Harnessing the Power of California’s Small Businesses to Achieve Environmental Sustainability

When it comes to protecting the environment, sometimes it pays to think small. According to U.S. federal data, there are over 3.5 million small businesses in California alone, each with significant impact potential for protecting and conserving the natural environment. Accounting for 99% of the state’s employers and over 50% of California’s workforce, small businesses are some of our strongest assets in the transition to a more environmentally sustainable future.

Too often, environmental issues are framed in a way that discourages significant action among individuals and small businesses. We think, “problems are too big for any one person to face on his or her own,” or “one small business can’t possibly make changes that affect the whole.” The reality is that the sheer number of small and medium sized businesses in existence today represents a relatively untapped market for promoting social and environmental change. Public focus is disproportionately placed on multinational corporations and mega-businesses. If we can shift that focus to our own lives and companies, we stand to see extremely positive results.

 This feature outlines some of the steps your small business can take to be a part of the movement toward social and environmental responsibility for the benefit of your business, your community, and beyond.

Benchmarking

measuring tapeThe first and most important thing to do when exploring ways that your small business can integrate sustainability is to accurately measure your company’s environmental impacts to come up with benchmarks. Take time to evaluate the biggest areas of concern, making sure to obtain and record the information necessary to understand where the leaks in your operations are found. How much do you spend on water, electricity, or paper? Where are there opportunities to cut back? What does your current environmental management system look like? Think about the relative strengths and weaknesses of your existing sustainability efforts and look for ways to improve them.

Be honest with yourself about areas for improvement and begin to track baselines for your energy consumption and waste generation, and get a rough idea of your company’s emission patterns, or carbon footprint. Once your know where your company stands, you can set deliberate goals for tracking improvement. Establishing baselines and tracking your benchmarks is a great way to rally support for the progress of your company’s environmental projects.

Step Towards Efficiency

paper helpOnce you’ve established benchmarks and goals, support conservation in your office by addressing waste reduction, energy use, and water conservation, among others. Office waste and the overuse of energy or water are signs of inefficiency – they cost money and hurt the environment. It seems simple, but many offices and individuals struggle to keep waste generation and energy/water use to a minimum.

To avoid these mistakes, make environmental stewardship the easiest, most convenient option rather than the “alternative-but-altruistic” one. Facilitate the transition to a corporate culture that does not condone unnecessary waste by providing better options: reusable cups, plates, access to reusable water bottles and clean drinking water. Encourage employees to bring their own utensils – reusable dishware goes a long way toward reducing in-house waste.

Also, it’s important to make sure there are enough recycling bins. Strategically place them so that if an employee or coworker is disposing of a recyclable, he/she doesn’t have to search high and low for the proper bin. If you have space (and time), create a company compost or worm bin. You could start a company garden or give compost to garden enthusiasts or to local farmers.

Remind employees to do simple things like turn off the lights in rooms they aren’t using and to use less water in the washroom. Post signs around the office to create company awareness about various small steps each individual can take to reduce the environmental impact of the entire office. Consider sending out a paperless newsletter containing weekly tips and pointers for environmental stewardship – awareness is important. While many environmental precautions may seem obvious to you, they may not be obvious to others around you.

Partnerships

earthhandsAnother great way to harness sustainability opportunities within your business is to partner with a local nonprofit organization. Environmental nonprofits most often can provide concrete expertise and tangible benefits to your company. They know what the biggest problems are locally and, most likely, abroad as well. Their knowledge, passion, and experiences are great resources for companies seriously interested in taking pointers for addressing environmental concerns. Finding and partnering with a local nonprofit that has complimentary environmental interests is an excellent gateway to transforming your business to be more environmentally responsible.

If there isn’t an area within your business where you feel you can reduce waste, energy, water use or emissions, partnering with an environmental nonprofit allows you to participate in initiatives you wouldn’t’ otherwise be able to. For instance, your company could sponsor the protection and replenishment of local habitats, beach clean ups and more. Involvement with new environmental projects encourages an evolving corporate culture of environmental education and ecological improvement while boosting your business’s reputation. You can also partner with other external companies for consultation about the effectiveness of your business’s environmental initiatives. LoaCom, LoaTree’s sister company, provides hands on consulting for businesses interested in pursuing sustainability from from a strategic standpoint.

Employee Engagement

An essential aspect of transitioning to sustainable business is getting employees and co-workers involved. Make sure that each individual feels he/she has a stake in the successful outcomes of your small business’s environmental commitments. Ask employees where they see opportunities for the biggest environmental improvements. Leaky sinks in the bathrooms, too few recycling bins in the break room, a lax waste management system – whatever your area of improvement may be, it’s going to be your employees or co-workers who can most easily identify it. Giving employees the ability to voice their concerns about specific environmental performance issues in the office means that they’ll be more interested in the follow through, which means better outcomes for your company and for the environment.

peeps

If financially feasible, you can even offer small incentives for environmentally sound behavior (or try to convince your boss to): pay for employee bus fare, offer half days once per quarter to employees who walk or bike to work regularly. You could also create a carpooling program and offer monthly awards for employees who utilize it most frequently. Another way to ramp up your company’s environmental initiatives would be to instill some friendly competition between employees or departments. Offer weekly or monthly prizes for the individual or department that reduces the most waste, conserves the most energy, carpools the most days, or any combination of the above. Fostering a playful environment with respect to environmental sustainability will make a transition to a greener corporate culture much more seamless and natural.

The intangible benefits associated with treating your employees well by giving them a stake in your company’s environmental initiatives will result in proud employees who love where they work. This means lower turnover rates, less time spent training new hires, saved expenses, and a pleasant corporate culture, not to mention the ecological benefits associated with reducing your company’s environmental impact.

What it All Means

While these tips for promoting corporate environmental sustainability within your company may seem simple or small in isolation, their impact potential is actually quite substantial. If one half of small businesses in California dedicated a few moments per day to integrating environmental initiatives like waste reduction, reduced transportation emissions, energy efficiency, etc., the results would be significant.

A study conducted on a small business in Riverside, CA indicated that switching to a paperless business model saved the company close to $75,000 annually, reduced office waste, and produced less strain on the environment. This is one company! Imagine what 3.5 million small businesses could do collectively.

So, the next time you imagine that your environmental contributions are meaningless, think about harnessing the power of every small business in California to push for environmental sustainability in a very big way.

Written by Juliet Taylor. Juliet recently received her Master’s Degree at the University of California Santa Barbara. She specializes in sustainable development and the environment and has spent the past several years studying the corporate benefits of adopting environmental sustainability programs.

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