How to Make Your Business Greener (and Save Money): Green Plus Tips in the NYTimes

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While Joe Santana does not presume to understand all of the latest climate science, he has his own opinions about global warming. But as head of operations at Mi Rancho, a family-owned tortilla producer in San Leandro, Calif., he understands the importance of saving money.

After attending a series of workshops on sustainable business practices, Mr. Santana recently put into action a number of energy-efficiency and waste-reduction measures that he estimates will save Mi Rancho about $100,000 a year and pay for themselves well within the first year. “And if that’s good for the planet,” he said, “all the better.”

‘Sustainability’ and ‘going green’ are buzzwords that get overused, but many business owners are discovering that looking at their operations through a green lens can help them reduce costs, rethink long-held business practices and open doors to new opportunities.

Here are some tips on getting started.

START AT THE TOP The commitment to make a business greener has to come from top management, said Dan Bramblett, an executive at Estes Heating and Air Conditioning, a contractor based in Atlanta: “There are many things employees can do to start the process, but driving this through the company culture must start at the top.”

At the same time, he added, “engaging employees is key to getting everyone on board.” Mr. Santana advised setting up internal green teams, consisting of volunteers from management and staff who meet on a regular basis. At Mi Rancho, the sustainability group meets once a month to review strategy, check progress and identify energy-saving actions. Some of the best ideas come from the front lines.

TAKE INVENTORY To begin, Mr. Bramblett said, analyze the business operations with an eye toward reducing energy consumption and waste: “Look at those places where you spend the most money.” Common areas to consider are lighting, powering your equipment, heating, air-conditioning, transportation and water use.

For Estes, the company’s biggest expense after personnel costs was transportation and fleet maintenance. As part of its energy audit, Estes learned that eight of its full-size trucks were assigned to sales people who did not need them to make business calls. The company started to swap out the trucks for Ford Fusion hybrid sedans, increasing gas mileage to 40 miles a gallon from 18 miles a gallon, and saving money in the process.

Look also at the waste produced by the business. Disposing of this material often incurs a cost. For example, Estes typically generates hundreds of pounds of scrap cardboard and metal at each job site. Before starting its green initiative, the company would pay for a Dumpster to hold the waste. This was an expense, and the material generally ended up in a landfill. Now Estes works with a recycling contractor that hauls the material away without charge – saving the company about $1,000 a month, according to Mr. Bramblett’s estimates.

At the end of this planning process, establish a baseline of your energy use and costs, said Tom Bowman, president of Bowman Design Group, a design firm based in Signal Hill, Calif. Most utility companies will come to your property to perform an energy audit, or you can use the information from your utility bills. “Having a well-defined starting point allows you to track and measure your progress,” he said.

DO THE EASY STUFF Find steps you can accomplish almost immediately, said Mr. Bowman, and then build from there with actions that cost nothing or very little to apply. As an example, you might shut down electronics at night, turn off overhead lights during daylight hours and open windows to get natural ventilation instead of running the air-conditioning. These steps, he said, are “largely about educating employees and changing old habits.”

Adam Prochaska, a partner at the law firm Harding & Shultz in Lincoln, Neb., is trying to change some old habits by getting his colleagues to reduce their paper use. Mr. Prochaska has calculated that his firm buys 1,600 reams of copy paper each year. A portion of that paper is used to print e-mails, which are stored in client files. He and a handful of other lawyers have started to store those e-mails electronically instead. He figures that if all of the lawyers in the firm were to adopt this practice, they could save at least $8,000 a year in paper, printing, labor and storage costs.

For a very minimal investment, Community IT Innovators, an information technology infrastructure company based in Washington, greatly reduced the energy used by the firm’s computers, servers and printers. An inexpensive software program puts the company’s computers in sleep mode when not in use, reducing their energy consumption by about 50 percent. While the initial cost of this software was $432, it reduces the company’s energy costs about $900 a year, said David Deal, the company’s chief executive. These changes, along with increasing awareness among employees about turning off lights when not in use, have reduced the firm’s electricity consumption by 35 percent, he said.

TRACK AND REPORT As with any business initiative, review your results periodically, said Sarah Kate Fishback, who is director of operations at the Institute for Sustainable Development. She suggested “measuring the things you can measure – energy, waste, water use – and then try to quantify the business impact of taking action on these fronts.” Showing positive financial gains, she said, will keep the process on track.

Sharing the results with the staff also keeps everyone motivated, said Mr. Deal. He maintains a simple spreadsheet to track the company’s progress toward its goals. But just as important, he shares the results with his staff “to show them we are committed and this is not a passing fancy.”

LOOK FOR REBATES Once the easy stuff is done, the next step is investing in energy-efficient equipment: heating systems, air-conditioners and other office gear. But before starting down this road, check out the incentive programs and rebates available through the utility and local city government, as well as state and federal agencies.

Mi Rancho recently replaced more than 200 overhead lights with energy-efficient fixtures in its warehouse and production facility, a project that Mr. Santana described as a “no-brainer” based on the quick payback. With rebates from the local utility and city of San Leandro, the retrofit cost Mi Rancho $14,000 but will yield a yearly energy savings of about $32,000, according to Mr. Santana’s estimates.

WATCH WHAT YOU SAY After adopting a sustainability policy, many businesses are eager to start waving the green flag as part of their marketing messages. But be wary of overstating or misrepresenting your accomplishments and earning the dreaded “greenwashing” label. “Be honest and clear about the steps you’ve taken to improve performance, and acknowledge it’s part of an ongoing process,” Mr. Bowman said. “The goal is to show that the company takes the challenge seriously and is working the problem.”

Ms. Fishback encourages clients to avoid using green to describe what they do: “Instead, sharing specific actions taken – on your Web site, at your place of business, in marketing materials – is the best practice. Put your green practices in plain language for all to read. It’s not greenwashing if it’s true and verifiable.”

Mr. Santana agreed: “I don’t want to say, ‘We are a green company.’ I think we have taken steps in that direction but we are not there yet.” But he has discovered, “when you start looking at your operations through the sustainability lens, you are able to see opportunities to reduce costs that you may have missed before. And isn’t continuous improvement the most important part of any business?”

For the original piece by Jim Witkin, please click here.

For a Directory of U.S. sustainability organizations by region, please click here.

The Institute for Sustainable Development / Green Plus

www.gogreenplus.org

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