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Over the past few years, going green has become such a hot trend in business that even Big Oil is looking cleaner. For instance, Phillips Petroleum (before it merged to become ConocoPhillips) initiated an energy-efficient lighting project that saved the equivalent of what it would cost to plant 940 acres of trees, according to environmental business expert Eric Woodruff, PhD, who likes to express energy savings as real-world benefits.
Yet green business is far from trendy. Operating in a way that is good for the environment is no longer simply about doing the right thing – it's becoming a matter of survival. With a global surge in costs for fuel, electricity and raw materials, most companies are feeling the pain of the rising cost of doing business.
According to The National Small Business Association (NSBA) 2008 survey, 77 percent of business owners surveyed said rising energy prices have had a negative effect on their business. In response to rising costs, the survey reports that 37 percent of businesses have raised their prices, 33 percent have reduced business travel, 11 percent have cut their production schedule and 10 percent have reduced their workforce.
The World of Green IT
When it comes to managing IT, "green computing" can take on many forms: PC power management, energy-efficient electronics, paper reduction, outsourcing, recycling and –for large companies – virtualization technologies and server consolidation. Basically, use less to do more.
“The biggest thing we tell customers is to make your IT infrastructure as simple as possible, because then it's easier to manage – and you have already made a savings," said Jacques Davignon, CEO of Surf Technologies, Inc., an IT consulting firm in Atlanta that focuses on IT management services, including business continuity and risk assessment.
"Green IT is really thinking about things upfront and making decisions today for tomorrow, while at the same time being kind to the environment,” Davignon explained. Recently, he said, Surf Technologies began to offer green IT evaluation and services, because it dovetailed with the company's history of providing guidance for clients to better manage costs and complexity while still deploying solutions that meet business needs.
As an example, a Surf Technologies customer in the logistics industry had a love affair with paper: It maintained 600 filing cabinets of paper records for years, for no clear reason, according to Davignon. Through the help of his firm, the client plans to dispose of the records that are not needed, and scan the rest.
Going forward, the company will scan all records that need to be retained and place them on a storage area network. The firm could have determined years ago what the business truly needed to store from a legal and customer perspective – and for how long. Then, it could have created a document retention policy to dispose of paper records after a certain period of time, Davignon said.
This would have saved the company significantly on upfront storage and facility costs. "A good practice is to define a business model upfront and adhere to the policies from the start," he said.
Breaking Down the Benefits
It does feel good to do the right thing for Mother Earth. But that's not enough for American business, which cares mainly about sales, not acts of kindness. Here's a look at the practical reasons why small businesses – or any business for that matter – should operate more environmentally.
1. Going green means going lean.
Saving money is the number one goal most companies have when embarking on a green-IT initiative, experts say. The competitive benefits of operating more leanly are important to clients, Woodruff said. Energy Star, a program funded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to help small businesses become more energy-efficient, reports that most small businesses can cut their energy costs by 30 percent – the same as a large company.
2. Establish a reputation for ethical business practices.
The benefits don't stop on the balance sheet. By going green, companies can establish a favorable, ethical reputation in the marketplace and prepare for future environmental regulations. “Doing things for the environment also makes good business sense," Davignon said. “If you don’t think that way you are probably missing out on an ethical leadership opportunity or missing a customer segment that you could market to…and you may open yourself up to a legal liability.”
3. Take advantage of green's marketing benefits.
Unless you've been in a dark hole for the past few months, you can't have missed the widespread "green" messaging in the marketplace. From department stores to grocery stores to hotels, everyone is trying to capitalize on the power of Green. You can too, once you embark on real change. And the result can be growth in your business. “We love helping clients get the credit for energy-saving initiatives they are doing,” Woodruff remarked. Of course, your efforts must be valid – otherwise your customers will eventually catch on.
Getting Beyond the Barriers
Despite the many positive reasons for changing business IT practices, the percentage of small businesses actually doing anything about it is still low. Only 18 percent of small businesses have invested in energy-efficient upgrades, according to the 2008 NSBA survey.
Part of the problem may be not knowing where to start and the misconception that it's going to cost a lot of money to do anything worthwhile, according to Melissa Quinn, sustainability manager with SoftChoice, a business-to-business reseller of IT products. “There is a lot of low-hanging fruit,” she said.
“Most business leaders really don’t how to go green,” added Woodruff, who is also chairman of the Certified Carbon Reduction Manager Program. "They don’t know how to be environmentally-friendly, and they especially don’t know how to do it profitably.”
Small companies struggle to implement energy-efficient policies and products primarily because they are strapped for time, said Jerry Lawson, national manager of Energy Star. For larger projects, access to capital is also at least a perceived problem, he said.
However, there are many ways to get started that don't involve massive investments of time or money, such as through power management features on your PCs, double-sided printing and adopting some of Energy Star’s "Sure Energy Savers" guidelines. Watch this site for more advice and tips on how to implement a green technology practice in your business.
Polly Schneider Traylor is a freelance business and technology writer based in San Mateo, California.
This article was first published on SmallBusinessComputing.com