Q. I think protecting the environment is important and I love all of the green initiatives that so many companies are launching, but I run a small business and money is tight. I would love to participate in the green revolution, but I just don't think we can afford it. Do you have any suggestions?
A. Companies have begun to feel considerable social pressure to implement sustainability programs. That’s probably not a bad thing. Very large companies can often justify the expense based on the PR value alone. They’re in the public spotlight and perceive benefit to being seen as a good corporate citizen.
Leaders of small companies can be more reticent. Lacking the resources of their larger counterparts and not as much in the public spotlight, they have to be more pragmatic. If there isn’t a good return on investment, they often refuse to act. This can leave the leaders of small companies feeling like they are caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, they want to be socially responsible. On the other hand, they struggle to make payroll and can’t afford to spend money on things that aren’t an absolute necessity for the business. They believe that sustainability programs equate to more expense and that their businesses can’t afford them.
In the same way, there used to be a generally accepted principle that getting better quality cost more. Higher quality meant higher cost. Then in 1979, Phil Crosby taught us, “Quality is Free.” That is, if quality is defined as conformance to requirements, doing things right the first time was less expensive than doing it wrong and having to deal with the consequences. Actually, quality is better than free, it’s profitable.
We view sustainability in the same light as quality. Sustainability, if properly implemented, cannot only be free, it can be profitable. This makes sustainability accessible to small businesses. Consider the following examples:
A financial services company used teleconferencing rather than traveling to meet face-to-face whenever possible. This has the environmental benefit of reducing hydrocarbon emissions, but it also significantly lowers travel costs and the associated employee “dead time” while they are in transit. This sustainable practice is a win-win. It’s socially responsible and creates shareholder value. To be sure, face-to-face meetings are sometimes necessary, but when they aren’t, there is a way to benefit the environment and save money.
A paper producer was able to negotiate a significant price concession from its suppliers when it began to recycle the plastic barrels used to deliver chemicals rather than sending them to the landfill, as had previously been the practice. This created a win-win-win. The environment benefits because there is less plastic in the landfill, paper producer got lower prices and the suppliers reduced their costs because they reused the plastic barrels.
Being trendy is nice. Creating paying the bills is an imperative. As these examples illustrate, an intelligently designed sustainability program can allow small businesses to accomplish both. We recommend searching out opportunities that will benefit both the environment and your bottom line.