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The Basics: Why Should Your Small Enterprise “Go Green?”

(feature piece from my work with the Non-Profit, Winning Workplaces.  Again asserting that we, as a society, must see green practices as essential and inseparable from legitimate and robust business tactics.  Original publication here)

Why Should Your Small Enterprise “Go Green?”

Efficiency sells better than sex these days.  Waste is increasingly a flagrant faux pas.  And yes, green is, and HAS BEEN, the new black. In biz speak, efforts by organizations to “go green” are paying dividends beyond fundamental gains/saves to the local environment.  More small enterprises than ever are warming up to the notion that they can save money, boost the value of their brand and make a difference in their communities by implementing green workplace practices.

Their customers certainly seem to be moving in this direction. Research by Colorado-based nonprofit Conscious Wave finds that consumers have established a nearly $230 billion stake in the U.S. marketplace devoted to health and sustainability.

And they’re not alone – more workers are realizing the benefits of greener workplaces as well. Bob Willard, a former leader at IBM and the author of “The Next Sustainability Wave,” conservatively estimates that 20 percent of job candidates are drawn to businesses that tout green practices.

The following are accounts of three very different small organizations, encompassing a range of industries, that made the decision to go green inside their workplaces. While they vary in their green initiatives and how they have gone about implementing them, they share one commonality: They are all solid workplaces made even stronger through their focus on doing more to harm less on this planet.

Let There Be (Efficient) Light

The government’s Energy Star program reports that U.S. small businesses could save more than $15 billion a year by cutting their energy consumption by 30 percent. In order to manage costs while remaining competitive as an innovator in the metal forming industry, Illinois-based IRMCO has joined this club. Despite its origins as an old-line manufacturer in a warehouse facility that has served the firm for four generations, the family-owned business is showing that a workplace with a rich history needn’t hesitate to adapt.

It starts with the simple things. “If you’re not in a room, shut the lights off,” says IRMCO’s Operations Manager, T.J. Kerkman. He claims it used to be common practice for his staff to arrive and turn on every light in the warehouse. Now, following an energy audit of the company’s electrical usage last year, it’s lights out when the last employee leaves a room.

For More Information: Easy Steps Toward a Greener     Workplace

Useful Web Resources

Numerous groups across the country offer free energy audits for businesses and nonprofits. In addition, ENERGYguide.com provides a basic but effective online tool to help you evaluate your usage. Kerkman describes the results of IRMCO’s energy audit as “eye-opening.” “We’re looking at last year’s electric bill and this year’s electric bill and … we’re talking a 50 percent savings,” he says.

LEED-ing the Way

Recently, Christy Webber Landscapes, a growing enterprise that develops projects at commercial and residential properties throughout the Chicago area, took advantage of an opportunity to build a new central office that would be LEED certified. Much touted, the designation means that the firm’s facility meets or exceeds U.S. Green Building Council benchmarks for building design, construction and operation. Besides LEED’s obvious environmental benefits, it carries a level of national recognition for facility construction and – HR managers take note – the promise of a higher-quality work environment for potential hires.

Currently, Christy Webber’s facility makes use of solar and geothermal heating/cooling, a vegetative roof cover, weather-responsive lighting, rain water conservation and methods for harnessing wind for power and ventilation. The result is a facility that now uses 55 percent less energy than the average commercial property, according to Midwest Real Estate News and Chicago Building Congress.

The landscaping firm’s transition to LEED certification is even more interesting given its diverse (and often seasonal) workforce, for whom even the notion of recycling was new. To match inside practices with its environmentally friendly facility, the firm’s existing “Green Team” helped to establish the following workplace initiatives:

• Small recycling bins on everyone’s desks
• The use of only “green” cleaning products
• Substituting flatware for plastic ware
• Using the dishwasher only once per day
• Training supervisors on how to practice conservation in the field

Mission-driven Take-home Practices

Seventh Generation, a Vermont-based marketer of environmentally responsible household products, uses many of the same eco-friendly measures as the two firms mentioned above. In addition, they are working to encourage employees to use green behavior far beyond the workplace.

The company offers a unique benefits package that includes subsidies for employee-purchased hybrid and electric vehicles and financial assistance to help workers build greener homes. Manager of HR Stephanie Lowe says these incentives evolved from the firm’s core value of “regenerative thinking.” This concept, no doubt, trickled down from President Jeffrey Hollender, who also defines his role as “Chief Regeneration Officer.”

Gregor Barnum, director of corporate consciousness, points to a focus on critical design – not only in the development of its products, but also in shaping employees’ lives. “We’ve got 60 different employees, with different lifestyles. The way we look at it, that’s 60 designers on our team,” Barnum says.

In 2005, the company let its employee-designers loose to shape their work environment when it moved into a new facility in its hometown of Burlington. Design consultations between the entire staff and the building architect yielded eco-friendly measures including carpets made from recyclable materials and a place in the firm’s parking garage to plug in their company-subsidized electric cars.

The (Triple) Bottom Line

As these examples of green workplace practices show, small enterprises can go small or big, and as deep into the pocketbook as they feel comfortable. (IRMCO and Christy Webber’s measures in particular show that going green can actually cost nothing or next to nothing at all.) And as we’ve illustrated, beyond making sound business sense, a move toward a more eco-friendly workplace can align actions with core values and, thus, boost the brand.

The point is to do something. There is a sense of urgency behind all eco-friendly workplace practices, as Fast Company magazine pointed out in summarizing its green-themed list of the “Fast 50″ growing companies. Indeed, as the magazine also stated, “Companies of every size and in every part of the world are now waking up to humanity’s impending and interlocking crises, and the vastly lucrative rewards that solving them might bring.”

(Diane Stoneman contributed to this article.)

Posted in Design, Sustainable Business.

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