someone has to build those wind turbines, someone has to install those wind turbines, someone has to maintain [them].” The key to creating this green workforce is getting politicians to appropriate money in the right places and getting more businesses to start adopting green principles, much like Comet Skateboards has.

Comet Skateboards’ workroom in Ithaca, N.Y., is lined wall-to-wall with bare decks, or the wooden plank of a skateboard, many of which are made from North American maple. Comet Skateboards uses local, sustainable materials like soy and hemp to produce its boards. By using these local materials, Comet saves money and contributes to Ithaca’s local economy.

This factory is Salfi’s dream, a culmination of more than 10 years of work that materialized just this year. Salfi, a 1993 Cornell graduate, used to live in San Francisco selling Comet Skateboards and developing his own production system. When Salfi visited his former professor, Anil Netravali, on a road trip to the East Coast in 2005, he learned about a side project Netravali was undertaking with Patrick Govang, a former industrial partnerships director for the Cornell Center for Materials Research. Together, Netravali and Govang were developing a new kind of sustainable adhesive that was less toxic than traditional glues.

Today, Comet Skateboards uses products from Netravali and Govang’s brainchild, e2e Materials LLC. Armed with a holistic concept for building sustainable skateboards, Salfi moved his manufacturing plant to Ithaca last October, had it up and running by November, and began producing new e2e skateboards lines this February.

The green-collar vision might be realized with Comet Skateboards, but in terms of manual green-collar work, each different realm or industry has its own specific training. For instance, Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy, N.Y., offers training that prepares workers for careers in sustainable ventilation and heating. After a 30-hour training session, which includes classroom and field experience, graduates will earn a Building Performance Institute, Inc. certification. Depending on regional demand, this makes workers more marketable and gives them a sustainable edge. But the training also costs $1,125.

Unfortunately, training fees like these may present a problem to the unemployed blue-collar workers who stand to benefit most from jobs created through the green-collar movement. HVCC has a partnership with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, which allows for individuals in the program to be reimbursed 75 percent of their tuition upon completion to help offset the cost. But this is a regional perk, not a national one.

Last August, Congress passed the New Direction for Energy Independence, National Security, and Consumer Protection Act. Tacked onto this bill was a large legislative step towards greening the U.S. workforce–the Green Jobs Act of 2007 (GJA). The GJA will set aside $125 million for training workers for clean energy jobs if its funding is fully appropriated by Congress. A large portion of this money will go to competitive grants for individual states to bulk up their renewable energy training and employment services. The bill generally tackles the blue-collar aspects of the green workforce. But to foster these kinds of manual jobs, policymakers must cover all aspects of business reform.

Money from the GJA will equip approximately 35,000 workers with skills suited for green-collar work. But legislators need to shift their focus to the white-collar sector–the industry leaders that will employ these green workers. While the GJA will help increase green employment, legislation also needs to focus on creating incentives for businesses to reform their practices and create not just blue-green-collar jobs but also white-green-collar jobs.

Back at the skateboarding plant, Salfi and I walk to the second, more mechanical room of Comet Skateboards. Some near-finished boards jumbled on a large table create a vibrant display with loose wheels scattered on top. We move around to the workroom to some hulking devices, where the skateboards are pressed with airbags instead of a popular hydraulics system. “It’s very unique and has allowed us to adapt our own technique,” Salfi said of the press. “The standard skateboard press can’t work with the materials we use.”

“What e2e Materials does is replace products that exist today that use petroleum with stuff that can be grown in one year,” said Govang. “So, for example, our resin technology leverages soy protein rather than petroleum-based resin. And then we combine them with natural fibers that are rapid renewables compared to say, a tree, which would typically go into a product like particleboard or maybe density fiberboard.” These local fibers, such as flax, jute, bamboo, and hemp, can all grow within the span of one year and all materials are biodegradable. The whole process is a self-sustaining cycle.

Aside from using a sustainable approach to production, Comet Skateboards has also been able to cut down on costs; the regional materials they use save money on shipping. And their independence from petroleum-based resin helps them bypass the continuously rising costs of oil by-products. “Sucking from the oil nipple isn’t going to help anything,” said Salfi. “Having a bio-based solution that isn’t influenced by a crazy geopolitical climate is a good solution.”

Another innovative aspect of Comet’s factory is that it’s located in Ithaca–not exactly the manufacturing capital of the world. But local production is more sustainable and sometimes more cost effective. Typical manufacturing for many products uses materials from different parts of the world, which are then shipped to China for assembly and shipped back to the United States. When companies outsource their manufacturing this way, they not only reduce manufacturing jobs in America, but also perpetuate a system that leaves a massive carbon footprint through the use of air shipping. It’s in Ithaca where Comet is able to both cut costs on shipping and contribute to the local economy. The workers in the plant are local, and the farmers who supply most of their materials are based in the Northeast. Govang and e2e Materials plan on developing its technology for the renewable resources found in different regions of the country. But for now, they’re focusing on the Northeast and have been drawing attention from furniture companies.

“I think the challenge [for us] is: Do we view our company as a triple bottom line company?” Govang said. “The single bottom line that drives capitalism today is the dollars at the end of the day. With the eye on the dollars, we also look at a bottom line of our impact on the environment, the bottom line of our impact on society.” This triple bottom-line approach–caring about profit, society, and the environment–has the potential, when applied on a national scale, to fix problems in the economic and environmental sectors.

But climate change is a problem that can’t be shelved for much longer. The green-collar industry is certainly brimming with promise, and many, like Govang and Salfi, see it as the perfect union between business sensibilities and ethics. The plan–the triple bottom approach–is already in place for a few companies. But its implementation on a national level will take some effort.

Mike Berlin is a senior at Ithaca College. An earlier version of this article was published in Buzzsaw, part of the Campus Publications Network.