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How to Become an Environmentally Friendly Company (Earth Day 2019)

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Today is Earth Day, a day when millions of people come together to highlight important environmental issues and demand that governments, businesses and people do far more to care for our shared environment.

Earth Day website
Earth Day website

Marking the annual event along with an estimated one billion other people around the world is an important step for any business to take, and we covered why and how to do that in last year’s article:

But it’s also important for environmentally friendly companies to go beyond the annual observance and be environmentally friendly all year round. In this tutorial, we’ll cover what it means for a company to be environmentally friendly, why you should care about it, and some steps you can take to become a more environmentally friendly business.

What Does Being Environmentally Friendly Mean?

The pioneering environmentalist Rachel Carson famously wrote:

“In nature, nothing exists alone.”

As human beings, we're part of nature, and everything we do has an effect on our environment. But we've forgotten that simple fact because for generations, human development has come largely through taming or conquering nature: draining swamps, clearing forests, hunting dangerous predators, and so on. The earth was so big and its resources so abundant that the effect of human activity seemed negligible.

That history informed the development of traditional economic theory, in which nature’s resources can be taken freely, and it can be polluted at no cost. That’s a big part of why we’re in the state we’re in.

But now, things have changed. We're pushing against the earth’s limits in every direction, and the years of consequence-free plunder of nature are over. 

Planetary boundaries
We're exceeding our planetary boundaries. (Image source: Wikipedia)

An environmentally friendly business recognises this fundamental change and chooses to adopt a different approach, more in tune with the new reality in which we find ourselves in the 21st century. 

An environmentally friendly business recognises that it's got an impact on the natural world and tries to minimise that impact. We’ll go through some examples of what that looks like later on, but here are a few possibilities:

  • using energy more efficiently 
  • reducing packaging and waste
  • supporting environmental causes
  • reducing pollution
  • switching to clean energy

No business is perfect, of course, and you can start with small initiatives in a few areas before dealing with others. But also keep in mind that customers are wary of “greenwash”, the practice in which companies claim to be environmentally friendly for PR purposes while actually engaging in unsustainable business practices. If your business model involves selling disposable products with lots of unnecessary plastic packaging, nobody’s going to be very impressed if you recycle some paper in your head office.

The bottom line: environmentally friendly companies aim to be truly sustainable in all areas. You don’t have to get to that point right away, but you do need to have that as your goal and be making genuine efforts to reach it.

Why Should Your Company Be Environmentally Friendly?

As we discussed in the previous section, there are so many areas—from climate change to plastic pollution, species extinction and many others—in which the human impact on the environment has already reached critical levels and is doing serious harm. To reverse this, we need to act now and act fast.

Businesses can choose what role they want to play. Do you want to be part of the solution to our pressing environmental problems? Or do you want to hold on to wasteful or harmful business practices for as long as you can, until compelled by government regulation to abandon them?

There are several advantages to taking the lead and becoming a truly environmentally friendly business. 

1. Brand Reputation

Many of your customers care deeply about the environment and increasing numbers of them are prepared to vote with their wallets. The KPMG Annual Retail Survey 2018 found “17.6% of consumers stating that sustainability factored in their preferred delivery selection” and that “more than half of consumers would pay more for a product that came in environmentally friendly packaging.” 

Taking a lead in producing environmentally friendly products or green business practices can attract a new, loyal base of customers and improve your brand reputation immensely. 

For example, clothing retailer Patagonia is bold in its commitment to environmentalism. As well as examining its own supply chain to reduce the adverse social and environmental impacts of its products, the company gets involved in environmental activism, donates at least 1% of sales or 10% of pre-tax profits to environmental groups, and encourages its customers to repair, reuse, or recycle old garments. 

Patagonia website
Patagonia's environmental initiatives

Patagonia has been very successful, and executives have said that its environmental practices are a key part of that success.

2. Cost Savings

As we discussed earlier, there are some cases in which environmental and economic costs aren't aligned. But there are others in which they are, and environmentally friendly companies can make easy cost savings by reducing waste.

For example, energy efficiency can be a quick win for your business as well as the environment. Simply switching to more efficient lighting, heating or cooling systems can generate thousands of dollars in annual cost savings. Of course, there’s an upfront cost to consider as well, but energy efficiency often pays off over time. See this tutorial for more details:

Other green initiatives can also save you money. Reducing unnecessary plastic packaging on your products, for example, is good for the environment, but it'll also save you money.

3. Sustainability

Sustainability is usually used in environmentalism to mean behaving in a way that can be sustained for the long term. As the EPA puts it:

“To pursue sustainability is to create and maintain the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony to support present and future generations.”

In the business world, many people think in the short term: what will the profits be like this year, or this quarter? How can we save money or generate revenue right now?

But you probably want your business to be around for the long term too. So long-term sustainability is an important goal. Things like investing in energy-efficient equipment or reducing pollution may have an upfront cost in the short term, but they'll put your business on a more sustainable footing for the long term.

How to Be an Environmentally Friendly Business

So how can you become an environmentally friendly business? The specific actions you take will depend on your business type, and we covered some useful options here:

So, in this section, instead of listing actions to take, we’re going to focus on the process to follow. This will help you to be comprehensive and strategic in your approach, with the goal of being a truly environmentally friendly company, instead of just a firm with a few green initiatives.

1. Audit Yourself

Start by getting a holistic picture of your current environmental practices. You can hire a third-party company to do this if you've got the budget—their expertise can be vital in helping you identify areas for improvement. But if you’re a small firm with a limited budget, then you can try to do it yourself.

Go through all of your offices or factories and look at your processes and how they could be made more efficient and eco-friendly. Ask yourself questions like:

  • How does our energy usage compare with industry averages, and how could we lower it?
  • Could we switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy?
  • How can we reduce the need for employees to travel, and/or encourage them to use environmentally friendly transport?
  • What about our suppliers or other businesses we partner with? What are their environmental practices like, and can we switch to more eco-friendly alternatives?
  • Throughout every business process, how can we reduce, reuse, and/or recycle?

2. Make a Plan

Once you’ve completed the assessment of your current state of business, then put together a plan to become more environmentally friendly.

This stage will involve researching the practicalities and costs of dealing with the issues you raised in the previous step, as well as the possible impact you could achieve.

Armed with this data, you can then prioritise which initiatives you’re going to take action on. Start with something relatively simple, where you can achieve a tangible improvement with little time or money. Then you can move on to the more complex items, starting with those that have high impact and whose costs you can afford.

Put together a timeline and assign a dedicated budget to environmental initiatives, setting it at a level you can sustain as a business. Remember that many of these initiatives will pay off in the long run, either directly through cost savings or indirectly through public support and enhanced reputation leading to higher revenue, but that may take time.

3. Take Action

Now start taking action on the items from your list. Depending on the size of your business and the scope of the work, you may want to assign it all to a particular manager or team to oversee, or in a small firm you may handle it all yourself.

Whichever way you do it, make sure that your environmental goals are part of your main business goals, so that they're taken seriously. Businesses tend to accomplish what they measure, and you need to make sure you’re measuring your progress towards becoming environmentally friendly and holding yourself and your team fully accountable.

For more on setting and meeting your goals, see:

4. Review and Adapt

As you tick each item off the list, review your progress and adapt if necessary. Your business may be changing and growing at the same time, and your priorities may change.

For example, you may find yourself with higher than expected profit, so that you can accomplish a high-impact, but high-cost, item earlier than you thought. Or you may launch a new product or open a new location that requires you to take account of a whole new set of environmental considerations.

Adapt your plan as you go, and make sure that environmental considerations are part of all your other business planning from now on. Then keep making progress towards being as environmentally friendly as possible in all aspects of your business.

How Employees Can Help

This tutorial has been mostly aimed at what business owners can do to make their companies more environmentally friendly. But what if you don’t own the company or have direct decision-making power? What if you’re an employee who wants to make a positive change at work? Here are some things you can do.

1. Start an Employee Network

Trying to change your company’s direction on your own is going to be tough, especially if it’s a larger firm.

The good news is that you’re almost certainly not the only person in your workplace who cares about the environment. So why not pool resources by setting up an employee network? This is a group that meets on a regular basis to plan awareness-raising events, advocate for change within the company, and contribute to the community.

For example, Bank of America’s My Environment® employee program has more than 19,000 employee members in 32 countries, doing everything from reducing energy usage to collecting debris from the natural environment.

Your network will probably be smaller, at least at the start, but you can still achieve a lot by teaming up with like-minded people.

2. Plan Earth Day Events and Other Events

Once you’ve set up the employee network, you can start planning events to raise awareness of green issues within the company.

For example, you could arrange events to celebrate Earth Day each year. Or you could contact local environmental groups and charities and look for ways to partner with them in an event like rallying employees to help clean up a local beach or park.

3. Start Eco-Friendly Programs

You don’t have to wait for your employer to take action on the environment: you can make small-scale changes to your own working conditions yourself.

For example, you could:

  • Start a recycling program in your office. 
  • Put up a poster by the printer encouraging people to save paper by only printing when necessary and printing double-sided where possible.
  • Encourage your coworkers to save energy by powering down their computers and monitors when not in use.
  • Collect empty ink and toner cartridges and send them for recycling.
  • Ask the cafeteria to avoid using unnecessary disposable items like plastic straws and other packaging.

These are just a few ideas—there are plenty more things you can do, and the specifics will depend on the type of business you work in. The point is to do some simple, quick things that you can take action on without needing management approval or investment.

4. Put the Case to Your Managers

Once you’ve organised some successful events and workplace programs, approach your managers to try to persuade them to adopt larger-scale initiatives like the ones covered in the previous section.

Point to the participation rates in the Earth Day events and programs you’ve organised to show that this is important to many employees, not just you and your network. Also look for research on customers, especially in your industry, to show that being environmentally friendly is important to them too. And if your workplace programs have generated any cost savings (reduced paper usage, lower energy costs, etc.), then be sure to point that out too.

View it like a proposal you might make for a new project at work. Be professional and do your research to make a compelling case. Then be specific in what you ask for. Starting with something small and easily achievable is often a good idea, and when it’s successful, you can push to move on to larger and more costly initiatives.

Celebrate Earth Day by Going Green!

In this tutorial, you’ve learned how to become an environmentally friendly company. You’ve discovered what it means to go green and why you should do it, and you’ve picked up some actionable ideas for putting it into practice, whether you’re a business owner or an employee. 

Visit the Earth Day website for more ideas on what you can do to be more environmentally friendly in your business—not just today, but all year round.

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