RE:Thinking The Way We Do Business: Doing More with Less
by Carolyn Stein
What is a green business? Can your doctor or your insurance agent run a green businesses or is the “green” claim one reserved for businesses in the green sector, like bicycle manufacturers and granola makers? Truth is, there is no such thing as a completely green business. All businesses are net polluters and consume resources, whether they make a “green” product or not. That said, any business, from insurance brokers to widget makers, can become greener and operate more sustainably. It’s all about learning to do more with less. By using materials, energy and water more efficiently, businesses can lighten their ecological footprint, have a healthier, more productive place to work and greater profitability.
This is good news for business owners under increased public pressure to be better stewards of Earth’s finite resources. We want to know if our doctor’s office recycles and if our favorite coffee house composts our spent coffee grounds. Our demand for products, services and practices that have minimal impact on the environment causes many companies to take a hard look at the way they do business. With all the chatter about being green, how does a business get started, navigate the plethora of information on sustainability and figure out what makes sense? Large businesses can hire a sustainability coordinator, but most small to medium businesses need easy access to tools and resources to help them. Luckily, in our region, those resources exist.
In Lane and Marion Counties there is free help for businesses that want to operate more efficiently. In Lane County, the RE:think Business Assistance Program is run by BRING Recycling, a local non-profit resource conservation organization. In Marion County, the County Public Works Department operates EarthWISE. Both programs operate on the premise that every business has the opportunity to save resources and money by taking a critical look at the materials, energy and water they use. RE:think and EarthWISE consultants specialize in addressing the low-hanging fruit, in other words, finding simple, no cost and low cost actions that improve efficiency and help the planet. The programs are designed to make it easy for businesses to participate. There’s no fee, no need to schedule time away from the business, information and reports are confidential and there’s no pressure from efficiency advisors to take on more than a business can tackle. Besides the money these programs can save, both programs reward businesses that improve their resource efficiency with an award and public recognition. Marketing surveys show that given a choice, most consumers prefer businesses that demonstrate that they’ve taken steps to protect the environment.
The Low-Hanging Fruit:
Waste Prevention and Recycling
The lowest cost, easiest and most effective way a business can become greener is to use less stuff. Waste prevention is the fastest and most cost effective environmental initiative a business can employ. The simplest things are often the easiest to overlook, and many businesses are blissfully unaware just how much they spend buying materials that are then used wastefully. From both an environmental and economic perspective, waste is a huge problem. A recent study completed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests that nearly one third of our region’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the manufacture of goods—the supplies from office furniture to pens and paper that every business uses. Manufacturing that desk or ream of paper uses energy, creates waste and greenhouse gas emissions at every stage from raw material extraction to marketing the finished product. By focusing on reducing or eliminating unnecessary materials and waste in day to day operations, businesses can quickly improve their environmental performance and save money.
“Preventing waste is good for the bottom line”, says Julie Daniel, Executive Director of BRING Recycling. “Businesses that waste resources are literally throwing money away. You wouldn’t pay your staff to stand around doing nothing or waste time. Why pay for resources that you don’t need? It’s unnecessary, hurts the environment and reduces profitability,” Daniel added.
Market of Choice, a local grocery chain, offers a perfect example of how this can work. In September 2008, Market of Choice eliminated the plastic bag option at checkout stands and launched a campaign offering low cost reusable bags for purchase and door decals reminding customers to bring their own bag. “Everybody really got behind the initiative,” says Scott Cook, Sustainability Coordinator for Market of Choice. To their surprise, they didn’t have to buy more paper bags to replace the plastic ones they eliminated. “Companywide we were spending $20,000 to $25,000 per year on plastic bags, depending on the cost of petroleum”, Cook added. By eliminating a single product from operations, the company saves tens of thousands of dollars per year, keeps a troublesome product out of the environment and reduces their ecological footprint.
Once a business has considered all the waste prevention options, it’s time to address the waste already being made—and that means recycling.
Recycling has become a part of our culture in the Willamette Valley. In Lane County over 95% of households with access to recycling programs participate. Individuals are doing a pretty good job, but businesses are a different story. More than half of Marion County’s and Eugene’s total waste comes from businesses. In Eugene, businesses recycle only about 30% of the waste they produce and with a household and business combined recycling rate at over 50%, you can see clearly that there’s a whole lot of opportunity for improved business recycling. However, it’s not always simple. There can be challenges due to the household oriented single stream co-mingled recycling collection system, which restricts the kinds of materials you can put out. For example, medical facilities generate lots of plastic materials that could be recycled, but co-mingled collection restricts plastic recycling to “bottles, tubs and jars”—and medical facilities produce lots of materials that don’t fall under that description.
A medical facility in Marion County, Willamette Ear, Nose, Throat & Facial Surgery, became the first medical facility in our region to develop a medical waste-recycling program, and earned themselves an EarthWISE award certification in the process. By working with Garten Services, a non-profit organization that hires adults with disabilities, the facility has been able to divert hard to recycle plastics from the garbage and into a recycling facility. The extra effort paid off, and they are keeping tons of recyclable material out of the waste stream.
Energy Conservation and Efficiency
Energy is another area with big payback potential. Reducing energy use at the office can be as simple as flipping a switch. Typically, lighting is responsible for 30% of energy costs with the rest coming from heating, cooling and office equipment such as computers and copy machines. With a few simple behavior changes such as switching off the lights, putting computers in sleep mode, turning off non-critical machines and adjusting thermostats, businesses can see tremendous savings on energy costs.
If you want to take it one step further, a modest investment can pay a significant dividend. Many utilities in Lane County offer rebates and incentives to upgrade older and inefficient lighting or electronic equipment from refrigeration units to computers; and businesses may also be eligible for State and Federal tax credits. In the City of Eugene, Eugene Water and Electric Board (EWEB), offers a business rebate package for lighting retrofits. For businesses with less than 5,000 kilowatts of load, much of the cost of the upgrade can be offset by the rebates. It can really pay off. McKenzie Family Practice, a Eugene medical office, participated in the program. “The RE:think program helped connect our office with EWEB’s small business program, said Kay Sanders, Business Manager. Upgrading our lighting has made a world of difference. Our offices are brighter, we’re saving money on energy costs and the rebates paid for nearly all of the work”, Sanders added.
Water Conservation and Quality
Most businesses are not big water users. However, there are still some simple ways that businesses can reduce water consumption. Fixing leaky faucets and installing water conservation devices are a good place to start.
For Jones & Roth CPA’s and Business Consultants in Eugene, installing water saving aerators was something they hadn’t considered. They received free aerators with their participation in the RE:think Business Efficiency Program and were surprised at the payoff. “They reduced our water consumption by 20 percent,” said Phil Sutton, the firm’s Director of Business Development and Marketing. “I was shocked. You never pay attention to water faucets.”
For older buildings with aging toilets installing low-flow or dual flush toilets is a good option. Other water-wise ideas include landscaping that incorporates the use of native and low water need plants. Irrigation systems should be on timers and properly maintained. Underground systems with spay heads should be checked regularly to ensure that they are operable and straight. Leaky drip systems are also water wasters. Make sure hoses are in good condition and placed appropriately.
Equally as important as conservation is water quality. Water quality is affected by toxics that run off parking lots and streets into storm drains during the rainy season. Motor oil from cars, and pesticides and herbicides used in landscaping threaten the quality of our drinking water. In the Willamette Valley, much of our rainwater drainsuntreated into our local waterways. Eliminating the use of chemicals is essential to the health of marine life, plant life and people. Business owners should pay special attention to their landscaping and require their grounds-keepers to minimize or eliminate fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Water quality is also affected by what is thrown down the drain. Office cleaning supplies should be natural and biodegradable. Eco-cleaners are now widely available, and are both effective and economical to use.
The stuff you buy has an enormous effect on your business’ reputation as an eco-friendly place to shop, dine or work. Materials purchased for your business should be manufactured in a way that has the least impact on the environment. The easiest place to start is office supplies. Today’s catalogues clearly identify products made with recycled content, including office paper, toilet paper, envelopes, file folders and myriad other necessities. If you use printed promotional materials such as business cards or brochures, make sure you use papers with a high percentage of recycled content and that are processed chlorine (bleach) free. These papers are cost effective and have a distinct advantage over paper made from virgin sources. One ton of paper made from 100 percent recycled content saves the equivalent of 4,100 kilowatt-hours of energy, 7000 gallons of water and 60 pounds of carbon emissions.
Other office supplies, including cleaners, should protect indoor air-quality. Use solutions, markers and printing that limit the amount of airborne volatile organic compounds (VOC’s). Laser printers and cleaning products with VOC’s can irritate lungs, eyes and skin.
We all use resources, and having a 100% green business is not a realistic goal for most, if any, businesses in the near term. Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean businesses shouldn’t do their part to ensure a healthy planet for future generations. Being greener takes some effort but the rewards in monetary savings, customer loyalty and environmental benefit make it well worth the while for every business. Start small, take advantage of free assistance, and keep gradually improving. Rethinking, redoing and reassessing our current business practices are the first steps towards greater efficiency.
Business Efficiency tips
Create a reuse paper tray at each printer. For drafts or in-house documents use the backside of your one-sided documents.
Set copier and printer default modes to double side all copies.
Think before you print.
Purchase products that can be reused, refilled and have replaceable components such as refillable pens, staple-free staplers and reusable and refillable printer cartridges.
Buy durable goods and dishware for your break room. Do away with disposable items such as paper plates and cups.
Replace incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent lights (CFL’s). Utility savings are immediate and in the long run, replacement lights will need to be purchased less frequently.
Turn off the lights!