Appalachian Community Enterprises: 877-434-6609 or www.aceloans.org
Most major corporations have started "green" initiatives to make their companies more environmentally friendly. But small businesses have lagged behind.
It’s not that business owners don’t care about the environment. But there’s a cost to going green, and many small businesses can’t afford it.
That’s why Appalachian Community Enterprises, a nonprofit microlending agency that serves 34 North Georgia counties, has started a Green Loan Fund.
"It’s so timely. Everyone is looking for ways to leave less impact on the planet," said Rosann Kent, vice president of education and marketing at ACE.
The nonprofit, based near Cleveland, is certified by the Treasury Department as a community development financial institution. It borrows money from private banks and from federal agencies such as the Small Business Administration, then lends it out to local entrepreneurs who don’t qualify for a bank loan.
Applicants typically have little or no credit history and not much collateral. Most are women who are trying to go into business for themselves and aren’t sure how to go about it.
"We were organized to serve the underserved. We’re not a bank," said Kent. "We do a lot of hand-holding. We want to provide encouragement."
Loans from ACE can be used to start a new business or to expand an existing one. What’s different about the green loans is that both low-income and middle-income clients may be eligible.
"The green loans can be given to businesses with a higher credit score who wouldn’t qualify for one of our traditional loans," said Kent.
The amount of the loan can range from $500 to $35,000, depending on what the client is proposing. Kent said the definition of "green" is fairly broad.
"We consider anything from growing organic food to creating something out of what you’ve grown, such as jams and preserves," she said. "It could also be anything related to energy or water conservation. Anything that helps our community on an eco-friendly level."
Kent said the business itself doesn’t have to offer a green product or service.
"Maybe you have an office-based business and you want to install solar panels on the roof," she said. "Or maybe you run a day care center and you want to replace the old toilets with low-flush ones."
Kent said a lot of small farmers in North Georgia are interested in going organic. But getting their products certified as organic according to the USDA’s standards is a long and complicated process. A green loan can provide financial support as farmers make the transition.
"Georgia Organics (another nonprofit) is one of our partners, and they’ll be able to provide a lot of the technical assistance," said Kent. "They have a farm mentoring program."
ACE just announced the green loan program on Oct. 25, and no loans have been made yet. But some of ACE’s existing clients probably would have qualified if the program had been in effect when they submitted their applications.
Herbalist Maria Greene is among them. She received a microloan from ACE last month and is planning to open a business called The Mill on Dec. 1 in the Piggly Wiggly shopping center in Cleveland.
Greene said The Mill will offer organic bulk herbs, organic fair-trade coffee and locally made organic baked goods. And she hopes the green loan program will encourage more eco-friendly businesses like hers.
"I think it’s dynamic. It’s the way to go, considering how the world is today," she said. "You can have a viable business and not damage the Earth."