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The Big Impact from Greening Small Businesses

Small businesses, by their sheer numbers, have the potential to make a huge impact on the environment, and groups organized at the national, state and local level are working to spread sustainability to independent companies that want -- and need -- to go green.

When it comes to the environment, small business is big business.

Although large companies continually grab the headlines with far-reaching announcements about carbon reduction, recycling and eco-friendly products, small businesses have just as much ability to affect the environment.

In the United States, small businesses (defined by the U.S. Small Business Association as independent firms with less than 500 employees) employ half of the private sector workforce and use half of the electricity and natural gas consumed by the commercial and industrial sectors. In 2006, small businesses accounted for 99.9 percent of the 26.8 million businesses in the country.

Clearly we can't expect only the largest businesses that make up the remaining .1 percent to take action. While it's no groundbreaking revelation that everyone has to do their part to lessen their impact on the environment, the challenge lies in bringing the smaller players together and putting them all on the right track. If that sounds like an uphill battle, the good news lies in the numerous groups working on the issue, the leaders of which agree: what it all comes down to is working on the most local level possible.

The Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) one of the largest of these groups, an affiliation of 52 business networks spread across 22 states, Washington, D.C. and Canada. BALLE works with its member networks to share ideas, experiences and tools that those groups can then take home and spread within their own local communities. Because each network is focused only on a specific area, it's able to work on region-specific needs and resources.

"What a small business is able to do that a large business is not, is they have a much closer connection with the community," said Ann Bartz, BALLE's network development manager. BALLE's focus is on moving local businesses to sustainable practices, Bartz said, and that varies by region and the types of businesses.

The group defines a local business as one in which the owner has full autonomy and authority to make decisions covering all aspects of the business. Typically these are small businesses, but BALLE doesn't set a size limit for members. Working with autonomous entities and free-spirited entrepreneurs can pose challenges, but it offers many other opportunities for success and innovation.

"They are a lot more flexible in the steps they are able to take," Bartz said. "They are able to make their own decisions about what types of lighting they want to put in or what types of relations they want to have with other businesses in the community."

Some of BALLE's networks were around for years before BALLE existed, joining the network because they shared the same goals and ideas. Other networks sprouted up because of BALLE, Bartz said. Businesses interested in sustainability formed a network specifically to join up with BALLE, or contacted the group for advice on how to make a network.

Green Networking

Although there are other groups organized like BALLE -- a nationwide organization that works with smaller local networks -- there are other ways for green businesses to come together, including many other independent green business groups or sustainability programs developed by chambers of commerce.

Co-Op America's Green Business Network is one such independent business group. It shares some goals with BALLE, which aims to create local and sustainable economies, but whereas BALLE's networks work to green communities, The Green Business Network works on a national level bringing together businesses that are already green. The Network has added more than 2,500 companies to its ranks through its evaluation program, and now lists them in Co-Op America's National Green Pages and links them with any of the Co-Op's 60,000 companies looking for green supplies and services.

While the Green Business Network works on promoting green businesses, the Green Chamber of Commerce is aiming to create a coalition to eventually be on par with the biggest business group of them all, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Although the U.S. Chamber annually spends the most money lobbying on business issues, it has a spotty track record on green issues. Although it says it supports renewable energy projects, it fought to have an amendment requiring 15 percent of each state's energy to come from renewables removed from the Energy Bill passed late last year.

With a planned membership drive launching soon, the Green Chamber of Commerce plans to eventually lobby states and Congress on behalf of green businesses issues. "The idea is to bring businesses in that want to be green and have sustainable business practices," said James Carter, the group's president.

Somewhat like BALLE, the Chamber plans to set up local chapters to provide state- and region-specific resources, lobbying and support. It currently has more than 50 members in Arizona, California and Oregon.

Phoenix, Carter said, is a good example of both the challenges his members are facing and the kinds of projects they hope to take on. This rapidly growing city of 1.5 million residents currently doesn't have a green certification program for businesses and many areas of the city are still lacking basic green services like commercial recycling.

While many small businesses can take steps of their own to green themselves -- switching to CFLs, using less paper and other simple changes -- there must be systems in place for other green practices. If there's no one picking up recyclable materials, businesses can't recycle waste. Simply put, "The services have to be available for people to take advantage of them," Carter explained.

Once the Green Chamber of Commerce has local chapters, he expects them to work with cities and local chambers to identify programs to expand or create as a way of getting more businesses working toward sustainability.

Not all of groups trying to bring small businesses together have met with success. Around the same time the Green Chamber of Commerce formed in mid-2007, a similar group, The Green Chamber, came into existence. Although it dissolved before truly taking off, high demand for this kind of program has led some former members of The Green Chamber to retool and revive it.

"There were many issues to deal with but we kept hearing from people who said...'Please make this work. We want to be a part of it,'" said Theckla Sterrett, president and director of account services for Mountain Laurel Advertising and one of the members reworking the group.

From Federal to Local

Rather than launch a new entity aimed solely at greening businesses, some large groups are seeing the benefit of including sustainability practices as one element of a larger agenda. There is no green business group yet as large as the U.S. Chamber, which claims to represent 3 million businesses. BALLE's network includes about 15,000 businesses, and smaller networks, city chambers and regional groups are comprised of a few thousand, hundreds or only a couple dozen businesses.

Combined together, all these groups can reach as many, or more, businesses than the U.S. Chamber, and many non-green businesses groups are adding sustainability to their agendas.

The National Small Business Association is primarily concerned with advocating government policies beneficial to small businesses. But the group has also issued its Energy Star Challenge to the 150,000 businesses it reaches, asking them to reduce the amount of energy they use by 10 percent and spreading information on the Energy Star for Small Business program.

Run by the EPA and Department of Energy, Energy Star for Small Business provides a plethora of information, resources, case studies, recognition and support for cutting energy use. Adopting some of these solutions can result in significant savings, depending on the type of business and how deeply the solutions are implemented. The Goody Goody Diner in St. Louis used a simple program of switching lightbulbs, turning off lights and installing motion-sensing lighting to save about $1,300. The Vic's Market grocery store in Sacramento, Calif., though, has saved $48,000 a year through improvements to lights and its freezers.

Another government resource, the Small Business Environmental Home Page, provides resources on environmental compliance and pollution prevention for state Small Business Environmental Assistance Programs, which then work with businesses.

Although much of the information on the Home Page is focused on complying with environmental regulations, it also includes best practices for reducing waste and increasing recycling in different sectors, from bakeries and retail stores to hotels and landscaping companies.

Many states also run Recycling Market Development Zone programs, set up at the city or county level. The Zones assist in setting up recycling programs and offer grants or marketing for businesses that provide recyclable materials and businesses that use recycled materials in their goods.

In response to the relative lack of green-oriented small business programs at the national level, states and cities across the country are seeing sustainable groups sprout up:

  • The Indiana Sustainability Alliance was recently formed to provide education and networking events, share information from experts in sustainable development, green building, renewable energy, water management and more;
  • New York now has the Sustainable Business Network of NYC, part of BALLE, which drew more than 130 members and supports of local businesses to its founding event;
  • and Los Angeles has the Sustainable Business Council, a group founded by business executives dedicated make LA a leader in sustainability by educating businesses and individuals about sustainable products, services and processes.

    Businesses also have the option of hiring a consultant. Hall Financial Group, a company with a few hundred employees, is a small business that has found it can make big changes.

    Among its business interests, Hall Financial oversees a 15-building office park in Frisco, Texas. The company hired sustainability consultant Anna Chouteau to look at its operations and see what it could do better.

    Because the group is looking to build two new buildings, Chouteau said, they're going to build them with an eye toward LEED certification. She's also working with the office park's cleaning company to switch to more environmentally friendly products, crafting a green preferred purchasing program, analyzing where they can save energy costs and educating tenants about the office park's recycling program.

    Aside from networks, alliances and councils working solely on green businesses issues, cities are getting in on the act, too.

    The city of Palo Alto, Calif., runs the PaloAltoGreen Program, letting businesses and residents volunteer to pay an addition charge on energy bills to support wind and solar power generation programs in the state. The city also has a Zero Waste Task Force, crafted a Climate Protection Plan for reducing emissions from the government and community, encourages the use of reusable bags with its BYOBag Campaign, and runs many other sustainable program.

    On a slightly larger scale, the Bay Area Green Business Program has certified more than 1,000 small and medium businesses and public agencies in the nine counties it covers. The program provides a listing of green businesses and lets them use the program's logo to advertise their greenness. Businesses can also get advice and technical assistance with cutting energy, pollution and waste.

    No matter what scale of program or size of membership, the underlying goal for all these green business groups is the same: sharing information among people who want to make change but rarely have the time or support to implement green ideas. Any business owner can search the Internet for tips and information on becoming more sustainable, but by creating small-scale coalitions that provide advice from local experts geared towards local issues, these groups are able to make small companies the biggest drivers of sustainable business.

    Jonathan Bardelline is the assistant editor at

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