The Incongreenient Truth: Cost Effective Ways to Better Your Business While Saving the World

July 5, 2010
By Virginia Nussey in Branding

Oh beautiful!
For smog-filled skies
For sludge-mired Gulf Coast waves
For countless landfills overflowed
Trash flying o’er the plains!

America! America!
We’ve dumped a load on thee!
But starting now
I’ll try, somehow,
To make it up, you’ll see!

Happy American Independence Day! Guest blogger Virginia here, charged with getting outspoken on this fine holiday. I’m pretty sure that American holidays aren’t complete without some blush-inducing episode by Aunt Vickie or Cousin Jerry. So if you didn’t make the family barbecue this weekend, lean in because I’m about to hit a topic usually considered taboo on a first date. I’m talking about politics, or more specifically, the business politics of environmental responsibility.

A founding father (by whom I mean Internet creator Al Gore, of course) once spoke of an inconvenient truth. The problem is, no one’s trying to make a mess of the planet. We’re just going about our lives the best way we know how, making a living, supporting our families and hoping to have some fun along the way. It’s certainly not anyone’s intention to make a grown man cry or turn the atmosphere into an oven. But the time for ignorance is past. It’s time to be responsible for our actions or it will be our kids paying for our mistakes.

The upside is that going green can be a win for your business. Doing what’s good for the environment can also be good for the business by cutting operating costs and attracting green-conscious consumers.

But there’s no point in sugar coating it. The advantages of eco-friendly living don’t come without costs. If the planet could be saved by going about life the way we always have, there wouldn’t be a problem in the first place. There’s going to have to be a conscious effort on our parts. Some actions will take more effort than others. Some changes may cost more up-front. And some consumers have serious doubts about whether green claims are any more than just greenwashing.

So with business realities of cost and required resources in mind, I’m suggesting ways to make your business a bit greener along with a 3-point “incongreenient” rating system that takes into account short- and long-term effort, short- and long-term cost benefit, and marketability of brownie points in the eyes of consumers. To wrap it up, I’ll highlight ways to leverage your green efforts to win the hearts and minds of customers.

Reduce, Recycle, Reuse

If you want to give green a go, start by auditing the business’s current use of supplies and what’s thrown out at the end of the week. I bet this act alone will get you thinking of places to save on excesses in the workplace.

In terms of the 3 Rs, reduction of waste is probably the easiest place to start environmental efforts in the office. For the most part, reduction is where you’ll see the most immediate benefits to the bottom line. Recycling takes a little more effort upfront, requiring a conscious effort to place something in the recycling bin instead of the trash, as well as some coordination with a recycling vendor. Reusing is probably the most cost demanding of the 3 Rs, but it’s just as important because it “closes the loop,” if you will, and it’s also the most likely to be public facing.

Businesses of all sizes have already jumped into the green game and seen great benefits from their efforts. Not only can they be proud of making a difference, but they’re reporting concrete boosts to the bottom line. This could be your business, too.

Reducing Paper and Ink

I know, I know, by now you’re tired of hearing about this, but it’s so easy to do, it should be criminal not to. Consider:

  • Each year, Americans throw away enough office paper to build a 12-foot wall from Los Angeles to New York City.
  • Businesses in the U.S. use about 21 million tons of paper every year, or in other words, 175 pounds of paper used by every American.

Here are some easy ways to reduce the waste associated with printing.

1. Print as little as possible. Obvious, right? It may help to include a reminder in the office e-mail signature, something like the message we use at my company: “Please consider the environment before printing this e-mail. This email was sent using recycled electrons.” It makes the point and is cute about it. And since e-mail communications will be seen by clients, you’re likely to get some recognition for your efforts from your customers.

2. Make double-sided printing the default setting. This is another simple one. Set it, forget it and forever after save paper.

3. Use an ink-saving font. Using Century Gothic over Arial an result in up to 31% less ink! Other fonts that save ink compared to Arial include Times Roman and Calibri. Just remember, while airy fonts like Century Gothic use less ink, they typically use more paper, which makes double-sided printing that much more important.

Incongreenient Rating:
Short-term effort: 1
Long-term effort: 0
Short-term cost benefit: 1
Long-term cost benefit: 2
Consumer brownie points: 1
Overall incongreenience: 1

Reducing Kitchen-Type Waste

Most businesses offer a kitchen-type space with essentials like a coffee maker, a fridge, a microwave and drinking water. But here are some more scary statistics on American office waste:

  • 2.5 million plastic bottles are tossed out in America every hour.
  • Americans throw away enough paper and plastic cups, forks and spoons every year to line the equator 300 times.
  • The average American office worker goes through about 500 disposable cups in a year.

500 cups per person in less than 365 work days? Is that really necessary? Of course it’s not. Certainly, employees need to drink and eat at the office, and as a thoughtful employer, you’ve provided for them. So instead of the disposable stuff, provide the office with reusable water bottles and thermoses for everyone. Sounds expensive? Consider this math:

Reusable water bottle = $10
Hot beverage travel mug = $10
500-count paper cups = $45

The cost of both reusable cold and hot beverage containers for each employee is about $20. Compare that to the average cost of providing disposable cups over a year, which is about $45. (That’s if you’re not really cheaping out and getting despicable Styrofoam. Blech.) While there’s a slightly higher up-front cost in buying reusable drinking vessels versus disposables, a business will actually be saving over the course of a year, not to mention over the years that follow.

The most significant inconvenience is that the employees will need to clean their dishes. So yes, there’s 2 extra minutes of time needed by the individual, and people will probably moan about it, but if someone can’t give up 2 minutes, why do you think Mother Earth is cool with you pillaging her for all her resources?

Incongreenient Rating:
Short-term effort: 2
Long-term effort: 1
Short-term cost benefit: -1
Long-term cost benefit: 2
Consumer brownie points: 0
Overall incongreenience: 1

Reducing Energy Consumption

Businesses today rely on electronics which require energy and use fossil fuels. You can reduce the amount of energy used by devices in your office in a few easy ways.

1. Turn off machines and monitors after hours. Shutting down a computer before leaving the office can become second nature. It only takes a minute and is easy to do once it becomes a habit.

Incongreenient Rating:
Short-term effort: 1
Long-term effort: 0
Short-term cost benefit: 1
Long-term cost benefit: 1
Consumer brownie points: 0
Overall incongreenience: 1

2. Use energy saving equipment and multi-function devices (MFD). First off there’s the good ol’ CFL (compact fluorescent light), which costs more than incandescent bulbs, but pays for itself in just 6 months because it lasts longer and uses 75% less energy. Energy Star products meet strict efficiency guidelines, and while they cost more than their not-so-efficient equivalents, they often make up the cost difference within a few years through saved energy costs. Meanwhile, you’ve probably heard that when power cords are plugged into power outlets, they pull energy even if nothing is connected or the device is turned off. MFDs do the job of more than one machine, meaning fewer devices plugged in. Instead of having a separate printer, scanner and fax machine, consider devices that do all three. The fewer devices plugged into the wall, the less energy used.

Incongreenient Rating:
Short-term effort: 2
Long-term effort: 0
Short-term cost benefit: -2
Long-term cost benefit: 1
Consumer brownie points: 1
Overall incongreenience: 2

Recycling Paper Products

Your options for paper product recycling depend on your location and the services available. Unlike home recycling programs, businesses typically must contract a local vendor to obtain recycling bins and arrange pick up procedures and schedules. The current waste hauler for your business may offer a recycling program, or your county or municipal recycling office may provide a service.

Additionally, some training is necessary for employees taking part in the program, and it helps to have a recycling coordinator in the office to oversee the program, communicate with the recycling vendor and get employees on board. However, once in place, an office recycling program requires little maintenance besides the effort needed to sort recyclable materials. Review the Paper Industry Association Council’s workplace guide for info on potentially recyclable material and ideas to motivate people in the office.

Incongreenient Rating:
Short-term effort: 3
Long-term effort: 1
Short-term cost benefit: 1
Long-term cost benefit: 0
Consumer brownie points: 1
Overall incongreenience: 1

Recycling E-Waste

We know as well as anyone that the fast-pace of technology means that today’s must-have device will be obsolete and replaced tomorrow. Electronic waste is the fastest growing category of American garbage. Electronic waste recycling requires careful treatment due to toxic metals and chemicals, and because of the stringent requirements in the U.S., e-waste is often sent to international facilities where little concern is paid to the health and well-being of those in contact with the toxic materials.

Thankfully, the options for electronic recycling aren’t limited to poisoning our lands or poisoning workers abroad. The Basel Action Network monitors toxic trade and provides a searchable locator of globally responsible electronic recycling programs around the country. If there is not a BAN-approved facility in your area, consider the Telecommunication Industry Association’s e-recycling location finder along with recommended questions to vet e-waste recyclers.

Many facilities offer pick-up services as such programs are not yet widespread, however drop-off may be required. Some communities hold periodic e-recycling events to make participation easy. Because hazardous waste management is such a specialized process, such recycling services often charge for their services.

Incongreenient Rating:
Short-term effort: 0
Long-term effort: 2
Short-term cost benefit: -2
Long-term cost benefit: 0
Consumer brownie points: 1
Overall incongreenience: 2

Reusing – Closing the Loop

Reducing office waste and sending appropriate waste to recycling facilities is just one part of the equation. Reuse is the final piece of the puzzle, essentially putting to use the post-recycled products. What good is recycling if the material’s second-life isn’t put to use? Purchasing recycled material makes a positive environmental impact because it means less material going to the dump, it saves raw material, and it reduces the pollution needed to process raw material.

Buying post-consumer recycled products (products made with materials that were used and then recycled) may cost more than the comparable “virgin” products — and then again, it may not. The EPA explains that the cost of products, both virgin and recycled, depends on factors as varied as distributor mark-up to quantity ordered to geographic location, though the average price difference between recycled and non-recycled paper is 5%.

Though while it may cost more, consumer-facing recycled products are likely to earn acknowledgement from consumers. If you’re an online retailer, you come into contact with your consumer through your shipping material and cardboard packaging as well as your product. Along with packaging, company stationery, direct mail, brochures and contracts, are seen by clients and the community and can earn your business recognition from an eco-conscious crowd. When the up-front cost is considered with the ongoing brand boost, the long-term cost of using recycled material balances out.

Incongreenient Rating:
Short-term effort: 1
Long-term effort: 0
Short-term cost benefit: -1
Long-term cost benefit: 0
Consumer brownie points: 2
Overall incongreenience: 1

Leveraging the Power of Green

If you’ve put in all that effort, you deserve credit. You may have noticed that most of the brownie point ratings above are on the low side, but when added up, even the zeros add up, making a big statement to an environmentally conscious customer base. Consumers appreciate the effort and they feel good about supporting eco-responsible businesses, so tell the world about your good work.

Issue a press release: Publicize your green accomplishment like any other, starting with the traditional method and its new media incarnations. Tell consumers about your commitment to green business practices, including specific goals and tactics, in all the ways you would any big announcement, such as using social media channels, tapping your network of influencers, and attracting publicity in the community.

Create a case study: As more businesses look into the financial, environmental, and brand benefits of eco-responsibility, case studies are a helpful public resource online. In researching this article, I came across a number of green business case studies, with companies reporting significant estimated yearly cost savings and estimated greenhouse gas emission savings. You’ll also find information about tactics not mentioned here, like green infrastructure and building and the use of carbon offsets. Creating a case study of your business’s successes and lessons provides visibility with an interested audience of businesses and consumers researching environmentally conscious businesses.

Submit your business to green business directories: There are a number of online directories dedicated to aggregating green businesses. Submit your business to directories like Green America’s National Green Pages, Green Biz Directory and Eco Business Links to gain visibility and traffic from green enthusiasts.

Tell people on your site: Announce your green commitment prominently on your website. Dedicate a page on your site to explaining your environmental efforts and any recognition received from the community or relevant organizations, and optimize this page for searches for your brand name as well as “green product/service” type queries. Also highlight relevant green practices on product or service pages as well as shipping pages.

Seek out certification and awards: Green certification lends trust and credibility to your environmental efforts within the marketplace. A green seal on your website or in e-mail signatures or other public communications helps associate your brand with awareness and responsibility. However, beware certification programs that take advantage of well-meaning businesses. Be sure that the green certification organization is reputable and isn’t just interested in taking “audit” or “assessment” fees. Business.gov offers a list of credible green certification organizations in the U.S. and the world for renewable energy, buildings, manufacturing and a number of consumer products.

If the planet and your children’s future are important to you, you can make green work for your business in practical and cost efficient ways. It’s not easy being green, but it’s definitely worth it.

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