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Getting Started on Greening Your Business

Filed under Going Green. Fact checked on May 24, 2012.

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Greening a business doesn't have to be a major or costly undertaking. There are numerous steps a small business owner can take that cost little or nothing to implement, and may generate a financial benefit. Setting goals, creating a plan to implement those goals, and monitoring the results of the plan are invaluable first steps on the road to a green business.

When some small business owners think of going green, they might envision hours spent on the roof installing solar panels or other similarly complicated (and expensive) projects. However, small steps can bring about big benefits.

Starting small in this context means making only a couple of simple changes. Taking this approach has two advantages. First, of course, small projects are generally easier to implement than larger scale projects. If you have some hesitation about going green, easy implementation might make the difference in clearing that hurdle. Second--and this advantage shouldn't be underestimated--benefits are easier to track.

Start Small, Track the Benefits

Being able to track the benefits early in the process is particularly important in helping you determine if going green makes sense for you. To that end, it makes sense to adopt only a couple of initiatives, even if there are many simple ones that can be adopted.

Suppose that you adopt several green initiatives because they are all easy to implement. Suppose further that you determine after a period of time that you are not getting any financial benefit from the changes you made. When deciding what to do next, you're in a tough spot if you can't individually measure the initiatives you adopted. If all the initiatives you adopted but one was saving you money, your best option would be to jettison the one and keep the others. But if you've adopted them all simultaneously, you might not be able to identify which one is at fault.

As a result, it's usually a better idea to start small, with just a couple of changes. Evaluate those changes after a period of time. If they prove worthwhile, add a couple of more and repeat the process. By adopting green initiatives in stages, you should be better able to build a green business that works best for you.


By no means is the suggestion to start small meant to discourage you from thinking big and taking on larger scale projects. If you intend to undertake a more ambitious approach to going green, perhaps the best place for you to start is with an energy audit that would evaluate your current energy use and recommend changes.

Setting Green Goals for Your Business

The first step in getting started with a new green plan is to set your goals. For most small business owners, the goal is rather simple: to save money. Even if everyone's goal is to save money, however, there are additional steps we need to take before our goals are properly set.

First, we need to be more specific with our money-saving goal. How much do we want to save? If we undertake green initiatives that require effort and discipline on our part, only to discover that we've reduced annual energy costs by $5, is that considered a success? We saved money, didn't we? But some may conclude that the extra effort and diligence required to generate the $5 savings wasn't worth it. So, clearly, we need a better goal than simply saving money.

Second, in setting our goal, we need to consider the longer term. With some green initiatives, we might not see any benefits during the first measurement period. If we simply set a goal of saving money, we risk abandoning an initiative after that first measurement period if we aren't able to show any cost savings. As a result, perhaps we should consider goals that change or grow over time, so that we start with more modest goals for the first period of time and increase our expectations of savings in subsequent periods.

In considering the longer term, the first question is: What would be considered an appropriate time for our first period of measurement? For most initiatives, at least of the variety that we are talking about in starting small, the appropriate measurement period will be one year. If we start with something smaller, perhaps a month or a quarter, we risk skewing the results because there probably won't be enough to data at that point to make a fair judgment about the success or failure of our green initiative. We generally need a full year in order to measure our goals adequately.

Consequently, we can make the following assumptions about our goal setting:

  • We are going to limit the measurement period to one year for most initiatives.
  • For many initiatives, we will simply repeat the annual measurement period, so that we'll keep measuring annually. For other more ambitious projects, we may adopt a three- or five-year goal.
  • We are going to put specific number targets to our goals, such as to reduce energy consumption by five percent or to reduce the waste we generate by five percent.
  • We are going to consider staggering our goals, so that we may begin with more modest goals for the first year, that then become more ambitious in later years.

Building a Plan to Green Your Business

Now that we have some ideas about goals, it's time to put together a plan for your small business. Recommending a plan that would fit all small businesses is, of course, impossible. What works for a small shop with several employees might be quite different from what works for a home-based business. Thus, feel free to modify the suggestions that follow to meet your particular business needs.

To begin, let's target two areas that affect just about every small business: electricity use and waste.

Reducing Electricity Costs

On the electricity side, our goal will be to reduce our energy costs. The EPA's ENERGY STAR program has set a goal of reducing commercial and industrial energy costs by 10 percent. Let's use that as our long-term goal. We'll set a more modest goal, however, of a five percent reduction in our electric bill for the first year and an additional five percent for the second year.

There are any number of steps we can take to try to reduce our energy bill, but if adopt too many in the first year we run the risk of losing our ability to measure the value of any one step. So let's begin more modestly. Let's commit to turning off lights, computers, and any other devices that use electricity when not in use.

Another great step would be to replace your incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent light bulbs, but a word of caution first. Use your common sense in determining when to replace the bulbs. If you've just bought a supply of incandescent light bulbs, you're not going to be saving five percent on your energy costs if you turn around and buy a second set of fluorescent bulbs. On the other hand, the sooner you replace your incandescent bulbs, the sooner you can begin to realize savings on the switch. Thus, this plan will recommend that you switch, but you should time your own switch in a way that makes the most sense for your situation. One possible approach is just to replace the old bulbs with the new fluorescent bulbs as the old ones burn out.

In the second year, you can commit to an additional step, such as lowering or raising your thermostat to reduce your energy costs.

The following is an example of our two-year electricity energy plan:

Energy Plan: Year 1
Goal: Reduce electric bill by 5%
Step 1: Determine current energy costs, including monthly electric bills for the previous year, as well as incidentals, such as the annual cost of buying replacement bulbs
Step 2: Commit to turning off all lights, computers, and other users of electricity when not in use
Step 3: Replace incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs

Energy Plan: Year 2
Goal: Reduce electric bill by 5% (as measured against the energy costs prior to Year 1)
Step 1: Continue committing to turning off all lights, computers, and other users of electricity when not in use
Step 2: Continue to replace incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs
Step 3: Lower your thermostat by one degree in the winter and raise your thermostat by one degree in the summer

Reducing Waste Generated by Your Small Business

Now let's look at the waste side of our plan. Waste is a little more difficult to measure than energy consumption, so let's try to stick to efforts that are more easily measured. As with energy consumption, we'll keep the waste measures simple in the early years.

For a goal, we'll use the same 10 percent that we used for energy costs, but let's shoot for the full 10 percent in the first year. As with energy consumption, there are many options, but we'll only adopt a few in the beginning to keep it simple.

  • Reduce annual office supply costs. The baseline for these costs should be readily available, if you accurately account for different classes of business expenses. If you don't, consider revisiting your bookkeeping and accounting practices.
  • Where possible, commit to reusing printer paper whenever it’s feasible. Many businesses go through numerous drafts of the same document, and it really doesn't matter if the back side of the paper has already been used.
  • As stocks of current printer paper are used up, buy recycled paper instead. There may be no direct financial benefit, unless your source of paper sells recycled paper for less, this benefit may not be directly measurable in terms of your business finances.
  • Increasingly, you can get a printer cartridge refilled for far less than it costs to buy a replacement. In some cases, the reduction in cost may be as much as 75 percent, and with advances in technology, a reused cartridge will be of the same quality as a more expensive new one.

Here is an example of our two-year waste reduction plan:

Waste Reduction Plan: Year 1
Goal: Reduce annual office supply costs by 10%
Step 1: Determine current annual office supply costs as they apply to copy paper and printer ink cartridges
Step 2: Commit to printing on both sides of the paper whenever possible
Step 3: Buy recycled printer paper when replacing current printer paper
Step 4: Refill printer ink cartridges rather than buy new ones

Waste Reduction Plan: Year 2
Goal: Reduce annual office supply costs by 5% (as measured against the office supply costs prior to Year 1)
Step 1: Continue to commit to printing on both sides of the paper whenever possible
Step 2: Continue to buy recycled printer paper
Step 3: Continue to refill printer ink cartridges
Step 4: Commit to electronic-only as much as possible; avoid printing documents whenever possible

Evaluating, Tweaking and Expanding Plans to Go Green

Now that you have set your goals and decided what to incorporate into your green plan, the final step is to establish some rules for evaluating the initiatives that you put in place.

Has Your Plan Met Your Goal?

In making your evaluation, and deciding whether to tweak your plan, there are several factors to consider. The most important, of course, is whether the plan has met your stated goal, which, for our purposes, was a reduction in electric costs and a reduction in office supply costs.

Deciding on a time frame for evaluation. Another factor to consider is the expected time frame for achieving your goal. On the one hand, you want to give your new plan enough time to work before judging its success or failure; on the other hand, you don't want to let a failing plan go on too long before making adjustments. Probably the best approach is to wait one year, even if you've developed a two-year plan. At the end of one year, you can commit to evaluating your plan for the purpose of tweaking it, rather than evaluating it for the purpose of deciding whether to keep or abandon it.


For example, let's focus on the change from incandescent bulbs to compact fluorescent bulbs. We said that we wanted to achieve a 10 percent reduction in electric costs in the first year. If you change to fluorescent bulbs, you should be able to achieve that reduction in combination with your other changes, but let's suppose that you see a more modest reduction in your electric costs than you had hoped. One advantage of the compact fluorescent bulbs is that they last much longer than the traditional incandescent bulbs. Getting rid of them after one year because they delivered smaller savings than you had hoped would be shortsighted because you never took advantage of the fluorescent bulbs' longer life. You need to keep in mind that, although one year is good time to re-evaluate, all of the information you need to make an informed decision may not yet be available to you.

Is the effort worth the cost savings? Another factor to consider, which doesn't get discussed much in talking about green plans, is the amount of effort and energy you have to spend to make the green plan happen.


For example, let's suppose that you decide to refill your printer ink cartridges rather buy new ones. If you happen to work near a place that refills your ink cartridges, you're new green plan may work just great. But if you happen to live and work somewhere requiring a great deal of effort to get to the refill place, or a great deal of effort is expended in sending the refill through the mail, you will have to evaluate whether the cost savings outweigh the effort you expend to generate the cost savings.

The point is that your time has value, and only you can determine whether the effort you expend is worth the cost savings.

Tweaking Your Green Plan

Taking all these factors into consideration, you will decide whether to tweak your green plan at the end of the first year. Unless the plan wildly fails to meet your goal and falls far short of delivering the cost savings, patience and caution is the best course. Give your plan some more time to develop. In the end, you'll be glad you did.

If your plan falls far short, you will need to decide your next steps by evaluating why the plan failed. In some cases, you may not be ready to exercise the discipline necessary to implementing a green plan. If that's true for you, consider scaling your plan back and setting more modest goals until you can get yourself in the habit of following through on your plan. If you've done everything you can, and still didn't get the savings you had hoped for, consider implementing other initiatives instead of the ones you used, which may work better for your business.

Expanding Your Green Plan

If your plan succeeds after the two-year period, you may be ready to take on new initiatives. Consider taking on two new initiatives in year three, and then layering in new initiatives in each of the following years until you develop a full-fledged green program for your small business. Always evaluate at the end of each year. Keep those that work. Tweak those that need modification. Jettison those that fail. Eventually you'll end up with a green plan that is ideal for your small business.

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