Environmental stewardship has evolved from a “nice to do” into a key priority for senators and CEOs and an important plank of corporate business strategy. In fact, a recent survey from Boston Consulting Group and MIT’s Sloan School of Management found that more than half of businesses surveyed are continuously increasing their investment in sustainability.
Encouraged by measurable cost reduction and reputational benefits, companies like IBM, Xerox and Intel have embraced green manufacturing processes, championed energy conservation and become major buyers of renewable energy. Goldman Sachs has pledged not to finance or invest in industrial development in certain environmentally sensitive areas. Bank of America has made a ten year $20 billion commitment to address global climate change.
For small businesses with more limited time and resources, significant investments in environmental initiatives may be perceived as a luxury. The MIT/BCG survey found that only 9 percent of companies surveyed with fewer than 1,000 employees were classified as “embracers” of sustainable business practices, compared to 34 percent of companies with more than 10,000 employees. However, with pressure from Congress mounting and more strenuous compliance requirements likely imminent, this is the right time for small business owners to consider initiating or enhancing green initiatives.
You should approach implementing a green program with the same methodical planning you would apply to any strategic business initiative. The first step is understanding your objectives. For example, is your goal to reduce energy use or support the use of alternative energy sources, cut down greenhouse gas emissions and/or minimize the environmental impact in your own region? Or perhaps your motivation is primarily business-based – cutting operating costs, improving employee health and productivity, or enhancing your business reputation.
Once you have a clear picture of what you’d like to accomplish, the next step is to gauge your company’s environmental footprint by assessing such factors as energy consumption, water usage and waste production. This will help you to determine areas of challenge and opportunity and enable you to measure progress.
The final part of the process is developing a consistent and attainable initiative that is right-sized to your business needs and budget. Depending on your goals and resources, you may want to start slow and build a more comprehensive program over time. The good news is that environmentally friendly actions don't have to be large to have an impact. Quantifiable cost, productivity and marketability benefits can be achieved with small, but steady changes. For example, something as simple as regularly making double-sided copies can substantially reduce costs, paper waste and greenhouse emissions as well as provide you with savings.
The following recommendations can help you jump start a green program of any size:
- Investigate federal, state and local incentives for greening – The federal government offers a five-year payback until 2017 under a stimulus program for energy and green investments in addition to tax break incentives. The Small Business Administration (SBA) and various state and municipal programs provide funding support for sustainability programs.
- Engage your employees – As with any other workplace initiative, performance and results hinge on staff commitment. Create a communications strategy to inform and remind employees of goals and to recognize achievements.
- Identify some quick, easy wins – One example is setting paper use reduction targets where progress could be monitored and measured monthly or quarterly. Being able to see relatively immediate results will generate excitement and encourage employees to reach other program milestones.
- Talk to your friends and colleagues in other businesses – Many companies are working to tackle the same issues and will likely welcome and appreciate an exchange of ideas and best practices.
Building a Leaner, Greener Business
Regardless of the level of depth and breadth you decide to bring to your environmental plan, you can achieve immediate benefits by making adjustments in three critical areas:
1. Energy: U.S. government agencies estimate that energy costs small businesses roughly $60 billion each year. As demand for energy continues to increase, fuel costs are likely to remain high for the long-term. Small businesses that invest strategically can cut utility costs 10 to 30 percent and make significant contributions to a cleaner environment, without sacrificing service, quality, style or comfort. Some examples of easy and affordable fixes include:
- Turn off lights when not in use and/or install lighting occupant sensors in proper locations
- Power down equipment, especially computers, at the end of the day to generate substantial energy cost savings. U.S. workers waste a staggering $2.8 billion annually in energy costs by failing to shut off their PCs at the end of the work day. What's more, machines left on during off hours may emit up to 20 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) this year alone, roughly the equivalent impact of four million cars. Also, consider transitioning to power strips as equipment still draws electricity from a power outlet even when not in use.
- Buy ENERGY STAR qualified computers. Also if possible, exchange desktop PCs for smaller, notebook computers. PCs alone can consume anywhere from 50 – 250 watts of energy, independent of the monitor! Laptops on the other hand use far less energy at around 45 watts and are way more energy efficient than your average desktop computer.
- Regularly change or clean heating ventilation/air conditioning (HVAC) system filters for optimum performance, and install a programmable HVAC thermostat that can provide remote access, visibility and control HVAC usage
- Replace incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs), wherever appropriate and switch to LED (light-emitting diode) exit signs
- Use ceiling fans for lower cost comfort
- Seal and insulate air ducts. This can improve the efficiency of your heating and cooling system by as much as 20% or more.
- Consider solar panels, wind power and geothermal energy sources if you are prepared to make more a substantial investment into energy efficiency
2. Paper: The average office worker in the U.S. uses 10,000 sheets of copy paper each year, or four million tons annually. Minimizing paper consumption delivers substantial benefits for the environment and for business efficiency. According to The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, roughly one ton of paper source reduction results in eight tons of greenhouse gas reductions, while GreenAndSave.com estimates that paper consumption reduction in the office can save up to $1,250 per year per employee. Small businesses can decrease paper dependence by:
- Transitioning printed communications to digital formats which can save on postage and storage and deliver a more personal, interactive and trackable touch-point to your audience
- Reducing fax-related paper waste by using a fax-modem that operates through the computer, which does not require a printed copy
- Communicating by phone, email or in person whenever possible, and being judicious about printing files. When printing and copying is necessary, use the double-sided function. If your current printers do not have double-sided capabilities, you might consider upgrading your equipment as that could generate significant energy, paper and cost savings over the long-term.
3. Waste: Reducing, reusing and recycling are the basis of a comprehensive waste reduction program. The following are some examples of measures small businesses can take to whittle down waste while fattening the bottom-line:
- Use refillable pens, rechargeable batteries and recycled paper and printer cartridges. This makes both economic and environmental sense, as these items tend to be cheaper.
- Stock the office kitchen with reusable table settings, glassware, mugs, and table linens in the office kitchen. Every year, Americans throw away enough paper and plastic cups, forks and spoons to circle the equator 300 times.
- Replace towel dispensers with hot air hand dryers
- Rent infrequently-used tools and equipment and explore reupholstering/refurbishing office furnishings/equipment before contemplating a new purchase
The Green Halo Effect
Aside from the obvious benefits for your community and planet overall, going green has significant business upsides. First and foremost, consumers have altered their buying habits and are paying closer attention to the sustainability messages of the businesses they patronize. Environmental practices have also become an increasingly important criterion in procurement decisions. Green initiatives could serve as a platform to generate positive publicity, drive new business and strengthen relationships with existing customers.
Moreover, greening is an opportunity to engage employees in a good cause while building culture and strengthening the bond to the business. This is particularly true for young professionals (Gen X and Y), who place a premium on social and environmental accountability. Finally, reducing a company’s carbon footprint improves air quality and contributes to a healthier, more comfortable workplace, which can play a role in reducing sick days and improving productivity.
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