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Strategy: Does it benefit your company to go green?

Susan D'Souza, who manages sustainability projects for Staples, at her office in Mississauga, Ont.

Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

Government-mandated environmental audits don't come cheap. So when Staples Advantage, the B2B arm of the office supply giant, found that it could eliminate the consultant and assign the work to an internal "green team," the choice was a no-brainer.

"We took their passion and we made it a win-win," says Susan D'Souza, national manager of quality and sustainability. "They learned new skills, helped us meet a regulatory audit, and saved us thousands of dollars."

This is a small example of how Staples Advantage's sustainability strategy is paying off. On a larger scale, their Fifty Green program, which encourages its customers to eliminate small orders, reduced the number of small deliveries by 50 per cent in just three years, cutting into major cost centres such as fuel, vehicle depreciation, and administrative overhead. Other green programs have reduced packaging costs, lowered heating and lighting bills, and cut waste disposal costs.

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Business growth is another important factor. Staples Advantage is finding, increasingly, that its customers also have sustainability policies and favour suppliers who align with similar objectives. The company frequently consults with its customers on sustainability issues, and has found the issue to be a powerful builder of customer loyalty.

Chartered accountant Mike Harris, a partner at PwC, says that, until recently, many businesses viewed sustainability as a matter of corporate philanthropy. Today, a growing number are finding that sustainability isn't just about ethics; it also makes good business sense.

"Corporations now not only understand the significance of reducing their carbon footprint, but can see sustainable initiatives as investments in opportunities to operate more efficiently," says Mr. Harris.

Accounting organizations themselves are engaging in sustainability initiatives.

The International Federation of Accountants, which represents about 2.5 million accountants in 127 countries and jurisdictions, has a permanent committee on sustainability, and accounting groups across the world are revising their skill specifications accordingly.

"The major accounting firms all have people that are involved in sustainability reporting," says Aris Solomon, associate professor of accounting at Athabasca University.

Many, such as PwC, also have their own internal strategies in place. "Our goal for the environment includes reducing our carbon footprint, setting strategies in place to operate more resourcefully, and engaging our employees to put these efforts into practice," says Mr. Harris.

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The company's new downtown Toronto building, for example, was built to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) gold standards. Features like high-efficiency heating, thermal storage, and intelligent lighting systems ensure that the building consumes 30 per cent less energy.

PwC also uses technology to cut employee travel time, a major source of both costs and carbon output. "Technological innovation can transform patterns of travel and communication, and change energy consumption," says Mr. Harris. "Across Canada, we provide staff with flexible work arrangements, telecommuting, updated video-conference capabilities, and online training delivery options. These efforts have contributed to a reduction in business travel costs, as well as improved employee satisfaction."

As with Staples, the sustainability strategy at PwC is a powerful recruitment tool, and also creates teams of engaged employees who often take the lead on sustainability initiatives. One such program reduced paper consumption by 11 per cent, or more than 7 million sheets, using electronic communication.

Risk mitigation is another important benefit, says Dr. Solomon. Organizations with well-established sustainability policies are less subject to rising fuel prices, tightening of environmental regulations, or environmental mandates from major customers such as Wal-Mart . "It's risk that affects the bottom line," says Dr. Solomon.

Ultimately, the most significant gains come from the cumulative impact of sustainability initiatives. "We view sustainability as a key enabler to achieve our business goals, as well as impact the community and environment in a positive way," says Ms. D'Souza of Staples. "I firmly believe that sustainability has to be built into every job description that we have here."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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Sustainable strategies are not just good for the environment but also for business, say the experts. Here are four key benefits:

Lower operating costs. Sustainable policies can lower costs in areas such as energy consumption, administrative overhead, disposal and recycling, equipment depreciation, and maintenance.

Business growth. Sustainability can be a powerful marketing tool that drives revenue growth through customer loyalty, differentiation from competitors, and stronger brand awareness.

Employee engagement. Employees are often highly motivated by environmental issues, and can become more committed to their company by participating in activities that promote sustainability. A reputation for sustainable practices also helps companies recruit the best and the brightest.

Risk mitigation. Sustainability strategies can protect companies against regulatory changes, public relations liabilities, rising fuel prices, and the changing requirements of large customers.

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