How to Build a Green Business
Published on February 19, 2008
In an age of inconvenient truths, global warming, and “green is good” messages in the mass media, Sustainability has become a popular catchphrase and the new marketing must-have for many companies. But what does it truly mean? And how can it apply to your business?
In this article, I’ll discuss how our web design and development company incorporated sustainability into our business model, and how other development companies can do the same—I’ll examine several areas where we applied our efforts:
- Environmental Sustainability: improving one’s environmental footprint;
- Social Sustainability: improving the community in which you work and sell your product; and
- Organizational Sustainability: achieving the right work-life balance for employees and shareholders.
How do you define sustainability?
Type “sustainability” into any search engine and you’ll find hundreds of sites dedicated to the topic—and just as many definitions, ranging from environmental sustainability (protecting or improving the earth’s climate, agriculture or forestry) to economic sustainability (operating a business in a manner that allows you to stay in business over time) to social sustainability (investing in people and services that create a basic framework for society.)
We define sustainability as “decreasing your negative impact on your immediate and extended surroundings, whether that is the earth, your family or community.”
What does it mean to me?
Buzzwords and marketing trends aside, sustainability makes sense. Everyone wants their business, their community, and their world to improve, and nowadays there are many ways to contribute to all three without taking a hit to your pocketbook or radically altering your lifestyle. The bottom line is that by living and working sustainably you can save money, provide tax write-offs, improve your brand reputation, and attract better clients and employees.
Sounds great, right? But what steps can web development companies, small business owners, and freelancers realistically take? Here are some of the things we have tried, as well as some ideas and tips from others in the industry.
Environmental Sustainability: It’s Easy Being Green
We’re based in Santa Barbara, home to the nation’s first Earth Day festival, so perhaps it is no surprise that our company, employees, and clients are very open to ideas for reducing their environmental impact. Some of our first initiatives included:
- Recycle what you use: Most cities or counties should have a recycling program, whether it’s paper, aluminum, plastic, or glass. You may need to call your local government agencies to find out, or ask your landlord to participate. In addition, we recycle electronic and office products, return printer and ink cartridges to the manufacturer, and donate equipment to charity.
- Reduce what you use: Yes, this means don’t print emails. We avoid printing hard copies in general, unless absolutely necessary—instead we do as much of our work digitally or electronically as possible. We also use duplex printers for dual-sided printing when necessary, and turn off equipment when not in use. This means turning off not just the equipment or appliance itself, but the surge protectors as well to avoid phantom power usage. In the future, we hope to replace our light bulbs with energy-saving bulbs (when available for the kind of lighting in our office) and invest in more Energy Star equipment.
- Use green products: Our marketing and collateral materials are printed on recycled paper using soy-based ink. When designing and laying out collateral, we also try to ensure the content has a long lifecycle, so that we aren’t constantly updating and reprinting materials. In terms of physical products we use in the office, we have biodegradable “corn” cups or “potato” cutlery for the break room, as well as green cleaning supplies (Try Seventh Generation’s line of products, now available even in your local supermarket. Or Target, one of several chains that carry “Method” biodegradable cleaning supplies.)
- Encourage alternative forms of commuting: Whether cycling, carpooling or telecommuting, we encourage employees to save as much energy and money as possible when getting to and from work. Offering flexible work hours, the option to telecommute on occasion, hosting web-based conferences and client meetings, and providing a space for employees to exchange commuting information, such as discussion boards or blogs, can encourage this. In addition, some communities have their own regional initiatives, like the Santa Barbara ‘Bike to Work’ Week.
- Revamp your product line: Perhaps the greatest change we have made in our environmental impact was the launch of a new product, Intervals, a web-hosted software for time and task management. We started Intervals as an in-house service and alternative to Microsoft Project, which required continual shipments of CDs, packaging, and hardware upgrades. In addition to the wasted packaging, shipping increases carbon emissions—and so, in our desire to streamline and green our own business operations, our very business model changed! We effectively expanded from being just a web design firm to a provider of online applications. Web-hosted software appealed to us because of its many green aspects. For example, manufacturing, packaging, and shipping production and costs become obsolete, as do the associated carbon emissions. While it’s true that computers and the internet still require energy, the impact is significantly lower. More importantly however, as a time and project management system, Intervals has had an impact not only on our business operations but that of our customers, multiplying the positive effects of helping businesses drastically reduce their paper usage and output.
Environmental Sustainability: Beyond Reduce, Reuse and Recycle
Reusing, recycling, and reducing can help save the earth, but a number of new services cater to companies that want to do even more for the environment. Luckily, they don’t all come with a high price tag. Some ideas include:
- Switch to green energy: There are number of alternative energy providers on the market today whose fees are not very different from those of your local fossil-fuel power plant. Sourceguides offers a comprehensive listing of renewable energy companies by state and worldwide. There is also the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy website.
- Build green: If your business is large enough to own or build your own office space, you can make a significant impact on the environment, your local community, and your own operating expenses by greening your existing building or building green from scratch. See the U.S. Green Building Council website for more information.
- Market responsibly: Green marketing can encompass anything from reducing print and increasing online outreach, to working with publishers to reduce your carbon output, to hiring a firm that specializes in the field. It is important, however, to be able to tell the difference between greenwashing (talking the talk but not walking the walk) and true responsible marketing. If you are concerned that someone might be trying to greenwash their services, there are a number of reputable non-profits and non-governmental organizations that review and certify these services, such as Green-e and The Carbon Fund. Other reliable sources include the Federal Trade Commissions Environmental Marketing Guides and trade magazines such as GreenBiz.
- Offset your carbon output: For those who want to do more, as well as those who can’t find practical ways to reduce their output, purchasing carbon offsets—services that reduce or capture CO2 emissions—are another option. Offsets often entail planting trees, investing in renewable energy, or methane capture. A concept mired in controversy (some refer to it as “paying to pollute”), it nevertheless can be a great way of compensating for those high-energy, but unavoidable, needs such as airplane travel.
Environmental Sustainability: Questions & Quick Tips
Here are some questions to ask yourself to get started.
- What is my carbon footprint? Find out online with tools like Zerofootprint and Carbon Footprint.
- What can I use less of?
- What can’t I use less of, and are there greener/more affordable options?
- What can I reuse or fix instead of throwing away?
- What can I recycle?
- Do I have any clients, investors or partners who would support my company/help share the cost of green initiatives?
- Are there any governmental or non-profit organizations that will help support my green initiatives, either through supplies, services or tax incentives? Check out the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency for information on incentives in your area.
Social Sustainability: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Contributing to the community in which you work can have far-reaching business effects, from positive brand recognition, to free networking and marketing, to a broader, better talent pool. Plus, it just makes for a better place to work and live. Here are some of the initiatives that we have undertaken:
- Donate your money and/or time: While some companies or individuals may not be able to donate large chunks of money or time, a small donation can go a long way, especially if you partner with similar companies or non-profits to improve the impact or your donation. At Pelago, we signed up for 1% for the Planet, a global group of more than 800 companies who donate 1% of their sales to environmental organizations.
- Start your own initiative: One of the most exciting projects we’ve undertaken recently resulted from the happy coincidence of our desire to get rid of old computers responsibly and the involvement of some of our staff in local children’s groups. As a result, we are now starting Ubuntu for Kids, a program to revive outmoded or excess computers with a fresh install of Ubuntu Linux—including Edubuntu, an educational package—and donate them to local students. The response from the community, employees, and clients has been overwhelming. Everyone’s been eager to see their old computer go to a good cause.
- Support your employee’s interests: We have found that encouraging our employees to get involved in their own philanthropic initiatives—whether by donating company money or services, or giving them flexible working hours to support their volunteering efforts—has had broad-reaching effects. It’s not easy to get an entire company behind an initiative, but encouraging our employees to recommend and drive philanthropic ventures has resulted in happier employees and a more positive relationship with our community. While not every company or individual may be able to afford monetary donations, there’s plenty you can do on a smaller level that still has a big impact.
- Do pro bono work: Many freelancers and design/development companies have a great resource at their fingertips: their skills. Donating some time to a local non-profit or educational institution to either help with design or development work or train their staff is a good way to connect with the community while opening new doors to potential clients or employees.
- Mentor or offer internships: Work with a local school to offer internships or part-time positions to local students. This helps improve the local talent pool while introducing you to new ideas and potential employees.
- Partner with another freelancer or company on philanthropic ventures: If you don’t have the time or resources to commit to regular volunteer work, working with a company or another freelancer who has similar interests can double your impact while leaving you with more flexibility.
Social Sustainability: Questions & Quick Tips
Here are some questions to help identify areas of focus for social sustainability.
- What’s going on outside my office? How can I contribute to that?
- What organizations do I care about? How can I help them?
- Where is my time going? (While trying to avoid a shameless plug for our time-tracking software, having a good idea of how you or your company spend time could help identify areas where you can devote extra time to philanthropic or community ventures.)
Organizational Sustainability: Your Other Family
Achieving the right work-life balance leaves both employees and company owners happy. At Pelago, we place a lot of importance on work-life balance—lifestyle is the powerful but quiet drive behind what we do, and we believe in a clear separation of work and free time. We have encouraged this with our staff in a number of ways:
- Conduct traditional meetings in non-traditional settings: Our Monday morning meetings, where we discuss upcoming tasks and projects, take place at the local diner. We also close the office early one Friday a month to have a staff happy hour. If off-site meetings are impossible, consider catering meetings with different themes or foods, especially if they’re organic or locally sourced.
- Schedule time for company outings: Jokes about the “corporate retreat” are infamous in business environments, but there is a reason they have become popular from three-person firms to Fortune 500 companies. The opportunity to meet in a different setting can not only create better working relationships, but also lead to new ideas about operations and services for the organization. In addition to meetings outside the office, we also have a yearly hiking expedition and other company events.
- Recognize external commitments: Be they family, volunteer, or education-related, supporting your staff’s personal priorities and commitments—and possibly some financial support in the form of tuition reimbursement, childcare subsidies, or sponsorship of local non-profit organizations—leads to a more committed and happier workforce, not to mention stronger overall productivity.
- Support independent projects and personal development through tuition reimbursement or additional career training, or time-off for school or volunteer efforts.
- Support family life through on-site daycare, reimbursements for family benefits, or recognition of school holidays or events. This type of support means a lot to employees with family commitments.
- Improve diversity: Whether encouraging gender, race, culture, and age diversity in a large company, or showing your commitment to diversity through your company’s products (for example, ensuring the designs and websites you produce are accessible to a variety of people), all of this sends a powerful message to the public about your organization and your adaptability and accessibility to an increasingly global market.
- Increase dialogue: Within multi-person organizations, this could include company feedback meetings or 360-degree evaluations. Even with a one-person shop, opportunities for clients or potential clients to provide feedback could be extremely valuable, especially if you focus the discussions on your new green initiatives, products, and services.
- Give yourself more “me” time: In a company of one, sometimes it is easy to forget that you should be investing in your greatest resource: you. Devote time to your personal development, be it professional or interests outside the workplace.
Organizational Sustainability: Questions & Quick Tips
Here are some questions to ask yourself to get started.
- What is my company’s culture? What do we believe in, as a business?
- What kind of people work here, what do they care about? How can my business help them enrich their lifestyle?
- How can I attract more of the kinds of people we like to work with?
- If I cannot afford too many benefits for my staff, what else can I do to make their working environment enjoyable, and help them feel passionate about their employer?
- How can I get our clients, partners, and other external stakeholders involved in helping us grow and improve as a business?
At Pelago we have done a lot to improve our impact and relationship with our community, but we recognize that there is always more you can do. We also recognize that it takes time and resources. You don’t have to do everything overnight—it has taken us several years to evolve to a place where we could support so many different initiatives. We are now starting to see the results of our efforts: less strain on our local environment as well as our expenses, happier employees, a positive work and community environment, and satisfied customers inspired not only to sign up with us as new clients, but also to join us in implementing their own sustainability initiatives.
What we remind ourselves, our clients, and anyone who asks us about our sustainability initiatives, is that just one change can make a difference. A lot of small companies and individuals think they can’t afford to do much. I hope I’ve convinced you otherwise.
John Reeve works for Pelago holds a BS in Graphic Design and a minor in Computer Science from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. When he’s not working or spending time with his wife and brand new baby boy, you’ll find John hiking the local mountains or pedaling around town on his bike.