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Taking Green Initiatives to the Next Level

Once your company has gathered up all the low-hanging fruit, what comes next?

Most experts urge companies to start their green strategy with "low hanging fruit" projects, such as replacing light bulbs, launching recycling programs or choosing more energy efficient technology. These early efforts don't cost much to implement, get employees engaged with green ideals and deliver quick results.

But what comes next?

Making the transition from easy-to-implement green initiatives to becoming a green company can seem overwhelming and expensive. But it doesn't have to be.

Whether you are a two-person local business or a multinational company with thousands of employees, making environmental stewardship a core part of your business strategy only takes two fundamental ingredients: active commitment from company leaders, and a willingness to change the way you do business and look at all projects and decisions with an eye toward the environment.

"How you think about going green is how you think about your corporate culture," says Jim Hartzfeld, the managing director of Interface Raise, Atlanta-based Interface's consulting arm. "It's about who you are, what your values are, and who you want to be."

Competitive Advantage

The directive to make a business more environmentally friendly must come from the top and it must engage employees across the organization, Hartzfeld says.

Hartzfeld has worked with Interface since 1994 when Ray Anderson, the company's chairman, first decided that reducing environmental impacts would give the company a competitive edge. Hartzfeld was put in charge of the initiative.

"We had no idea what we were doing," Hartzfeld admits. "But customers had begun asking questions about the environmental impact of our products that we couldn't answer, and at Interface, listening to the customer was deeply rooted in everything we did."

With Anderson's support, Hartzfeld's team began with a simple goal: All initiatives must relate to the mission of the company. "Sustainable development has to be core to the business of what you do, and what you pay for," he says. "That's the key to making that first hurdle. If you can translate what you are doing to who you are, you have the potential to affect every part of your business. It adds value to your stock and your brand reputation, and you'll find ways to make the company more efficient."

Interface began with programs to reduce waste, or what his team describes as "anything we bought that the customer wasn't willing to pay for." That included fossil fuels, garbage and scrap material.

"Those first waste reduction programs created savings early on that paid for future programs and turned our sustainability program into a money-making enterprise," he says.

From there, Interface went on to develop new kinds of carpets and flooring with a lighter environmental footprint, and replaced conventional glues with a patented hard tape in what became a best-selling product. It also purchases renewable energy, buys carbon offset credits and continues seeking ways of reducing fossil fuel use in transportation.

This first goal and all ensuing efforts stemming from it have translated into $372 million in savings and an 82 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions since 1996, Hartzfeld says. "Half of the savings came from small actions that everyone could play a role in, like recycling," he says. "The other half came from big engineering ideas about how to change major pieces of the business."

Hartzfeld attributes Interface's ongoing success over the years to a change in the way Anderson and employees saw the company. "We didn't approach sustainability as a list of things to do, we started thinking about ourselves as a green organization. That's when the big ideas and opportunities came about," he says. "It was as much about changing the technology as it was about changing the culture, and engaging people in a new way of thinking about who we want to be."

A Million Trees

That culture change is an important part of the transition to becoming a greener company, and the change doesn't -- and shouldn't -- happen overnight, says Lisa Martini, spokeswoman for privately owned Enterprise Rent-A-Car, which has the largest fleet of rental cars in the world. "It's a slow process and every step you take should be carefully researched."

Enterprise began its journey just two years ago with its 50 Million Tree pledge to commemorate its 50th anniversary. Through a public/private partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, Enterprise launched an initiative through the Arbor Day Foundation to plant 50 million trees over the next 50 years -- a gift worth more than $50 million dollars.

"The pledge was a way for the company to give something back to customers and employees, to say thank you for all they've done," says Martini. But it also spurred the company to identify other green initiatives that made sense for the business.

"The tree project got employees excited," Martini says.

The company decided that with a fleet of nearly a million cars, it could have the biggest environmental and business impact by reducing fossil fuel use. "It was important for us to participate in issues that matter to our business," Martini says. "We focused on areas where we have knowledge and value to add to the global discussion."

With that in mind, Enterprise focused its goals and initiatives on lessening and offsetting its fleet's environmental impact. Over the past two years, Enterprise has brought in thousands of more fuel efficient vehicles; partnered with the EPA's SmartWay green vehicle rating program; given customers the chance to buy carbon offset credits as part of their rental agreements, matched by the company; and made a $25 million donation to create the Institute for Renewable Fuels.

"All of these initiatives were carefully considered and chosen both because they were good for the environment and good for the business," Martini says. "We understand that to be successful we have to have socially acceptable vehicles."

She also points out that Enterprise has only been at this for two years and didn't jump into any programs. "It was a slow and methodical process. We did a lot of research. We partnered with third-party experts to help us understand the issues, and we thought a long time about these programs before even presenting them to senior level management," Martini says.

That caution has given the company confidence that the initiatives it does support carry value for customers and the business. "Going forward we want customers to feel good about doing business with us," she says.

Riding High

Winning customer approval is a growing benefit of these eco-programs, and the more open you are with what you are doing, the more attention you are likely to receive.

Kevin LaHay, for example, found a unique way to engage customers in his company's initiatives. LaHay, along with partner Shane Fortune, are the co-owners of PB Copy, a two-man digital printing operation in Surrey, Canada.

The two men first got excited about going green after attending a Green Living show in the area where they saw an array of recycled products and low energy technology. They bought several boxes of 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper they now use for 90 percent of their customers' printing.

"That show got us in the mindset of being more eco-friendly," says LaHay. "We asked ourselves: 'What else can we do?"

Their answer has drawn media attention and a crop of customers willing to break a sweat to stay off the grid.

LaHay and Fortune installed an exercise bike with a power inverter and battery pack attachment from Windstream Power in Vermont. Riding the bike generates energy that is stored in the battery pack that they use to power office equipment via an extension cord.

"I do my best to get every customer to ride the bike," says LaHay, who also puts in an hour or two of riding a day. "At first they seem surprised, but when they see I'm serious they usually agree."

Most clients ride for a few minutes while waiting for their copies. LaHay estimates 10 minutes of moderate riding will power 100 copies on the digital printer. When the battery is full, it can power three to four hours of printing, equating to thousands of copies.

To support the bike generator, LaHay also put together a homemade two-panel solar power system that he attached to the end of a pole that he sets in the sun each day while the shop is open.

The two innovative additions, along with turning off unnecessary lights and powering down equipment when its not in use, cut PB Copy's energy bill 45 percent in one year.

More than that, it's won the print shop a growing number of loyal customers and fans, including a group of local kids who stop by most days to pedal the bike. "People see that we are trying to make a bit of difference," LaHay says. "It's getting us a lot of notice."

Garnering approval from customers is an important value-add for green initiatives, and it will soon become a deal breaker as more consumers and governments set expectations for sustainability as the price of doing business.

"The sustainability conversation is moving into the mainstream," says Hartzfeld of Interface Raise. "You have to have the courage to try something radically different, to engage your people, and see what the opportunities are from a business value standpoint. If you don't, then one day soon you are not going to be an innovative leader."

Sarah Fister Gale is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

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