Visiting a gas station has always felt like a less-than-altruistic move. You arrive by car, help yourself to some fossil fuels, and maybe grab a Styrofoam cup of coffee on your way out. But if Alvaro Garza and Bruce Bagelman have their way, these usually-necessary evils could soon become slightly less egregious in terms of their environmental footprint.

Garza and Bagelman are co-owners of Green Spot, a Dallas filling station that helps customers to fill both their cars and their bellies in a more sustainable way. The store opened in February after Bagelman was inspired to provide one-stop shopping for drivers interested in cleaner-burning fuels. Both pure biodiesel and a 5-percent biodiesel blend are offered at Green Spot’s pumps, and Bagelman says they are working on adding compressed natural gas and E85, a fuel mixture of 85% corn ethanol, to the station’s offerings — though he’s aware of the environmental and food-price issues currently swirling around corn ethanol.

Inside, Green Spot’s convenience store aspires to be what Garza calls a “mini Whole Foods.” All of its coffees are certified Fair Trade and organic, and the cups are made from an easily compostable corn material. Customers can also pick up recycled bathroom tissue, biodegradable laundry detergent, and free-range eggs, while enjoying the store’s complimentary wi-fi.

“We encourage loitering,” Garza says. “We want people to learn and hang out and talk.”

Green Spot claims to be the first green convenience store in the country, but it may find itself at the forefront of a trend. Midwestern businessman Steve Nikolas is planning Good to Go, an “econvenience center,” in Grand Chute, Wis. And last year BP opened Helios House, a specially-designed station built with recycled and sustainable materials, in Los Angeles. At Helios House, timers and motion detectors reduce energy consumption and employees distribute pamphlets on green living to customers.

Good to Go, if Nikolas’ vision is realized, will be built to silver LEED standards, using only energy-efficient LED lighting and mostly renewable building materials. The carwash will have a vegetated roof and a water reclamation system using only 2 gallons of new water per wash.

Meanwhile in Carson Valley, NV, just south of Reno, Bently Biofuels Outpost began pumping in September. The fueling station is the only one within 500 miles that sells E85, according to general manager Carlo Luri, and the convenience store meets LEED silver certification standards, with solar electricity and heating, dual flush toilets in the bathrooms, and building materials from recycled or sustainable resources. Rather than fill the store with “typical mini-mart junk, the Outpost is stocked with real food,” Luri says. Among the offerings are organic cereals from Kashi and organic soup from Amy’s Kitchen. For dairy and produce, preference is given to local suppliers, who can find it difficult to break into the convenience store market.

 “We think of this as a demonstration project to show people what’s possible,” says Luri. “We’re a small corner of the world, but we’re forcing people to look at things in a different way.”

Paul Smith, the founder of sustainable business consulting firm GreenSmith Consulting and a contributor to blogs like TriplePundit and Ecopreneurist, says it should come as no surprise that sustainability has spread to the convenience store. Consumers of all stripes are increasingly open to environmentally-friendly choices, and businesses are beginning to cater to those desires, Smith says. Even big-box stores like Target have added biodegradable soaps and organic cotton t-shirts to their offerings. “It’s gone way beyond the health-conscious, deep-green sort of people,” he says.

Plus, Smith says, ecologically-sensitive practices are good business: They usually increase efficiency, saving money while improving a company’s public image. When Garza and Bagelman renovated the former Mobil station that now houses Green Spot, for example, they preserved many of the store’s fixtures rather than replacing them. The ceiling tiles were painted rather than replaced, and the store’s original soda fountain was refurbished (to serve all-natural sodas, of course). Efforts like these reduced the store’s renovation budget significantly, Garza says.

“We wanted minimal impact,” Garza says. “We were very cautious about coming in here and tearing up and throwing away.”

If stores like these prove successful, there could be a lot more of them in the coming years. Angie Nikolas, Good to Go’s marketing coordinator, says her company hopes to launch at least five additional stores within the next year and 150 within five years, and Garza says he and Bagelman are considering franchising their concept.

As these businesses grow, Smith predicts, they will slowly lose their novelty factor and head into the mainstream.

“In the next couple of years, the trendy interest will peak,” Smith says. “But overall, the practices are proven to work, and that model will remain.”

Story by Jennifer Acosta Scott. This article originally appeared in Plenty in November 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Gassing up green
As enviro-minded consumer choices go mainstream, even traditionally un-green businesses like convenience marts are implementing environmental initiatives.