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High-impact, low-cost ways to green your office…and pad your budget.

By Judy Giannetto

Why go green? Why spend your business’s hard-earned cash to give a tree a hug, spruce up your air supply and patch up the ozone layer?

If you see the long-term survival of the planet as something more than a “fluffy kitten” type of issue, then the long-term survival of the planet is reason enough. If, on the other hand, you’re all business, no fluffy kittens, then you’ll likely need a bit more persuading. Let’s start with this...

Two key human aspects of the business marketplace determine success or failure: Your employees and your customers. Showing that you care about more than the bottom line sends an influential message of corporate altruism to your staff—a staff that is increasingly difficult to attract and retain. It inspires loyalty to the company, and allows employees to stand behind a corporate mission they can believe in and be proud of.  In fact, a June 2008 UC Santa Barbara survey of 759 MBA grads at 11 top business schools revealed that these up-and-coming professionals would consider taking a significant salary cut in order to work for a socially responsible employer.

On the customer side, corporate social responsibility is becoming less of a choice and more of a necessity. Seeing the devastating effects of climate change, customers are demanding that businesses play a key role in social responsibility and environmental sustainability. If you want to keep your customers, and win new ones, then you need to show them that you care about the planet. Take a cue from the biggies—Citibank, Wells Fargo, Adobe Systems Incorporated, Toyota…need we say more?

And there’s another benefit to going green—differentiation. Green companies stand out in the marketplace. They have an edge over the competition. They are newsworthy. They are self-fulfilling marketing machines.

And, because being eco-friendly means reducing waste and using less or alternative energy, green businesses may benefit from improved efficiencies and lower operating costs in the long run.

In pinpointing the most cost-effective strategies for going green, we not only looked at US practices, but also turned an eye across the pond, where the green movement is already well underway. And so, coupling what’s going on overseas with what’s going on at home, we give you our list of eight high-impact, low-cost green initiatives.

Use Less Water

Why should you care how much water your company uses? Because, says Envirowise, “[A]s a utility charge, any savings you make will be added directly to the bottom line. Although water is relatively cheap compared to energy, it can still equal as much as 1 percent of a business’s turnover, particularly when you consider the hidden costs associated with water usage, such as heating, pumping and treatment.”

Envirowise, which provides free government-supported environmental consultation, advice and documentation for UK businesses, goes on to say that, “By implementing no-cost and low-cost measures, it is possible for a site that has not considered its water use before to make savings of up to 30 percent of its water and effluent bills, and this could increase to 50 percent by investing in capital.”

The organization also estimates that, “A tap dripping two drops a second could waste nearly 10,000 liters of water in a year.”

To help to conserve water and save on your bill,

  • Ensure pipes are well insulated and regularly check equipment for possible leaks. 
  • Investigate opportunities for reusing process water. 
  • Consider alternative water sources such as rainwater or graywater (residential waste water from domestic processes such as dishwashing, laundry and bathing). 
  •  Invest in water-efficient fixtures and appliances such as automatic faucet valves and low-flow toilets. Although this equipment may cost more at the outset, it usually pays for itself relatively quickly.

Save on Energy

While installing solar panels and wind turbines takes a lot of cash and aggravation, there are some pretty basic ways to conserve the energy you’re currently using. Tips include:

  • If you’re not in the room, switch off the lights. Or, even better, install motion-detector lighting. Or, better yet, rearrange the office to maximize on all natural light sources.
  • If natural light isn’t an option, then wave goodbye to your incandescent lightbulbs and say hello to compact fluorescents (CFLs). CFLs are touted as saving more than $30 in electricity costs and 2,000 times their own weight in greenhouse gases. Another alternative is LED lighting, which has a long lifespan, while drawing very little electricity.
  • Don’t heat unused spaces such as storerooms, corridors and garages. Alternatively, schedule planned outages. When Adobe reduced the operating hours of its garage’s exhaust fans at a cost of $250, for example, it realized an annual savings of $98,000. 
  • Turn down or turn off the heating/air-conditioning when the building is not in use. 
  • Regularly inspect your heating and cooling equipment. Assess your building’s insulation and, if necessary, plug the drafts. Lack of maintenance can add to your bill significantly.

Green Your Technologies

Closely related to the issue of energy conservation is that of green technologies. And, in case you think, “We’re just fine with what we’ve got,” the following facts may prove you wrong.

“HP has seen a 120-percent increase worldwide in the number of inquiries connected to the environment since the last half of 2006. In 2005, the company saw $6 billion in requests for proposals that had some environmental element,” explained a recent ABC News article, “Tech Firms Tap Into the ‘Green’ Movement.” In the meantime, “IBM launched its ‘Project Green’ program in early May, committing $1 billion per year to increase the level of energy efficiency in the information technologies markets, and since then has been bombarded by customer requests.”

Whether you’re talking paperless technologies or energy-efficient servers, the movement is rapidly gaining speed.

Starting at the 101 level of greening technology, make a commitment to purchasing energy-saving equipment that carries the Energy Star seal. Energy Star laptops, for example, promise to use  90-percent less energy than their desktop counterparts. Also look into multifunction devices (MFDs), which combine copying, printing and faxing into one machine.

“The idea is, if you unplug several old, power-draining copiers, printers and faxes, and trade them in for fewer MFDs, you reap cash and carbon savings,” says Ted Samson, a senior analyst for the InfoWorld Test Center and author of the InfoWorld Sustainable IT weblog.

Which brings up a good point: As long as equipment is plugged in, it’s using up energy. At the very least, switch off computers, printers, fax machines, coffeemakers, etc. when not in use. Simply asking employees to switch off their monitors at the end of the work day can make a big difference.

As Samson explains, “For every PC and monitor left on at your company 24/7, you’re paying between $25 and $75 more per year on power bills.” He suggests investing in PC power management solutions from companies like 1E, BigFix, Kace, or Verdiem. “[Y]ou can set policies to ensure that machines automatically power down when they’re not in use and get woken up for patching, backup and so forth.”

Use Less Paper

While it costs more to buy paper than it does to dispose of it, says Envirowise Director Adrian Cole, paperless technologies can seem a bit intimidating to some companies, whether because of difficulties in managing technological change within the organization or in finding room in the budget for the initial expense.

However, there are non-technological strategies you can adopt to reduce paper waste in your office. They include specifying a monthly per-employee or department paper quota, launching an internal “think before you print” campaign (which is especially effective in reducing unnecessary email printing), and implementing a double-sided print policy, in which employees print on both sides of a sheet of paper before throwing it into the recycling bin.

“[T]he average employee wastes $85 worth of printer paper and ink each year through unnecessary printing,” says Samson.

To prove the point, Goldman Sachs estimates that it saved 14.9 million sheets or 178,800 pounds of paper last year through double-sided printing and enforcement of an electronic statement policy.

Alternatively, consider technologies specifically designed to reduce printing waste. Tools such as those offered by Equitrac “let admin set up policies that prevent users from, say, printing web pages in costlier color ink, or defaults certain types of documents to two-sided printing instead of one,” Samson explains. 

If going paperless is within the scope of reason for your company, then note that these technologies are now more affordable and easier to use. In the accounting arena, for example, CPAs use software to scan, manage and store tax returns, financial reports and correspondence, which means less drain on the raw materials used to manufacture paper, cost-cutting in areas such as office supplies and offsite document storage, and instant access to information. 

As a statement of just how popular paperless environments are becoming, on July 13 of this year, health insurance giant Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois added to its “Blue goes Green” program by committing to reduce the number of Explanation of Benefits (EOBs) it prints, and bundling most EOBs for weekly mailing. Its mission, says Blue Cross, is to save thousands of trees and gallons of water every month by reducing paper mailings.

What’s more, consider using either post-consumer or FSC paper products. Post-consumer recycled products tell you that the recycled content was used at least once before being recycled. Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) products indicate that any virgin wood used in the paper comes from sustainable, well-managed forests.

More on sustainable supplies…

Choose Earth-Friendly Products

Whether for the break room, the janitorial storeroom or the main office, make it your policy to buy recycled, compostable, reusable or biodegradable products.

For instance, trade in plastic plates, cups and cutlery for the reusable china and stainless steel variety. Or, buy biodegradable supplies such as cutlery primarily made from potatoes or wheat, which are fully biodegradable and compostable, or from polylactic acid (PLA), which is derived from agricultural crops such as corn. Similarly, Chinet plates are made from post-industrial waste from poly-coated milk carton production. Bagasse plates are made from sugar cane fiber that is a byproduct of the sugar-refining process. Both are biodegradable and compostable.

Furthermore, consider fitting your break room with a water-filtering system that can be hooked up to the existing water line. Encourage employees to refill from this source rather than buying plastic bottle after plastic bottle of water.

Moving onto janitorial supplies, couple recycled paper towels with non-toxic, biodegradable and/or agriculturally based products such as Orange Plus, which is an all-natural plant-based sanitizer and cleaner, and Window Cleaner, which utilizes vinegar and coconut-based soap. Both are offered by Earth-Friendly Products.

Taking the green movement to the main office, provide employees with remanufactured toner and inkjet cartridges; refillable pens and pencils made from recycled materials such as cardboard, plastic and newspaper; dual-powered calculators (solar and battery); and recycled post-its, binders, folders, indexes, report covers and copy paper, for starters. (For more ideas, take a look at Green Earth Office Supply and The Green Office.)

Wells Fargo has taken the concept of earth-friendly products a step further, practicing what it calls “responsible purchasing,” which means avoiding furniture made from exotic woods, using sustainable carpets and buying Energy Star-rated equipment. You can also make it a policy to donate rather than throw out equipment and supplies that you no longer need or that you’re upgrading, and to issue recycling bins to each employee for paper, cans, glass bottles, plastics, etc.

Scrap the Car

Aside from the environmental issues at hand, the current cost of a gallon of gas has caused a wave of sweaty-palmed panic to sweep the nation. Opting for alternatives to the daily car commute, then, is a win-win for both you and the environment. And, just maybe, there’s room in the budget to give employees some kind of monetary reward or other perk for their willingness to try something different. Back to Adobe for an example: The company offers secure bike parking and a monthly subsidy for employees who don’t drive to work.

Along the same lines, here are some strategies to test drive.

  • Support an employee carpooling program. 
  • Encourage employees to cycle to work.
  • Offer incentives for using public transportation—perhaps a subsidized travel card or a transit plan where employees set aside funds from their pre-tax salaries for commuting costs.
  • Make it a policy to purchase or rent hybrid cars. Goldman Sachs estimates that it saved 31,093 gallons of fuel by adding hybrid vehicles to its executive transportation fleets. Hertz and Enterprise also have added hybrids to their fleets—$68 million between 2007 and 2008 for Hertz alone. Another alternative is electric cars, which use energy stored in rechargeable battery packs and electric motors and motor controllers. Although there have been challenges, such as low battery life and the inconvenience of recharging, the technology has come a long way, and continues to improve.

Make Green Spaces Greener

If your office features outdoor landscaping, then ditch traditional turf in favor of native plants and grasses, which usually need  significantly less water to survive and flourish. By adding an automated irrigation system that adjusts its flow according to incoming weather data, you can also save big. Adobe did just that, investing $3,610 in the system and realizing a $9,100 annual saving.

An increasing number of companies also are incorporating live plants into their interior design. The reasons aren’t merely aesthetic. Rather, live plants act as air-cleaners, filtering out toxins emitted by modern office furniture and equipment. For example, since a lot of office furniture is constructed from particle board, and particle board contains formaldehyde, the EPA has identified this toxin as the most prevalent in office and hospital environments. Tests have shown, however, that plants such as the Dwarf Date Palm can remove 1385 micrograms of formaldehyde from the air per hour (source: www.livingsoil.co.uk). What’s more, plants decrease CO2 levels, which experts say can cause eye irritation and headaches.

Scientific trials in this area do make for some pretty interesting reading. Dr. Roger Ulrich of Texas A&M University found that study participants exhibited a higher level of problem-solving skill and innovative thinking in an environment that featured interior landscaping. And the results of a study conducted by Dr. Virginia Lohr at the Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture, Washington State University, contend that productivity increases as much as 12 percent in an environment that includes plants, and that stress levels are reduced. She also found that plants helped to increase the humidity level within an office environment to the ideal human comfort range of 30-60 percent.

On a more ambitious (and therefore costly) level, green roofs can qualify you for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, which rewards businesses with various tax benefits. These roofs not only reduce the urban heat island effect (where heat is absorbed and stored by a sea of black roofs), but they also promote improved energy efficiency by acting as an insulator. As the EPA explains, “On hot summer days, the surface temperature of a vegetated rooftop can be cooler than the air temperature, whereas the surface of a traditional rooftop can be up to 90°F (50°C) warmer.” Green roofs also “Absorb air pollution, collect airborne particulates, and store carbon. Protect underlying roof material by eliminating exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation and extreme daily temperature fluctuations. Serve as living environments that provide habitats for birds and other small animals. Offer an attractive alternative to traditional roofs, addressing growing concerns about urban quality of life. Reduce noise transfer from the outdoors.”

Spend Less Time in the Office

Ok, this one may seem a bit radical. But a recent Fast Company article, “All in a Day’s Work,“ made some compelling arguments for less time in the office. That, however, does not mean less work.

“The United States leads the world in two categories: Work and waste. American employees put in more hours and take fewer vacations than just about anyone else in the industrialized world, and our individual ecological ‘footprints’ are much larger….The more we work, the more we drive, the more energy we burn, the more Styrofoam to-go containers we use. At the end of the day, we’re so tired, we devour more takeout and TV, often falling asleep in front of the latter,” explained the article’s author, David Roberts.

In case you think, “So what?” Roberts puts a financial spin on the facts: “France, home of the 35-hour week, creates more GDP per work hour than the United States ($37 versus $34, as of 2003). Norway spanks us too ($39), and Norwegians work 26 percent fewer hours a year than Americans. It’s a myth of modern hypercapitalism that an overworked, sleep-deprived, stressed-out workforce is a necessity.”

If a shorter workweek is more a pipedream than a reality (and for most of us it is), consider a flexible work environment, where telecommuting is approved for workers whose jobs don’t require them to be physically present at all times. In a similar vein, rather than sanctioning business trips, look into video conferencing and telemeeting capabilities, such as Adobe Acrobat Connect, which is an alternative to in-person meetings. Air travel, incidentally, is one of the most carbon-intensive means of transportation.

There are many more strategies you can use to green your business environment. But, admittedly, some take a lot more cash and effort than others. Think of what it would take to commit to doing business with only green suppliers, for instance, or to re-engineer your production line in order to reduce waste.

The eight strategies outlined here, however, are intended as a viable departure point. Your ultimate destination? Sustainability and conservation—of both our ecosystems and our profits.





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