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More and more, small-business owners are evaluating their supply chain through the lens of the “triple bottom line” — that is, balancing economic considerations with social and environmental ones.
But the rapid proliferation of sustainable products and services proves it’s not so easy being green. With more than 600 green labels on the market worldwide, according to a recent article on Greenbiz.com, business owners are awash with choices that didn’t exist three years ago.
Despite the challenges, companies of all sizes have much to gain by getting on board. Here’s a road map to help you navigate the green fog when buying products and services for your business.
A logical place to begin is to look at how you buy, not just what you buy. Inefficient processes always carry ecological and financial costs, hidden though they may be.
If, for example, you purchase supplies from a big-box retailer and are required to meet a minimum with each order, you’re probably ordering more products than your company needs. This increases the likelihood that miscellaneous items will go unused. How many companies have obsolete toner cartridges gathering dust on the shelves? Too many.
The next step is to create a green supply chain that corresponds with your business objectives. If your goal is to cut costs, you may save more money by printing double-sided than by switching to paper with higher recycled content.
If your goal is to reduce energy costs, you probably know to purchase ENERGY STAR-qualified products. But to go the extra mile, consider switching to a commercial electricity plan that offers a combination of renewable energy in varying amounts — at prices equal to or less than the competition.
People, Planet and Profits
When evaluating your supply chain, you can rely on virtually the same set of criteria for everything from the cups in the break room to the packaging of your products. Most certifications apply the following attributes when determining a product’s environmental impact:
- Clean. Emits the least amount of pollution possible for its category.
- Energy-efficient. Energy is not wasted in producing or operating the product.
- Water-conscious. Water is not wasted in manufacturing and/or the product itself is a water-saving device.
- Resource-efficient. Goods are made with recyclable content.
- Recyclable. At the end of its life, some or all of the product’s parts can be recycled.
- Streamlined. Not over-packaged.
- Fair trade.The environment is half the battle. People matter too. Are those who make the product compensated fairly and are their working conditions safe?
- Necessary. No product can be green if you can easily do without it.
- Certified. A third party validates the manufacturer’s claims.
From a public relations standpoint, “certified” is one of the most pragmatic solutions. It’s far easier to say, “I work in a LEED-certified building” than it is to say, “I work in a building that conserves energy, has superior indoor air quality and was constructed with materials sourced from within 500 miles.” Credible green product certifications, such as the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED designation, communicate dozens of green attributes in a single term or phrase.
The Big Picture
Switching to certified products is a step in the right direction, but a more holistic policy is required to weave sustainability principles throughout the supply chain. Case in point: EarthSmart, a comprehensive program that integrates environmental responsibility with business solutions, work culture and community outreach efforts at FedEx.
“FedEx understands that we have a responsibility to reduce our carbon footprint while being a positive resource to communities around the world,” says Laura Fortenberry, a global brand manager for FedEx. “With EarthSmart, we’re able to measure our efforts against our goals to make sure we remain challenged to always do more and be better.”
For small-business owners struggling to develop a sustainability policy, the FedEx Global Citizenship Report includes more details on EarthSmart and provides some inspiration in terms of big-picture strategy.
In addition, several organizations offer practical tools for aligning an eco-friendly ethos with purchasing requirements. The EPA’s Environmentally Preferable Purchasing Guide features an index for evaluating green products and services, and calculating the costs and benefits of purchasing choices.
Members of the Responsible Purchasing Network have access to green purchasing tools and guides, an explanation of certifications, and a list of products that meet recommended criteria.
And, to access lists of hundreds of green vendors for every type of product or service, look no further than Green America’s National Green Pages and the Organic Consumers Association’s GreenPeople Directory.
Changing the way you purchase products is not a financial cost as much as an investment in your future. An environmentally responsible business plan will set you apart from the competition, while helping you conserve precious resources — not least of all your own.
Anna Clark is the author of “Green, American Style” and the president of EarthPeople, a consulting and communications firm that helps clients save money and bolster their brands through profitable sustainability strategies.
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