Is Your Company a Good Public Citizen?

Most businesses can't afford to prioritize sustainability. Here are budget-friendly tips to be a better public citizen.
Business and Workplace Author, Speaker, and Consultant, AlexandraLevit.com
July 19, 2012

According to many, the answer is probably no.

As Kelly Spors wrote in a March article for Small Business Trends, environmental sustainability isn’t nearly as prevalent in small businesses as it is in the corporate world. “Sure, some small businesses have jumped on board and are leagues ahead when it comes to energy efficiency and conservation,” she says. “But plenty of them have done practically nothing to go green and continue to operate the same way they’ve operated for 10, 20 or 50 years.”

A recent survey by the Boston Consulting Group and MIT supported this point of view, finding that only nine percent of small companies (fewer than 1,000 employees) fully embrace sustainability. The reasons vary, but most have to do with the time and money small-business owners feel is required to make the necessary adaptations. In this column, I’d like to explore three ways small businesses can become better public citizens without losing their shirts.

Volunteer and Internship Programs

One of the most cost-effective methods for improving your sustainability measures is to organize a group of employee volunteers that is responsible for putting together related office initiatives. Hiring a college intern who is majoring in environmental science or conservation and can do some background research might also be a good bet.

Recycling Programs

The Environmental Protection Agency claims that 75 percent of solid waste thrown away is actually recyclable, so your first step is to analyze the garbage your company is creating. If you notice that people are throwing out paper and water bottles, put clearly marked paper recycling bins under desks and by copy machines, and place plastic recycling bins in the kitchen and by building entrances.

If your trash collector doesn’t pick up recyclables already, ask for a quote and find out what they’ll take and how often, as well as how materials need to be separated. Items your trash collector might not pick up, such as old electronics, are still recyclable via local drop-off centers.

Energy Programs

Contact your utility company to determine if it does free energy audits for small businesses, and find out what discounts may be available for going green. There are also federal tax benefits for energy-efficient businesses, and your local government may offer incentives as well.

In addition to providing resources in the areas above, the Small Business Administration has terrific recommendations for how small businesses can decrease air pollution, conserve water and design green buildings.

Sustainability in the Real World

One Chicago-based company believes its sustainability efforts are worth it. Radio Flyer, a 70-employee manufacturer of children’s ride-on toys has made environmental concerns a chief priority in both consumer and employee-facing initiatives.

On the consumer side, the company has redesigned its product packaging and assembly to minimize wasted parts and cardboard. And at the office, employee sustainability group the EcoFlyers launched the “One Ton Challenge,” which asked employees to commit to losing a ton of carbon emissions in their daily lives, as well as an organic food co-op, which delivers fresh, organic produce to the office.

The success of these programs is driving momentum and hopefully serving as an example that smaller businesses can do this—and do it well.

Alexandra Levit is a former nationally-syndicated business and workplace columnist for The Wall Street Journal and the author of Blind Spots: The 10 Business Myths You Can’t Afford to Believe on Your New Path to Success. Money magazine’s Online Career Expert of the Year, she regularly speaks at organizations and conferences on issues facing modern employees.

Photo credit: Russell Christian for OPEN Forum