According to a 2012 survey co-sponsored by Green America, a provider of sustainable economic solutions, small businesses that offered green products and services reported robust customer growth and strong sales, even as the broader economic recovery stayed sluggish. But you don't have to sell organic products to see an advantage. Adopting green practices within your own operation and empowering your employees to come up with green solutions can raise morale, cut your expenses, enlarge your savings, and hand you a competitive marketing edge when you pursue new customers, as these experts explain.
"Ninety-five percent of sustainable projects are either cost neutral or positive in the long term," says Jeana Wirtenberg, CEO of Transitioning to Green, a Montville, New Jersey-based firm that helps companies adopt sustainability practices. "Small businesses are not seeing the tremendous opportunity that is here to engage their employees, to increase their customer base, and to increase their market share."
Wirtenberg says that small businesses should start by first doing an assessment to help them figure out where they are, where they want to go, how they can get the best return on their investment, and the changes that are right for their particular circumstances. She suggests focusing on five areas:
Facilities: Depending on whether you rent or own your building will help determine ways to make it more energy efficient. For example, updating your windows can cut down on heating and air conditioning costs.
Resources: Identify sources of wasted energy and consider shifting to sustainable forms, such as solar or wind. Switching to low-flow toilets can save water. "Is your waste going into a landfill or can you come up with a zero waste plan?" she asks.
Finances: How much can you afford to invest in changes now? How long can you wait before seeing a return on your investment? "The most important [consideration] for a small business is their profitability," says Wirtenberg. "How do they measure that? What risks do they face? We just saw how superstorm Sandy wiped out a lot of small businesses. As they're rebuilding, are they thinking about the risks from future weather changes? To stay in business and be sustainable, everyone has to find a way to invest in the future."
People: Leaders should give more control to their employees to come up with green projects. "It's a way that people will get excited. It ties into the health and wellness of the employees as well as their engagement and satisfaction levels," she says.
Supply chain: Take a close look at the companies you buy from to see whether they engage in eco-friendly practices that could help your small business lessen costs and your environmental impact.
After the assessment, put together a plan with a timeline. Even modest accomplishments, such as forming a green team within three months to improve recycling procedures, can energize employees. "Sustainability is one area that can bring people together," Wirtenberg says. "Everybody is connected in more ways than they realize."
Make the easy changes
Experts say that small businesses should start with easy fixes or so-called "low-hanging fruit" before they tackle more ambitious goals.
"Light bulbs are a perfect place to start. It's not all about saving energy, but about having the right kind of light bulbs for the right space," says Alex Kahl, president of Kahl Consultants, a San Rafael, California-based Internet marketing services firm that has been awarded the Green America Business Seal of Approval for its eco-friendly standards. "It's also about maximizing daylight by maybe moving some tables around so that they're closer to windows or having skylights put in."
Turning off office equipment at night, putting computers on power saving mode whenever possible, installing high efficiency filters on the faucet heads, hooking up a motion sensor in the bathroom to open and close the lights automatically can save you money quickly. Some improvements may qualify for tax rebates or other incentives—another small windfall.
Kahl uses computers, laptops, and printers with high Energy Star ratings, installed solar photovoltaic panels that convert sunlight into electricity, and recycles rigorously. "My expenses have been going down constantly over the last few years based on all the investments I've made. It takes me less money today to run my business than it did five or 10 years ago," he says.
Rewarding employees for pursuing green solutions, such as letting them share in the cost savings, can be a strong incentive to keep them motivated. "Even a business that is extremely green will still have a hard time shifting whenever they move from one method to another," Kahl says. "You're going to have to push people to do something, so take it small. Once you reach a plateau and people see the benefits, it's important to let them know how much money they saved the company."
Kahl sees a growing number of consumers making buying decisions based on green factors, so businesses should make them part of their advertising. "You need to promote it and let people know because that's money in the bank."
Lean towards green
"I have a colleague who said it very well: 'lean towards green,'" says Yvette Little, owner of Simply Green Solutions, an Ellenton, Florida-based project management services firm with a specialty in green solutions. "So even if you're not doing every green step—if you lean towards green and you start thinking about it, it becomes part of your daily practice."
Cutting down on the amount of documents that your office prints, printing on both sides of the paper, or adjusting the margins for a larger print area can have a profound effect over time. For example, Realize Bradenton, a small-sized non-profit economic development organization in Florida, says that their productivity increased by about 20 percent after Little helped them move all their management documents online for easier access and revision.
To remind employees of the cost savings between black-and-white and color printing, Little says to put notes on their computer monitors with the actual prices. Conducting a meeting via a service like Skype can dramatically reduce travel, time, and energy resources.
Being green can take many forms beyond recycling or sustainable energy solutions. For example, Little works with many non-profits and arranges for for-profit companies to donate their leftover supplies or spare equipment. "It's a great marketing tool for for-profit businesses to be linked with non-profits and with causes they believe in," Little says. "It gives more credence and credibility to both partners."