The Greening of Small Business – Save the Planet, Plump Up Profits

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Written by: Emily Schmall

Growing up near a coal-burning plant in Chicago, Marilyn Jones says she was often sickened by the polluted air. So when she started a commercial printing company in 1973, she decided to go green, replacing traditional petroleum-heavy ink with vegetable-based options.

"I wasn’t a rich woman, but it was the right thing to do," Jones says.

She later moved Consolidated Printing into a sunlit space and refitted it with formaldehyde-free insulation, recycled ceiling tiles and carpet. The paint she used was free of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). For Jones, going green was a commitment to her employees’ health – but it has also had tangible side benefits.

"We save 40 percent every year in energy costs," Jones says, "and spend a fraction of what we used to pay in production."

Increasingly, companies are realizing that energy-efficient products, waste reduction and water conversion aren’t just better for the environment, but also the bottom line.

State and federal tax credits and utilities rebates largely offset the expense. Energy costs drop, productivity rises and public image improves, experts say.

A ‘Green Light’ for Your Company’s Image

Going green is a good marketing strategy for small businesses to differentiate themselves from greedy, profit-driven corporate America, says Mary Ann Lazarus, design director at HOK, a pioneering green architecture firm in Toronto.

"There’s a panache to being recognized as someone who cares about being green and demonstrates that through office design," she says.

Marilyn Jones’ Consolidated Printing is a prime example. Well known for its green practices, the company has won prestigious contracts like the 2004 opening of the William J. Clinton Library in Little Rock, Ark., the 2003 and ’07 inaugurations of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, and honors from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"We were doing this before anybody cared," Jones says, "but now it really sets us apart."

Marketing opportunity inspired Portland, Ore.-based Quantec, a consumer-behavior consulting firm, to green up its offices. Rather than retrofit, Quantec moved into an old warehouse with tall windows that offered natural sunlight and fresh air.

Employees keep supplies in cabinets made from a straw waste product; they compost lunch leftovers. Wind power runs the office computers and the company offers subsidies to workers who bike to work or drive a hybrid car.

"We wanted to show our customers that it could be done," says Allen Lee, a project director who led the redesign.

And since the company went green, he adds, sales have doubled.

Cities are Catching On

Regulatory incentives are also driving green office design. San Francisco has banned plastic bags, New York aims to reduce energy use by 15 percent, and all new public buildings in Chicago must be environmentally friendly. Going green makes sense for businesses that want to keep pace with local laws and mandates.

Chicago adopted its green laws in 2006, when Ori Sivan was a doctoral student in environmental engineering at Northwestern University. He believed the move would trigger a market for green supplies, and left his studies to open Greenmaker Supply Co.

"When the mayor of Chicago says all future city buildings are going to be green, it means something," Sivan says. "I wanted to help see his vision through."

You don’t have to sacrifice style or design to go green. Available non-toxic paints and resins, recycled glass and stone tiles, bamboo and cork parquet flooring, 100-percent wool carpets and many other products are both stylish and eco-friendly.

The Costs of Greening are Falling

Demand for green design has pushed down prices. Increasingly, hipsters – not just hippies – are demanding earth-friendly working and living environments.

"It’s viewed as urban, progressive, cosmopolitan," Lazarus says. "It can fit every budget, every building design and every aesthetic."

Lisa Mitchell, founder of Minneapolis-based Recyclaholics, an early leader of the zero-waste movement, says companies can also save cash every year because recycling is tax-free.

"It’s eco-chic, but it also just makes sense," Mitchell says. "People are realizing there’s a way to save money and save the planet."