21 ways to make your business go green

No longer the preserve of environmentalists, the concept of sustainability has entered the business mainstream. Here are 21 ways to grow your business and boost your bottom line by applying a bit of green thinking.

Going green has never made more sense. Not only is it likely to save you money, it’s also a useful sales tool, a powerful motivator for employees, and a way of getting ahead of the game as regulation marches inexorably from voluntary codes and guidelines towards compulsion. Added to which, it may just help save the planet. Below are 21 ways to transform your business from gas guzzler to eco warrior.

  1. Quick energy wins
    The cost of power continues to be a major concern for UK businesses. Some 93 per cent of small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are experiencing higher energy costs this year, with an average reported rise of 48 per cent, according to research from Npower. Leeds-based Independent Car Auctions has an annual energy bill of £3,700. An energy audit revealed that the business could be saving £100 annually by installing energy-efficient lighting, a further £108 by switching off air conditioning when rooms are not in use, and nearly £50 by defrosting the freezer. It all adds up, and as energy prices increase, so will the savings. Director Justin Lane says, ‘A business like ours doesn’t have the time or resources to devote to making major changes, but I was very surprised to see how easily changes can be made with immediate results.&rsquo Other worthwhile measures that have a longer-term payback include installing double glazing, extra insulation or a modern boiler. It’s worth remembering that the Carbon Trust, a government-funded organisation, provides unsecured interest-free loans to SMEs to finance energy-saving investments.
  2. Paper chase
    Marketing agency EHS Brann wanted to reduce wasteful printing. It now monitors how much is printed by each staff member and sends tongue-in-cheek emails to virtuous ‘tree huggers’ and profligate ‘tree muggers’. ‘Everything we’ve done has been fun,’ says creative director Nigel Clifton. ‘Dictating rules and regulations isn’t going to get you very far.’
  3. Get staff involved
    Whatever the commitment at board level, green initiatives are fated to flop without buy-in from staff. ‘It’s not enough just to push the message out there,’ says Greg Taylor, a founding director of branding consultancy Elmwood. The 100-person company has appointed two teams of people to drive its green initiatives: advocates, who sell the message about energy saving internally and monitor the results, and administrators, who make sure the tools and processes are in place (for example, energy monitors and recycling bins) to achieve the company’s goals.
  4. Make it easy to be green
    It’s one thing to ask employees to turn the lights off, but it isn’t always as simple as it sounds, especially in large offices where staff departing for the day can be faced with a dozen or more light switches. Cindy Withey, corporate social responsibility (CSR) manager at mystery shopping company Grass Roots, explains how her company tackled this problem: ‘We colour-coded all of our light switches, so that as you leave you can turn off the lights that are relevant to your area.’

    See also: Government to focus on green tech and AI in new industrial strategy – A new industrial strategy reflects priorities of prime minister’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings to create UK equivalent of US technology agency

  6. Driving change
    At water cooler company Water Wellpoint, safer driving and greener driving are regarded as one and the same thing. Rory Murphy, the company’s external affairs manager, says its delivery drivers received a day of training in more efficient braking, cornering and accelerating, followed by an internal competition to discover the best (i.e. safest) driver. ‘We explained that keeping within a maximum speed limit does not affect delivery time, because usually you’re only driving faster into a queue,’ says Murphy. The company also implemented changes to routes and night-time loading, both of which enable vehicles to be on the road longer, increasing efficiency.
    ‘The fleet’s fuel consumption went down ten per cent as a result of the training and the route changes and we now run 17 vehicles as opposed to 20. That’s something we’re very proud of,’ Murphy enthuses. The journey isn’t over, as Water Wellpoint is looking into alternative fuel options and technology to further reduce consumption, such as a nifty tool that “switches off” cars at traffic lights.
  7. Maximise recycling
    In common with most manufacturing companies, Linde Material Handling generates a lot of waste: 3,275 tonnes of it last year. The good news is, of course, that such companies can make a much greater impact when they do implement greener measures. Training of cleaning staff has ensured that material is properly separated, while Linde has also found new ways to recycle waste products. As a result, the amount of material recycled went up from 68 per cent in 2007 to 87 per cent last year. For an office-based business, recycling is more straightforward: Withey of Grass Roots says that simply removing individual bins by each employee’s desk boosted use of the recycling facilities provided. ‘We reduced the waste that was going to landfill by 27 per cent instantly,’ she states. Charges for such services are likely to be minimal: London-based recycling service The Paper Round charges £2.20 a week for a 50-person business requiring 15 collections a year.

  8. Develop greener products
    As consumers demand greener products, companies are providing them. Ski equipment company Atomic Austria launched its Renu ski boot in January this year, which is made entirely of renewable materials, namely cotton and bamboo fibres. True to the message, the boots are distributed in recyclable cardboard boxes. ‘Our customers’ reactions were very positive: they believed in the concept and we already have orders which are higher than expected,’ says general manager Wolfgang Mayrhofer, who adds that the company is now working on producing greener skis and snowboards.
  9. Real savings from virtualisation
    Business growth can lead to IT headaches. Devon-based family business Axminster Tool Centre was running too many servers, which were underutilised. Replacing them with a “virtual” server (located in an external data centre) reduced the company’s overall energy usage by 30 per cent. ‘We can easily cope with new projects now,’ says systems director Andrew Parkhouse. ‘We no longer need to deploy yet another server, we just go and buy the software.’
  10. Flush away waste
    Social enterprise Green Rocket likes to practise what it preaches, donating 75 per cent of its profits to environmental projects. Managing director and founder Kim Stoddart states that its concern for the environment extends to the company’s offices and even the toilets: by putting a water-saving bag inside each cistern, a few litres of water are saved every time someone pulls the chain. ‘The bags are very inexpensive: I understand you can use a brick, but I’ve never tried it,’ she remarks.
  11. A plant on each desk
    According to campaigning organisation Plants for People, introducing plants into workplaces cleans the air and improves employees’ health. The assertions are supported with academic research, such as a study from Washington University that found plants improve workers’ productivity by 12 per cent. Whatever you make of such claims, some companies are clearly persuaded. Rachel Gilly, a director at media relations consultancy Bite Communications, says the company has a one-plant-per-desk policy. ‘Our staff have told us that the plants help create a sense of well-being and a fresher feel to the office,’ Gilly contends.
  12. Cut down on commuting
    For an office-based business, commuting often makes up a significant part of its carbon footprint. Grass Roots’ Cindy Withey says the company pays £20 a month to staff who avoid driving to work or take part in its car share scheme – an initiative which has helped the company go carbon neutral. Another tactic is to have staff work from home, a trend which appears to be gaining traction. Paula Wynne, co-founder of job service Remote Employment, says, ‘You’d think an office manager would have to be based in the office, but we recently ran an advertisement for an office manager who could work from home and only had to go into the office one day a week.’
  13. Scrap your office
    A still more radical move is to do without an office altogether. Appropriately enough, Remote Employment has ten full-time staff spread across the UK, all of whom work from home and only meet face-to-face a few times a year. Another company, technology consultancy Red IT, was founded in 1999 and has never had an office. Managing director Ara Martirossian says it has made it easier to recruit and retain highly skilled staff – he can offer them a better work-life balance and pay them more because he is saving money on premises. Having everyone work from home offers a ‘very scalable business model which allows for rapid organisational and structural change’, as well as lowering the organisation’s carbon footprint.
  14. Intelligent IT
    Financial services company Royal Liver Assurance was leaving its computers on overnight to download vital security updates. With the help of a nifty piece of technology known as Wake on LAN, 650 of the company’s 870 PCs are now shut down automatically at the end of the working day, but activated again when software needs to be updated. Mark McCann, IT change manager at Royal Liver, says the system has saved £45,000 a year in energy charges: not a bad return on investment whe you consider it took less than one hour to be deployed.
  15. Smart metering
    Ian Morrison runs a wine bar called The Retreat in Stroud, Gloucestershire. He’s recently had a system installed that measures the energy used by each individual circuit, not just overall power consumption. ‘This is not an eco-warrior thing, although Stroud is full of eco-warriors: it’s just that costs are rising,’ says Morrison. More precise monitoring quickly revealed that the building’s cellar was consuming an inordinate amount of energy. The solution was to split it in two with an insulating wall, dividing the chilled area from a section housing heat-generating appliances such as a washing machine and tumble dryer. ‘With just a small outlay – better insulation and a new door – we cut our power consumption by half,’ states Morrison, who goes on to enumerate many other energy-saving measures he has implemented since installing the new system.
  16. Avoid meetings
    Somewhat ironically for a reseller of web-based communications tools (among other things), Computacenter does a lot of its communication at face-to-face meetings. For Chris Hanson, who manages eight branches of the company across the UK, this meant he spent 17 working weeks of his first year at the organisation travelling from one to another. By employing web conferencing, Hanson’s average annual mileage has dropped from 40,000 to 6,000 and his travel time is now less than three weeks a year. Computacenter is now looking at company-wide adoption.
  17. Get your ISO 14001
    Having your efforts to be green endorsed by an external body such as the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) can help silence any doubters: and you won’t be required to meet targets that have been laid down by someone else. The aim of the ISO 14001 accreditation is to promote ‘continuous improvement’, not box-ticking, so if you can show you are serious and have set challenging targets there is a good chance you will be rewarded. Stephen Bentley is CEO of direct mail specialist Granby Marketing Services, which achieved the award last year. He says it’s enabled the company to reassure existing clients worried about their impact on the environment as well as attract new ones. His own behaviour’s changed too: he now gets the train from the company’s Lancashire headquarters to London rather than driving.
  18. Buy local
    Cobb’s farm asparagus, River Kennet crayfish and Tart Waterloo. Not a list of Nigella Lawson recipes, but a selection of dishes from Newbury Racecourse’s 25 Mile Menu – so-called because the main ingredients are sourced from within that radius of the racecourse, reducing carbon emissions produced in transporting them from field to plate. ‘It cost us a couple of pounds more per head, but it really generated a buzz,’ says Newbury’s head of catering Martin Bunch. ‘A lot of people asked to take a copy of the menu away with them.’
  19. Choose suppliers carefully
    Increasingly, green credentials are on the list of things would-be suppliers are asked about. For Green Rocket’s Stoddart, it’s particularly important that all her suppliers are serious about the environment. ‘We don’t always insist on accreditation because we realise that can be costly to apply for and we want to support a range of sizes of business,’ she says. ‘But you can get a pretty good idea of how green a company is by seeing how transparent their policies are. If they don’t discuss the limitations of what they have done, that’s a bad sign.’
  20. Renewed commitment
    ‘A lot of SMEs shy away from using renewable energy because they think it’s going to cost them money,’ says Greg Taylor at Elmwood. ‘But we’ve actually saved £6,000 a year by moving to renewable sources.’ Any business or consumer can elect to have their power supplied by a specialist provider of green energy, or choose a “green” package offered by one of the big utility companies. Generating your own energy using solar panels or a wind turbine demands more investment, but may be worth looking into for a longer-term payback.
  21. A scientific approach
    It’s hard to work on reducing your carbon emissions without measuring them first. Joanna Lee, a director at the Carbon Disclosure Project says that 2,000 companies now measure their emissions and disclose them through the organisation (up from 1,300 in 2007). Though many are big businesses, an increasing number of SMEs are joining their ranks, often because investors or customers require them to do so. ‘The message we get from companies is that [disclosure] creates a structure for them to think about climate change information that wasn’t there before,’ says Lee.
  22. The ultimate goal?
    Household names such as Eurostar and BSkyB are now carbon neutral. In practice, this is achieved by working to reduce a company’s emissions, then “offsetting” the remainder by purchasing carbon credits. Green Rocket’s Stoddart says that not all offsets are equal and you should satisfy yourself that your money is going to an environmentally worthy cause rather than one of the ‘sharks’ in the market. At Grass Roots, staff members can choose which projects to support through their offsets.

    Greg Taylor at Elmwood, which aims to go carbon neutral by 2012, regards it as a commercial imperative. ‘More and more of the brands we work with want to make a positive difference, so as our contribution, we have to get our house in order,’ he argues.

    Murphy of Water Wellpoint has a similar outlook. ‘Clients are asking us more and more about our policy with regard to going carbon neutral, but fundamentally, it makes good business sense for us to do this anyway,’ he states.

Nick Britton

Lexus Ernser

Nick was the Managing Editor for growthbusiness.co.uk when it was owned by Vitesse Media, before moving on to become Head of Investment Group and Editor at What Investment and thence to Head of Intermediary...