The first Earth Day took place on April 22, 1970, organized by Senator Gaylord Nelson and youth activist Denis Hayes after the massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California in 1969. This first Earth Day inspired 20 million Americans (10% of the total U.S. population at the time) to voice their concern about the impacts of 150 years of industrial development that was causing serious human health impacts and environmental degradation. The event also achieved a rare alignment across the political, social, and economic sectors. By the end of 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency was created and various environmental laws, such as the Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Education Act, and the Occupational Safety and Health Act, were passed.
Earth Day 2021 is the 51st Earth Day event, standing in testament to the continued relevance of environmental issues to our economy and society. Over the past several decades, we have gained an increased insight into the impact of nature on our lives and livelihoods. Natural events such as floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, and wildfires capture a lot of headlines, but it’s the cumulative impact of everyday actions that can play an even more dramatic role in affecting our environment. And businesses and consumers are taking notice.
Consumers have been a key driving force to pushing corporations to do better, but customer choice isn’t the only reason to do green business. Green business is smart business. And as they say, the devil’s in the details. You don’t need to be a huge enterprise with millions to spare for philanthropy. You don’t have to plant an entire forest to go green. As a small business, you have the power to green more aspects of your operations—and improve your bottom line—than you may realize. Here are a few foundational areas to consider (in alphabetical order):
This is especially relevant to restaurants, cafés, coffee shops, and food trucks, but also for any business that buys food for their employees. Local, seasonal produce gets you the freshest fruits, veggies, and meats, supports your local community, and avoids excess packaging and carbon emissions due to transportation. You can work with your local CSA (community supported agriculture) groups or websites like Local Harvest to find providers near you. And the best part is, you can “buy local” a lot of non food products and services, too, from furniture to auto repair.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is often the bad guy in the climate conversation, largely because it represents the majority of greenhouse gas emissions. But there are other greenhouse gases that are even more potent and deadly: methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) are 84 and 264 times more dangerous than CO2, respectively. A number of solutions have been proposed to manage the levels of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, including carbon sequestration and carbon offsets.
The latest innovation is called CCUS—carbon capture, utilization, and storage. The idea is to capture or remove CO2 from the atmosphere and either store it deep underground or use it in business applications. For example, CO2 makes the bubbles in beer or soda (hence the term carbonated beverage). It can be used in cement and fuel production. This article in Vox discusses a wide variety of potential uses for captured CO2. Companies like Climeworks are building direct air capture facilities, while others, like Carbon Craft Design, are finding innovative ways to use black carbon, the particulate matter polluting India’s skies, and cutting-edge collectives like Tomorrow’s Air are engaging tourists and travelers in doing their part to remove carbon as well.
So if you’re selling a product or service that uses, or could help mitigate, CO2 or any other greenhouse gas or pollutant, you might just be already on the forefront of the sustainability evolution.
It goes without saying that the way you power your business makes a big difference, both for your bottom line and the environment. Electricity costs are going up, and renewable sources like solar can come with financial incentives or tax breaks, depending on your state. If you have the option, consider installing solar panels on your building, or talk to your electricity provider to see if they offer wind, solar or other renewable energy options. You can also check out this white paper written specifically for businesses considering solar power, including financing options.
Besides the question of source, there are numerous ways to save energy in your shop, restaurant, or home-based business. Replacing standard light bulbs with LEDs and old devices with new, energy-efficient models, turning off all electronic devices and equipment at night, and setting thermostats to lower levels during non working hours are all great ways to cut down your electric bill each month.
You can also make your entire building energy neutral. Clover’s Sunnyvale HQ is a “net zero energy building,” for example. While this is a considerably more significant undertaking than replacing your lightbulbs, it also brings greater benefits such as reduced energy consumption and costs, and can help you hedge against future energy price increases. When the Hampton Inn Bakersfield went solar, it received a 30% federal tax credit and decreased its energy bills by 35-45%. Check out this guide on net zero buildings for more information on the energy topic.
This is the 800-lb gorilla on the shop floor, and COVID blew it up to about twice its size. Whether you’re a restaurant or a retailer, your business—especially now during the pandemic—lives and dies by packaging. Curbside, pickup, delivery, or shipping—all of those dinners and clothes and books and jigsaw puzzles need to be packaged to survive the journey from your business to your customer. The trouble is, packaging is a single-use affair (and let’s not talk about all the other single-use stuff like plastic cutlery and ketchup packets). All that plastic, paper, styrofoam, and cardboard goes right into the trash bin once your customers unpack their purchases, and from there, you guessed it: the landfill. In the U.S. and the UK, we produce more plastic waste per person than any other large nation, according to a recent study.
So what’s a conscientious business owner to do?
As a manufacturer of hardware, packaging is an ongoing journey for us. We recently redesigned the box that one of our devices comes in, using recyclable custom pulp molds to support the hardware. Our commitment to greener packaging is to use natural cardboard stock, avoid using plastic and foam, minimize the size and number of paper inserts, and keep glue to a minimum.
Environmentally friendly packaging is more expensive, but it means you’re doing your part in your community and gives you extra marketing points (more on that below).
One of the most innocuous materials we all use for pretty much everything: receipts, invoices, notepads, forms, and printing out whatever we need printed out. And we tend to use far too much of it. The good news is, going paperless is an immediate and super-easy money-saver. Some tips on that:
The paper that you do buy, make sure it’s made of as much recycled wood pulp as possible.
On our end, we’ve gone from 80-page Quick Start Guides to 8-page accordion-fold leaflets for our POS systems (that’s a 90% reduction), and we continue to roll out paperless, contactless ways for our merchants to conduct business. Scan to Order is a great example of that, as it eliminates the need for physical (paper) menus.
Ah, that thorn in the side of restaurants and cafes everywhere. Do we really need straws to drink our beverages? Apparently, we do—especially if it’s boba tea. But it’s not the straw that’s the problem; it’s what it’s made of. According to Earth.org, plastic straws are among the top ten most common items in coastal litter cleanups, in the world. And here in the U.S., we use around 390 million of these thin little tubes on a daily basis. Well, how about paper straws then, isn’t that more eco-friendly? Not as much as you’d think, explains this article.
Here’s a radical idea: the no-straw drink. In fact, big brands have already stepped up to try and stem the plastic straw tide: in late 2018, reports Earth.org, Café de Coral, IKEA, and McDonald’s announced no-straw campaigns, and in April 2019, Starbucks switched to paper straws and wooden stirrers from plastic in 28,000 of their branches globally.
So try serving drinks strawless… and if your customer really wants a straw, you can give them a paper or bamboo one, with perhaps a little card highlighting your business’ sustainability commitment.
COVID has taught the business world that we really don’t need to fly to all those meetings, and in the process we can save money, time, and fuel. And for those shorter trips you can do in a car, consider buying or renting an electric vehicle. In fact, if you are able to, you might have EV charging stations installed in your parking lot for customers and employees.
Don’t forget bicycles, too—encourage your staff to bike to work. Some companies even have their own branded bicycles for their employees to get around.
Instead of stocking plastic water bottles, install a water filter on your premises. Not only do you save money and prevent empty bottles from ending up in landfill, you’re also protecting the health of your employees—nanoparticles of plastic have been showing up in bottled water, according to a 2018 study that measured the plastic content of bottled water of 11 global brands.
If you operate a restaurant in a drought-prone area (looking at you, California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and New Mexico…) you can opt to serve water at the table only on request. Also choose your raw ingredients carefully—some, especially meat and dairy, take more water to produce than others (here’s a handy water footprint calculator for food). You’d be surprised how far simple actions can go in conserving our water, especially if everyone jumps in!
There’s a (non alphabetical) reason waste management is at the end of this list—it’s the one thing most business owners—and people in general—aren’t thrilled to spend much time thinking about or dealing with. But it’s a critical piece of the sustainability puzzle. One of the most immediately visible forms of waste is the food we throw out. Consider these sobering stats:
Clearly, you can’t admonish your dine-in guests and takeout customers to “eat everything on your plate!” but you can take some measures to decrease the costs to your business:
To be sure, going green isn’t always cheap—but it doesn’t have to break the bank, either, and it gives you plenty of benefits as well as a powerful new way to promote your business. Switching to solar, going paperless, or composting your food scraps aren’t the glossiest, most noteworthy things to sing praises about in your emails, social media, or press coverage… until they are. These are the things that make your company more accessible, more transparent, and more caring. Communicating the ways you’re doing right by people and planet is a wonderful opportunity to connect with customers who share your values, and that’s a much deeper connection than the typical ad campaign.
After all, have you ever seen an ad or social media post that says “We’re proud of polluting our community! Come shop with us!”
Perhaps the most convincing argument to take your business green is that the very people who support it—your customers—are increasingly choosing companies that are committed to the environment. Numerous studies and surveys confirm it:
The time, money, and effort it takes to make your business more sustainable pay back plenty over the long term—not just in costs saved and profits gained, but also in brand awareness, good will, and customer loyalty. In a word, being green is good for business, it’s good for people, and it’s good for the planet. Earth Day may last just 24 hours, but green business runs 24/7.