Greening Your Business

UPDATED: August 26, 2008
PUBLISHED: August 26, 2008

A surprising thing happened after David Bach moved his family into New York City’s first green residential tower, The Solaire, which features views of the Hudson River, filtered fresh air pumped into each apartment and rooftop solar panels that prompted a tour by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

After he and his family moved in, Bach’s allergies went away. His little boy’s asthma seemingly vanished. “It was,” says Bach, author of The Automatic Millionaire: A Powerful One-Step Plan to Live and Finish Rich and other personal finance books, “like a total miracle.”

That realization propelled Bach to become more environmentally conscious personally. He ditched his silver Range Rover SUV in favor of a car that uses one-fifth as much gas, a silver Toyota Prius. That, in turn, sparked him to green his business.

He canceled the office bottled-water contract in favor of filtered water, saving $1,000 a year. Paper use dropped by half after he stopped his habit of printing all of his e-mail and encouraged his five employees to take steps to use less paper. Against his advisors’ advice, he detoured from traditional personal finance for his latest best-selling book, Go Green, Live Rich: 50 Simple Ways to Save the Earth and Get Rich Trying. The book suggests 50 ways to go green and potentially save money, including: teleconferencing instead of jumping on a fuel-guzzling plane for a meeting, telecommuting, turning computers to the “hibernate” setting to save energy, carpooling or biking to work at least weekly, and unplugging unused electronics.

“My advisors told me I was making a mistake going into this topic, but it was really a passion. It’s really changed what I do today,” says Bach, who since has joined the board of a company that markets and distributes biodegradable, recycled plastic bags. “My business is now growing because I’m going into the environment.”

He isn’t alone. Smart companies are finding that greening their businesses can help them build a competitive advantage as energy costs rise and consumer demand for all things green grows. “From a business point of view, a focus on the environment is no longer optional. Virtually every company and every industry face environmental issues that are business imperatives,” says Daniel C. Esty, co-author with Andrew S. Winston of Green to Gold: How Smart Companies Use Environmental Strategy to Innovate, Create Value, and Build Competitive Advantage.

Greening isn’t always a win-win; experts advise that businesses must be wise about how they go about it. They offer these tips:


Take Stock of Your Business

“Every business should spend some time thinking about its environmental footprint,” Esty says. “How do you, as a business, affect the whole set of environmental issues that are out there?” Consider how much energy and water your business uses. How can you trim costs by using less?

Example: At the boutique Orchard Garden Hotel in San Francisco—California’s first green hotel certified by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program (LEED)—a guest room key-card energycontrol system is expected to trim energy use by 20 percent. Guests must insert a key card into a wall slot to turn on lights or air conditioning. When the card is removed, all power in the room turns off, except for an outlet to charge laptops and cell phones. So the lodging adds to its green credentials— AND saves money.

Next, consider how much water pollution, air pollution, packaging, greenhouse-gas emissions and waste your business generates, even through such ordinary, everyday routines as providing shopping bags or using chemical cleaners that go down the sink and eventually reach local waterways. How can you reduce your environmental impact and save costs?

Example: Over the past year, retailer IKEA’s U.S. stores used 92 percent fewer plastic shopping bags—saving more than 30 million bags—after the chain’s “ban the plastic bag” campaign introduced a 5-cent charge for each bag and encouraged customers to bring reusable bags. IKEA has ceased offering plastic bags outright.

“A lot of things you can do, you can figure out by looking at your checkbook,” says Joel Makower, executive editor of “So much of what you do to green your business depends on the things you pay for, period. That includes what you pay to throw things away. Look at how much paper you’re using. How many supplies you’re buying.” At his 13-employee company, Greener World Media in Oakland, Calif., pretty much everybody walks, bicycles or takes public transportation to work. “We rarely turn on the lights in our office because we have great windows. It takes us about six weeks to go through a ream—500 sheets of paper. In other words, our impact is minimal,” Makower says, “But the minute I get onto a plane, which I do almost every week, none of that means anything, from an environmental perspective.” (He buys carbon offsets to compensate for the greenhouse gas emissions at

One way to figure out how much energy your company uses (and greenhouse gases it generates) is to turn to online calculators such as: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Web site,


Get Efficient

An easy first step: Ask your local utility company to do an energy audit of your business (and home, even) to find ways to conserve. Someone will come out to do a survey and provide information about any known rebates that may defray costs of more-efficient technologies or appliances. Esty points out that Dow Chemical saved money simply by setting employees’ computers to shut down when not in use. FedEx Kinko’s, according to his book, switched nearly all of its 1,000 stores to energy-efficient lighting and motion sensors that turn off when no one is around. The company spent $3,000 to $10,000 per store and earned it back in energy savings in a year to 18 months.

Clyde Butcher, a celebrated professional nature photographer who has been called the Ansel Adams of the Everglades, was glad when his electricity bill in sun-baked Southern Florida fell by $30 a month after installing solar panels. But Butcher was thrilled when the state refunded him 50 percent of his $18,000 solar investment, and he used it to buy 100 long-life LED lights with interchangeable bulbs. Patented by Gary Mart Jr. of Tramco Supply in Naples, Fla., the bulbs provide superior-quality lighting for the track lights that are trained onto his nearly wall-size nature photographs at his Big Cypress Gallery in Ochopee, Fla.

With installation of the new lights, Butcher’s electric bill dropped by 60 percent, to $150. “My first electrical bill, I saved $210,” he says. “I’m not only saving electricity from the bulbs, I’m also saving electricity from the air conditioning, so it’s a double deal.” His former 50-watt halogen bulbs burned hot, unlike the special 7-watt bulbs, which also are designed to last about 10 years (50,000 to 80,000 hours). “I’ll save $50,000 to $75,000 with a $5,000 investment,” Butcher says. “That’s not a bad business decision.”

Despite countless green tips suggesting switching to compact fluorescent bulbs, the fact is that while they’re better than ordinary incandescent bulbs, their mercury content makes them difficult to recycle and they’re not cutting-edge technology, says Denis Hayes, who formerly directed the federal government’s Solar Energy Research Institute and served as an engineering professor at Stanford University. He is most famous for coordinating the nation’s first Earth Day.

“Any place where you can use LEDs, that’s clearly the technology of the future,” says Hayes, now CEO of the Bullitt Foundation in Seattle and a board member of the Energy Foundation.

Your goal, in short: Become more efficient. Need more light in a room or hallway? Consider a skylight or solar tube. They provide light naturally, whereas adding electrical lights would pad utility bills for years to come, Hayes says. If you have a refrigerated cooler— such as glass cases seen at florist shops—install a heat mirror to refl ect the infrared light to better keep cool air in and the store’s warmth out. It costs more money than regular glass, Hayes says, but you make the investment once and it lasts forever, saving utility costs along the way.


Give Your Products A Green Dimension

It isn’t enough to improve energy efficiency. Think about the products you’re selling, Esty says, and whether customers perceive them as green. “There’s a real branding opportunity,” he says, “to be seen as a business that has the environment in its sights and attention.”

Jeff Barry’s Boston Organics business provides home delivery of organic fruits and vegetables. That can be tough to accomplish in congested neighborhoods such as Boston’s North End, with its narrow streets, some one-way.

So customers in such neighborhoods get their veggies delivered via an unusual courier service—a human-powered “truck” pedaled through the streets by Wenzday Jane, general manager of the New Amsterdam Project of Cambridge, Mass., itself a green business chartered in 2006 to replace internal combustion engines with human-powered vehicles to provide stronger, self-reliant communities. “Clearly, having deliveries done by bike is within our mission,” says Barry, who recommends it despite paying a premium.

James Lionette, owner of Lionette’s, a Boston purveyor of sustainable foods such as grassfed beef, hires Jane to deliver catered meals to downtown Boston soirées and groceries to farther-flung neighborhoods, and credits her for growing his business. “I wouldn’t have a way to do it otherwise,” says Lionette, who scrupulously tries to make all aspects of his business sustainable.

Some passersby smile as Jane pedals about 600 pounds of goods through the streets, even in snow. “There’s no pollution. There’s no NOISE pollution, you know? It’s a more-friendly vehicle,” says Jane, whose Cycles Maximus brand cargo tricycle has an electric power-assist to help her get started, then she takes over the pedal action. “The parking is much easier. We can navigate through smaller alleys, bike lanes, bike paths, and get through traffic jams a little bit easier than a car or a van. Quite often, we can do our jobs faster.”


Don’t Claim To Be Green Until You Are

Here’s a term to be familiar with: greenwashing,. “It’s really important that you not simply say ‘we’re green,’ ” Esty says. “Underpin your claims of environmental sensibility with real substance. There’s a whole world of self-appointed watchdogs waiting to unmask companies who aren’t really green.” which claims to be the world’s first online, interactive forum that lets consumers evaluate ads making green claims, and some resources include Consumers Union which uncovers the meaning of 100 “green” product labels at

Confounding matters is there isn’t a standard definition for “green” in most fields. Businesses like the Green Business Bureau provide green business certifications.

On the bright side, consumers and environmentalists on the whole are going to respond well to greening efforts. Greening a business can be difficult, as Esty’s book describes. But sustainability is an undeniable trend. Smart companies are heeding the call.

As Joel Makower of sees it: “This is a bell that you can’t unring. Once companies squeeze out the inefficiency and the waste and the toxicity and ineffi ciency of business as usual, they’re not going to go back if oil prices were to drop. These are fundamental changes that are here to stay.”