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How to become an eco-friendly business

The average American creates 4.5 pounds of waste each day—that’s more than 1,600 pounds each year and three times as much as the global average—from soiled paper products and uneaten food to thrown-away clothes and single-use plastic. Those items end up in landfills, our water systems, and sometimes back in our own bodies.


Key takeaways

  • There are simple ways to become a more eco-friendly business—which is good for the environment, your community, and eventually your bottom line
  • You can achieve impactful savings by changing a few employee protocols
  • You don’t have to change everything at once—small steps add up and will help you stick with your changes

There are a number of ways that people can reduce their individual waste contributions, and those efforts are now being adopted by businesses and corporations as well. And while any type of change to your business can be intimidating, thanks to modern technology and some knowledgeable consultants, it’s easier than you think to clean up your business.

It also makes good business sense. More and more consumers, especially those considered Millennials and Gen Z, are looking exclusively for Earth-friendly companies before making purchase decisions. And in the long run, becoming an eco-friendly business can save you money and resources.

We’ve compiled a list of easy and aspirational ways to make your business more sustainable.

The first steps to becoming eco-friendly

Paper waste

Paper products account for 26% of all landfill waste. Paper is not only responsible for deforestation but also water consumption—it takes 10 liters of water to produce just one A4 sized piece of paper.

Most businesses have some kind of paper recycling program, which is a great start, but you can also purchase reams of printer paper that are made from recycled paper. To make the biggest impact, you can work on becoming a paperless office.

Of course, in some instances, it’s impossible to become completely paperless—businesses dealing with government contracts and legal matters will have to keep some paper copies of documents. But even if you can transition just some of your paper files to online documents, you’ll make an impact.

In addition to recycling and using recycled paper, there are a few other ways to improve your overall paper usage.

  1. Run an analysis of your current paper usage—figure out what has to be printed and what could be created and shared digitally
  2. Move to online applications, using the cloud for document storage; you can run many accounting services online in the cloud and can even fax digitally
  3. Incentivize employees to use less paper
  4. Sign documents digitally and securely using software like Adobe Sign or DocuSign
  5. Reuse paper by printing or writing on the back of discarded paper
  6. Use email to communicate as much as possible

Every little bit makes a difference. Recycling one ton of paper saves around 682 gallons of oil, 26,500 liters of water, and 17 trees; and each tree produces enough oxygen for three people. That recycled paper could become coffee filters, dust masks, hospital gowns, car insulation, or even a lamp shade.

The benefits to the planet are many, but there are also a number of benefits for your business. By reducing printing in the office, you’ll save money in paper, ink, and toner purchases; printer maintenance and repair; and employee time—it’s been shown that even within the past decade, staff members can spend up to two hours a day looking for files. 

Being a paperless office also reduces the amount of paper mail, decreases office clutter, allows easier organization and access to documents, and sets up a smoother transfer of knowledge between employees if everyone has access to the same documents online. It could add up to tens of thousands of dollars each year in savings.

Bonus tip: Remember that recycling bins should only contain items that are empty, dry, and clean. Soiled paper can contaminate clean paper, which makes it all unrecyclable.

Power

Energy costs can be the most unpredictable expense of any small (or large) business, and it’s estimated that businesses spend more than $60 billion a year on energy, mostly in electricity. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), office buildings spend an average of $1.51 per square foot per year on energy costs with the average annual bill being around $28,000.

There are many small ways to save big on energy costs around the office, and most are simple changes in employee behavior.

Your first step, before implementing any of the others, should be to get a free energy audit from your local utility company. One of their experts will come to your business and check for air leaks, insulation issues, or changes to lighting that might improve energy use.

Some other ways to save on energy are:

  1. Install programmable thermostats that automatically shut off energy-draining AC or heating systems when the office is closed
  2. Turn off lights when not in use—this may seem like a no-brainer, but in a typical office building, lights stay on in bathrooms, conference rooms, and offices, even when not in use
  3. Install motion-sensor light switches, which will automatically shut off lights in a room when motion goes undetected for a certain amount of time
  4. Use energy-efficient light bulbs, like CFL or LED bulbs, which will incur a bit of expense on the front end but save more than their cost in energy use
  5. Purchase energy-efficient office equipment by checking to see if they are ENERGY STAR-rated before buying
  6. Power down computers and other office equipment at the end of the day

Each action sounds small by itself, but they add up to major energy—and cost—savings.

Waste product

The term “waste” can include many things, including paper, which we’ve already addressed, but it encompasses so much more. It includes ALL discarded materials, from plastics to food trash to compostable materials. The idea behind becoming a “Zero Waste” business is to “eliminate all discharges to land, water, or air that are a threat to planetary, human, animal, or plant health.”

Like some of the other eco-friendly changes, it may sound difficult, but it can be an easy, gradual switch if you make a few changes around your office or business place.

  1. Assess your waste usage with a certified sustainability consultant—like Seattle-based Blue Daisi Consulting—who will perform an audit of the type and volume of your current waste products and offer some tips and solutions to improve your cast-offs.
  2. Go after the easy changes first by identifying items currently going into the trash that can be recycled, reused, or composted and moving them to the appropriate containers.
  3. Consider using reusable or compostable packaging, especially if you are a restaurant or retail business.
  4. Source natural or recycled materials when possible, from toilet paper and paper towels to letterhead stationery.
  5. Try composting. You can start small with a countertop composting container or try an anaerobic composting system which converts kitchen wastes into compost that can be reused on landscaping or in an employee garden. Some large grocery retailers have even composted enough material to generate methane as an alternative vehicle fuel.
  6. Eliminate single-use plastics in company break rooms, and replace paper cups, plates, and plasticware with reusable mugs, glasses, plates, and flatware.

And like the other methods of converting to an eco-friendly business, reducing waste product saves you money by lowering the cost of waste management and disposal.

Taking eco-friendly to the next level

Some companies take the eco-friendly business idea to new heights with more dedicated options, some of which are a higher monetary investment but they bring a higher level of reward too.

Start a bike-to-work program

In addition to on-site recycling and composting, Odell Brewing in Denver encourages employees to bike to work by providing ample bicycle parking, a bike maintenance station, and rent-a-bike stations. It’s beneficial for both the environment and employee health. They also host an annual “Bike to Work” party in their taproom.

Clif Bar, based in Emeryville, California, takes the program one step further with their Cool Commute program, offering employees compensation of up to $500 to purchase a commuter bike. Clif Bar also offers employees up to $1,500 a year in cash or rewards for eliminating a car from their commutes by cycling, walking, carpooling, or taking public transit.

Add a green roof

Green space of any kind can have a big impact on employee health and wellness, and the latest environmentally friendly place to add green space is looking up—to the roof. Even companies with limited space can reap the benefits of installing some green on top of their building.

Green roofs can be anything from a field of grass to a full-blown garden with a variety of plants and trees. Any way you build it, a green roof can help:

  • Build temperature control and reduce energy costs
  • Reduce ambient noise pollution
  • Reduce rain and gutter runoff into streets and sewers
  • Produce oxygen while removing air pollution particulate from the atmosphere

Green roofs can also save money by lasting more than twice as long as traditional roofing materials.

Get certified  

U.S. sustainability markets are expected to reach over $150 billion in sales by 2021, and last year, 47% of shoppers said they only wanted to do business with environmentally friendly businesses. Because of this, many businesses are saying they are eco-friendly, but how do consumers know for sure, and how can you help your business stand out from the crowd?

To help with these needs, there are a number of sustainability certifications to choose from. A certification is a promise that the business is complying with voluntary standards related to the environment, social, ethical, or food safety regulations. However not every certification is worth the (hopefully recycled) paper it’s printed on, so we put together a list of popular, accredited certifications you can pursue for your small business.

TRUE

One of the more popular certifications, the TRUE program for zero waste gives certificates to businesses and spaces that are resource efficient, cut greenhouse gases, and reduce litter and pollution, among other eco-friendly actions. There are seven minimum program requirements, including having an existing zero-waste program in place and being certified by an approved consultant.

LEED

Leading in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is a construction designation noting the environmental impact (or lack thereof) of the building’s construction and sustainability. Recognized globally, the LEED certification mandates improved indoor air quality, reduced pollution, reducing waste, and use of green materials in construction.

GBB

The Green Business Bureau (GBB) certification program is conducted entirely online—with no on-site visits or mandatory consultants—so it’s easy for smaller businesses to dip their toes into the eco-friendly business certification game. It’s also flexible and offers varying initiatives, allowing businesses to choose the plan that fits their business best.

SITES

The Sustainable SITES Initiative is all about land conservation and care. SITES certification applies to everything from national parks and streetscapes to the landscaping outside your building. It rates the spaces based on sustainability and performance in the environment, including reducing storm runoff, improving air quality, and providing a clean habitat for wildlife.

Overcoming the cons

Making changes that are eco-friendly can add up to quite a few expenses. Similar to smart banking investments, most of them will pay off in the long run by lowering energy bills, increasing employee morale and retention, and reducing waste disposal costs while increasing your brand loyalty among environmentally conscious customers. But what about the few hard costs that can’t be overcome?

Moji Igun of Blue Daisi Consulting frames these expenses as “investments in our collective future.” One of her clients, Scoop Marketplace in Seattle, is a zero-waste marketplace, using no single-use plastic bags, containers, or tools. Customers bring in their own reusable bags and containers, and the bulk items are sold by weight. Owner Stephanie Lentz knows that sometimes there is a choice between sustainability and profitability. “I always choose to live in alignment with my values,” said Lentz. “Even if it’s inconvenient and even if it’s not as profitable. It’s just a non-negotiable because that’s the only reason that I’m doing the business.”


While it might seem overwhelming or intimidating, it’s important to remember every little step counts, and taken together, they add up to big results. Sustainability isn’t just about the individual, but about the entire systems of business, and changes can come from both sides. Take a few of the easy steps we’ve recommended, and soon you’ll be an eco-friendly business, making an impact on the planet, your customers, and eventually your bottom line.

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