Practical Advice for Greening the SME

(Solutions Central by Anna Clark) - It may seem like big businesses are the only companies getting buzz for going green, but for small and medium-sized enterprises, there are countless ways to reap rewards by adopting sustainable practices.

The “greening” of America is not just the latest trend; it’s a cultural revolution. What does this phenomenon mean for the business sector? Even if you’re not yet sold on the science of climate change, it’s hard to ignore the changing tide of public perception.

Magazines as diverse as Glamour, Fortune, and even Sports Illustrated are publishing green issues. Green has gone mainstream and smart business owners are looking for ways to capitalize on this phenomenon.

An aerial view of sustainability shows us a principle with the power to preserve our world intact for our grandchildren even as we consume resources today. When we apply this principle to business, we get “corporate sustainability,” which strives to balance the financial, social, and environmental aspects of an organization.

A company’s corporate sustainability strategy depends on such variables as its size and industry. Applications of sustainability can range from retrofitting facilities with energy-efficient features to integrating recycled and/or biodegradable materials into product design and packaging. Other applications exist and many more are still at the conceptual stage.

Large green companies, such as Starbucks and Whole Foods, experience remarkable consumer loyalty and earn a fortune in media attention. But to small and medium-sized enterprises, or SMEs, it may seem like big businesses are the only ones getting the buzz for going green.

Does sustainability offer any real advantages for SMEs? If so, how does the small business owner or even the executive management team of a mid-sized corporation apply such a lofty ideal to daily operations? There are many methods but only one formula: leadership, an inquiring mind, and creativity. For those pioneers eagerly embracing sustainability, the payoffs of going green are significant and the risks are minimal.

One way to describe how to green the SME is by example. Hot Lips Pizza in Portland has earned a reputation as “the most sustainable pizza parlor in the U.S.” Hot Lips’ pizza is made with locally-grown organic ingredients and is delivered in eco-friendly vehicles. Hot Lips pizza has been covered in print and broadcast media nationwide.

You don’t have to operate on the West Coast to cash in on going green, either. Even in Dallas, a town known for its culture of conspicuous consumption, successful strategies for sustainability are at work. Fashion designer Laura Chapuis uses organic fabrics for her line Habitude. She has been featured in magazines such as Shape and Town and Country – without the expense of a publicist.

Alan Hoffmann, a Dallas-based homebuilder searching for a better way to build, discovered insulated concrete forms, or ICFs, arguably the most energy-efficient type of home construction available. The Alan Hoffmann Company is now selling custom homes before the designs are even drawn and has earned media coverage in numerous regional and industry publications.

Good P.R. isn’t the only payoff to going green. Companies should consider the cost savings available through energy efficiency. The Energy Star website is rife with case studies of SMEs that have retrofitted their facilities with energy efficient features, recovering their investment within three years and saving thousands of dollars a year on operating costs. Adding wind power to your energy mix can also earn you points with your customers. Companies taking these measures can also earn recognition via EPA programs such as Climate Leaders.

Companies that want to start small can capture some of the market by adding a green product or service. Identifying opportunities can be a fun and creative process. Retailers, for example, can introduce an organic line or offer customers recycled bags. Banks can add loan products for green building. The possibilities are endless.

And, let’s not forget our most valuable resources – the human ones. Training employees on sustainability leads to material savings and increases efficiency, productivity, and loyalty in the workplace. The Human Rights Initiative completed such training through the company that I run, EarthPeople, a Dallas-based sustainability consultancy. CEO Cannon Flowers said his staff enjoyed the training seminar in energy efficiency, and added, “We’ve identified ways to reduce our operating costs through conservation. We’re also pleased to be able to set an example of environmental responsibility that other organizations can follow.”

Leadership is the key to successful implementation of sustainability initiatives, no matter the size of the company. For SMEs, going green is largely a voluntary action dependent upon the vision and conviction of one or a few individuals. One advantage is that SMEs are free to experiment with sustainability without the pressures of meeting compliance regulations or pacifying activist groups. Enterprising companies with a flair for promotion can earn immediate recognition from stakeholders and the media for their efforts.

Challenges arise when well-intentioned individuals lack the leadership ability to sell their CEOs on their vision. Moreover, most CEOs lack the time, interest, or expertise to manage sustainability initiatives, which they often deem ancillary to the company’s primary purpose. What’s a SME to do? Revisit the formula: greening the SME calls for personal leadership, an inquiring mind, and a little bit of creativity. For those lacking in one or all of these areas, a sustainability consultant is the best solution.

The moral of the story is that sustainability, while not for the faint of heart, is a strategy that SMEs can apply with phenomenal speed and success as long as the commitment is there. Smart SMEs will embrace the changes and recognize the process as evolutionary. Stagnant SMEs may give green a nod, but without commitment and consistency, it will never stick.

The business landscape in the 21st century offers some rich rewards to sustainability pioneers who can muster the courage to reach for the brass ring. The best part is that, in this game, we all win.

Anna Clark is president of EarthPeople, a consulting firm that helps companies of all sizes save money and bolster their brand through the leading-edge principle of sustainability.

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