“In the long run, the race belongs not merely to the swift, but to the farseeing, to those who anticipate change.” – Lykes Lines
Let’s start this chapter with a disclaimer: I do not consider myself an expert in business sustainability. However, I probably know enough to be dangerous. Consider this chapter my hunch about where business is heading – that is, becoming at least partially tied to the impact it makes on the environment.
Sustainability is an important concept for small-to-medium sized businesses. In my view, sustainability means your business is conducted in such a way that it can exist without being environmentally destructive. At the very least, environmental neutrality is what your company wants to achieve. An even better aspiration is to positively impact the environment. There are dozens – hundreds – of ideas, large and small, that organizations can implement to positively impact the environment.
There is opportunity for you and your company to make money as you create a green reason for customers to buy from your organization. When real dollars can be made from environmentalism, then environmentalism is good for you and good for business. The sweet smell of profit and differentiation wafts through the air. This epitomizes “making green from green”.
The Field is Yours to Take
Two of our clients have earned the position of being the environmental leaders of their industries. They were not particularly looking for this distinction; it was thrust upon them by the inertia of their industry and competition. It helped that they were proactive and up to date with the best environmental practices.
When one of these clients, an asphalt contracting group, modernized its existing facility, the organization paved the parking lot with water permeable asphalt. Because water runs through the pavement, there is no need for drainage, sewers, or a retention pond. It means there is no need for additional land – typically an acre – that would be utilized for runoff and drainage from the parking lot. It also means the organization is not dealing with pollutants that collect in the retention pond water. All of this contributed to the office becoming certified by LEED, or the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.
Now, if you only consider what it costs to pave the parking lot with water permeable asphalt in the short term, it’s more expensive to pave with the material. However, when you factor in that you no longer have to build a retention pond and incorporate a complicated drainage system, paving this way is less expensive in the long run. In addition, the project comes without the environmental damage and complications that come from building a retention pond and other supportive drainage.
So, will Walmart construct its parking lots with water-permeable asphalt? Walmart claims to stand for sustainability, and the PR and goodwill engendered by this effort would make it more than worthwhile. This asphalt company is actively pursuing Walmart as a client. So far, there is no sale. However, the asphalt company has also given numerous presentations to the Illinois Tollway Authority and recently won a project because of its knowledge and expertise on permeable and green asphalt mixes.
Will municipalities and counties follow the same lead? Is state and federal spending friendly to this kind of thought? The answer to these questions is yes. It is no longer a question of “if”. It is now simply a question of when. The concept of making green from green is coming into its own.
Another client of mine that has embraced this philosophy is a commercial and industrial laundry. The company modernized its facility in the middle of Chicago’s west side. This state-of-the-art facility uses recycled water in its cleaning process. Heat from the washers is captured and used to clean clothes, and non-polluting chemicals are used by electrically efficient washers. The benefits included saving 50,000 therms of natural gas, 5.5 million gallons of water, and 3,000 gallons of chemicals. This plant is an example of a green solution.
It makes sense for my client to go in a sustainable direction. Sustainability drives down operating costs. The new plant gives the organization environmental leadership status. Lots of prospective customers have been on plant tours, and its positive environmental impact on Chicago has been a selling point. In fact, an entire marketing campaign highlights this sustainable direction. These efforts have improved customer relationships and contribute to the bottom line.
What’s the Future Worth to You?
The million-dollar question is this: what, from a business perspective, is being green worth? Will customers be attracted to environmentalism and pay for it? Schools might. Educators tend to be interested in how the environment is impacted by what they buy and consume. If a school could buy mats, uniforms, and cleaning supplies at the same or better prices from a company that was dedicated to sustainability, would they? I say yes. How about hospitals? I say yes.
I have watched leadership groups gasp in horror at the thought of being seen as “tree huggers”. As a recovering hippie who listens to Rush Limbaugh, I don’t think being a tree hugger is such a bad thing. But for some executives, this connotation apparently carries horrific implications – might they be turning into – hippies? Is it the possibility of taking drugs and wearing tie-dyed shirts that scares them? Is it that they think listening to the Grateful Dead is mandatory?
In fact, this is a generational issue. Executives in the 50’s and 60’s are environmentally sympathetic; we all want fresh air and clean water. However, this age group tends to have parameters around how far they will allow their companies to go toward sustainability. Meanwhile, employees in their 20’s and 30’s – whom I will affectionately call “Enviro-Fanatics” – find great excitement in environmental development. They are passionate about moving sustainability initiatives forward and tend to be extremely motivated by making a difference. This generation perceives that it has more at stake in the environment and the future.
If an organization goes in this sustainability direction, it can build employee loyalty as well as public goodwill. If you are looking at whom to put in charge of researching environmental initiatives, it is the younger group. They will find the options and possibilities. The older set of business managers and executives will think it through and implement, and the younger set will do the passionate heavy lifting. Both will lead the business into the green Promised Land.
Again, as sustainability becomes more acceptable, being committed to it also becomes more acceptable. Add in that this sustainability stuff can be a differentiator for your products and services and allow you to sell more, and you have a really interesting opportunity.
You Look Good in Green
I strongly encourage your organization to adopt this sustainability direction. This is not a political statement but one that reflects the reality of the times. Of course, there needs to be authenticity. Just saying you are sustainable is not sufficient. If there is not sincerity in the actions your company takes, customers will see this for what it is: an attempt to take advantage of the latest fad. By the same token, you do not need to be perfect. This is a new direction for mainstream businesses, and there will be mistakes and false starts. One can see this in the conversation the country is having as it grapples with global warming, gas prices, and when and where we should drill for oil and natural gas. The payoff for engaging in this conversation, however, is worth it.
As another example, a client of ours recently installed solar panels on its roof. The result will not be much electricity – maybe enough to power their offices. We are in the Midwest, after all, with long overcast winters. These solar panels, however, look impressive and have great buzz value. There is also feel-good value. The company is supporting an industry that is coming into its own and recognizing all the innovations that have occurred within it. Heck, five years ago, solar panels were not recommended for Chicago, but now, after dramatic improvements in price and function, they make sense; for this company, the panels will pay themselves off in ten years.
Make this year your “green” year. Consider your options in manufacturing, packaging, and recycling products. Think about the savings you can achieve from a green facility. Research government grants and funding available for sustainability initiatives. Look to see where, by cutting costs and differentiating your products, you can make green from green. When you customers see the value that your environmental actions have for them and their world, they will embrace your company with new vigor.