Companies around the world are working to reduce their environmental footprints, but small businesses play a particularly important role in preventing any negative impact on the environment, community or economy – the three pillars of sustainability.
Small businesses, generally described as having fewer than 50 employees, represent about 97 per cent of the total business establishments in Canada, according to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. As a result, the green efforts of small enterprises such as motels, bed and breakfasts, grocery and convenience stores, auto repair shops, florists, restaurants and hair salons form the foundation of workplace sustainability efforts, many experts say.
Liz Nield and Susan Hall are among the owners of Lura Consulting, with offices in Toronto, Hamilton and Halifax, who advise businesses, educational institutions and municipalities on sustainability planning and efforts. They will be practising what they preach when they renovate a new 1,100-square-foot storefront on Hamilton Mountain for office space for five people over the coming months.
"One of the things we've already done by choosing that location is we've made it accessible for employees to get to work, so they can take transit or walk instead of drive, and people can work at home if they need to," Ms. Hall says. "We'll also look at energy-efficient appliances, low-flow water fixtures, even simple things like paint selection and flooring have more sustainable options, and we've already joined the local business improvement association" to address the community aspects of sustainability."
But how can other small businesses go about getting on the road to sustainability?
Aryne Sheppard, senior public engagement specialist with the Vancouver-based David Suzuki Foundation, says getting everyone in the workplace onboard is the first step, but can be a challenge.
"You need everyone participating – it really is about taking ownership, and that can happen much easier if you have a small team," she says from the foundation's Toronto office.
While one downside of running a small enterprise is being able to afford office and building upgrades and retrofits – many small companies rent, and therefore don't want to spend on new lighting, heating and air conditioning systems – there are a slew of green initiatives that can be taken at little or no cost.
Get staff onboard
Have a conversation with everyone in the workplace. "Set up a meeting to come up with creative solutions, and include people from different areas of the organization – management, administration, IT staff, custodial staff – because everyone will have a different perspective," Ms. Sheppard says. It's easier to get a smaller workplace thinking green without even appointing a team leader, but if a company has more than a dozen or so employees, ask for volunteers for a special committee that is given sustainability planning time during the workday.
Do your research
Conduct an audit into current energy costs, how much paper is used, waste disposal practices, how many employees drive alone to work and how many cycle, take transit, walk or carpool, to help determine priorities and have baselines from which to measure progress. You don't have to pay for a professional audit or consultant, who can charge $100 or more an hour. Industry Canada, for instance, offers assessment tools (Three Steps to Eco-Efficiency, Part 1, http://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/ee-ee.nsf/vwapj/finaltool.PDF/$FILE/finaltool.PDF).
Focus at first on the three Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle. Cut paper use by setting printers to the two-sided default, separate waste and recycling (place small recycling bins at each desk), and conserve energy by turning off lights and computers when not in use. Success here will help staff become more confident to tackle more ambitious initiatives. Make it a policy to purchase eco-friendly office and cleaning supplies, materials from green suppliers, energy-efficient appliances, and second-hand furniture and other fixtures.
Make going green fun
Smaller companies in particular can turn green efforts into easy-to-execute, enjoyable ventures. The 66-page David Suzuki at Work Toolkit (http://www.davidsuzuki.org/publications/resources/2009/david-suzuki-at-work-toolkit/), for one, gives several examples of activities that can engage staff, such as a contest to encourage workers to turn off their computers and monitors.
Let staff know how sustainability efforts are going. They're more likely to remain motivated and be willing to take on bigger ventures – such as getting involved in community environmental efforts that can raise your company's profile – if they can see progress. "Have some kind of visual recognition of the progress being made – even posting information on an old-fashioned bulletin board can work," Ms. Sheppard says.
Governments are increasingly onboard to help companies of all sizes in their sustainability efforts, providing both financial and resource support.
The federal government's Canada Business Network, Government Services for Entrepreneurs site (http://www.canadabusiness.ca/eng/92/881/) lists dozens of funding and incentive programs, from both government and private sources, for all types of businesses.
For instance: The Efficiency Nova Scotia Corporation offers a 15-per-cent rebate on installed solar and-or water heating systems for institutional, industrial or commercial use, with maximum rebates of $20,000 for both systems.
Investissement Québec offers loans, loan guarantees or quasi-equity funding, up to $50,000 over 20 years, to institute environmentally friendly business practices within a business.
The Ontario government's Northern Energy Program makes funding available to northern Ontario businesses aiming to reduce energy use through a renewable energy project.
Farm Credit Canada offers any Canadian producer or agri-business owner considering renewable energy to reduce costs and environmental impact a loan to help purchase and install on-farm energy sources, such as geo-thermal, wind or solar power.
Companies looking to finance building retrofits (such as energy-saving renovations) can check out Canada's Office of Energy Efficiency incentives (including links to incentives from utility companies) at www.oee.rncan.gc.ca/commercial and http://www.oee.rncan.gc.ca/commercial/financial-assistance/index.cfm?attr=20/
Experts say entrepreneurs should view environmental problems as business opportunities.
"All over the country, businesses are discovering that going green isn't just good for the planet, it's good for the bottom line," foundation CEO Peter Robinson says in the forward to the David Suzuki at Work Toolkit, a 66-page document that gives companies and organizations tips on getting their sustainability efforts going.
"Reducing waste and cutting energy consumption means saving money. Adopting in-house strategies to support abundant, clean water and safer food means happier, healthier, more productive staff. Conscientious care for the Earth is good corporate citizenship, which builds brand enhancement and customer loyalty."