Greening a business isn’t so hard

April 20, 2010


Yalmaz Siddiqui is Office Depot’s director of environmental strategy. The views expressed here are his own.

The 40th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22 undoubtedly has many individuals and businesses ramping up their green efforts, programs and even launching new green products or processes.

At Office Depot, we’re doing the same, as our recent series of announcements has shown.

But the symbolism of the date has also encouraged us to think more broadly about the greening of business.

This has led us to three key insights that help us — and may help others — address the common challenges of going greener.

These insights can be seen as shifts in perspective that can help you turn “green” into opportunities for your organization.

Shift #1: Green means savings

Perhaps the single biggest challenge to companies going green is the notion that green equals cost. This is so central to our current thinking about green that when market researchers ask about willingness to go green, an accepted question is “how much more are you willing to pay for a green product?”

There are two problems with this thinking:

1. It reinforces the notion that going green necessarily costs more.

2. It ignores the fact that even if green does sometimes cost more, many green ideas can bring substantial savings over time.

For individuals trying to help their organizations go greener, perhaps a good way to overcome this challenge is to articulate potential green efforts by using the idea of a “Green Savings Continuum.”

This would allow you to first push for green initiatives that immediately save money, such as switching to remanufactured ink and toner cartridges, implementing a program to encourage staff to turn off lights and computers, and finding other ways to reduce waste and increase efficiency.

The savings for these efforts can then be used to invest in green efforts that may cost more upfront, but overtime will result in savings.

Examples here could be switching to energy efficient lighting and technology; and purchasing or switching to more durable or reusable products.

Savings from these efforts can then be applied to the other green efforts that do happen to cost more.

Shift #2: Shift from “what” you want to do to make your business greener to “who” you should engage.

Organizations can only go greener if individuals within their walls decide to go greener.

As such, perhaps a better way to encourage a systemic shift in your organization is to think less about what you’d like to do, and more about who controls the decisions that result in your organization’s environmental impact. Your first task is then to engage those specific individuals.

The key is to focus on understanding the challenges and goals of the people with decision making authority.

If you can align your green efforts with their objectives, you may be surprised how quickly barriers may fall.

In fact, what may surprise you is that there are green champions everywhere. People genuinely want to find ways to contribute to a “bigger cause,” and you may find people in the “green closet” everywhere in your company.

Spend time talking to the green champions you find. Help them think through the opportunities and support their efforts to implement new programs that deliver both economic benefits and positive environmental outcomes.

Start by finding individuals who can help reduce waste, improve efficiency and help grow your business by tapping into green customer segments.

At Office Depot, I have personally found green champions in a number of business units, including construction, supply chain, IT and facilities.

As a result, building a Gold LEED Certified store in Austin, Texas or transitioning to more fuel-efficient delivery trucks wasn’t as difficult as one may assume.

Shift #3: Shift from what is not being done, to what your company, and others are doing.

Another common challenge to the greening of business stems from the environmental community’s enduring focus on what is not being done to go greener. This focus disallows a celebration of what a person or a company is doing, because so much energy is spent trying to address things that are not being done.

By shifting your focus from the negative to the positive, you can create a virtuous cycle of greener actions.

Reward small steps everywhere you see them. Reward green champions by celebrating their actions through press releases or internal recognition.

The best approach might even be to completely direct your communications to the positive. This will help you avoid the common environmental refrain of “it’s great that you are doing this…but you could be doing so much more.”

Another valuable tool to green your company is to “normalize” green efforts. This means celebrating the green programs of other businesses, inside and outside your sector. By communicating the fact that other companies are going green, and “normalizing” the green-ward shift, you can help engage decision makers who may be more influenced by their peers than by you.

If you use this approach, be wary of stepping over the line by making negative comparisons. i.e. don’t communicate a competitors green effort by saying “we should be doing this because our competitor is doing it.”

Instead, simply communicate and celebrate that company’s greener practices. This soft sell of “normalization” is more powerful than the hard sell of comparison.

So the biggest challenges to greening a business are the same challenges as driving any other change.

You need to understand and address common perceptual barriers to change. You need to find and engage people who are best placed to drive the change. And you need to “normalize” and reward a shift from the status quo.

By applying these principles, you may help your company break through the common barriers to going green. And you’ll help ensure that by Earth Day 2050 we can celebrate the fact that we solved our environmental challenges, and we did so profitably.


Photo shows the Detroit skyline during Earth Hour across the river from Windsor, Ontario March 29, 2008. REUTERS/ Mike Cassese

One comment

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I work in manufacturing companies and green or environmental issues seems to be a fad. There are so many things we can do to make it greener like switching from overseas sourcing to local sourcing then cargo travels less and level of carbon emission is lower. People just don’t see the impact by themselves then level of awareness is low. If they know how to measure level of green performance, understand how to analyze carbon footprint and understand what to do to lower carbon emission/wastes, thing is going to be a lot easier. ml

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