From red to ‘green’

The truth about the cost of greening your business

By Helen Rake

Have you ever watched the television show, “The Biggest Loser”? At first, most contestantsalmost give up because they fear change and doubt their physical abilities; many have become complacent in their ways and think it’s easier to just accept the situation.

Although their fear almost gets the best of them, Bob and Jillian, the coaches, push them to their physical limits and challenge them to change their complacent and destructive mindset so they don’t backslide after all the hard work. Once they start to see the results of following a comprehensive weight-loss program they realize that they have the strength of mind and body to accomplish almost anything.

By the end of the season, the change in their bodies and their self-confidence is incredible. The finale leaves you feeling inspired and hopeful that real change can be achieved if people just stick with a simple program.

Bringing it to business

For local small business owners, adopting sustainable business practices, going green, is a little like “The Biggest Loser” for them. Daunting at first, but with measured changes in behavior and mindset, it becomes not only easier to be green over time, but the rewards, such as savings, energy efficiencies, and community goodwill, start to compound. The pride in their accomplishments as they begin to see the results encourages them to continue on the quest.

When talking to small business owners about making sustainable practices part of their business plan, one objection crops up almost every time, “It’s just too expensive.” They usually justify this by pointing out that many of the examples used are from large fortune 500 companies with unlimited resources to conduct extensive rebranding, and they don’t think they can take the steps needed to be considered socially responsible by eco-aware consumers.

And with the economic crisis still wreaking havoc on many small companies, that seems to be a logical argument—unless you consider that many green strategies not only result in cost savings, but actually cost nothing to implement in the first place.

Knocking misconceptions

This popular misconception mainly exists because business owners feel they must do it all at once or they won’t be taken seriously for their measured efforts by the eco-elite, and you can’t blame them. There is a lot of rhetoric in the media and among various green organizations criticizing “greenwashers.”

That term is mostly used to mean “fakers,” and really, you are only a “faker” if you aren’t making an honest effort to be more responsible, or you lie about what you are doing or the extent to which you are doing it.

It’s true that if you decide to tackle greening in large chunks, say making your building more energy efficient through various updates or upgrades, the upfront costs can be significant. For example: It can cost anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 to upgrade or replace insulation in a 2,500 square-foot building and sealing the duct work can cost another $1,350.

The payback, however, comes in lowered energy costs, but it could take as many as 14 years to recoup the cost of such a project. To some this may be a small price to pay for the ability to claim a “greener” space, but many small businesses are barely making ends meet right now and spending thousands on such upgrades could be completely out of reach.

What you can do

So what do you do if you want to green your business, but don’t have the money to take on major projects?

In some circles, the following information may not be popular—there are critics that say unless you make a concerted effort to be completely responsible and employ only green practices you are not truly “green”—but I think doing something, even if it is small, is a lot better than doing nothing.

And starting small is OK—at least it’s starting. Like losing weight, it is usually best to undertake greening your business in small bites over time because according to most physicians lasting weight loss is best achieved by measured changes over time.

Simple actions

Start with simple actions that cost nothing, such as:

1. Turn up the thermostat when you leave. By simply turning up the thermostat five degrees before leaving your office at the end of each day, you can save 5% on energy bills each year. At some point, it may be feasible to spend a few dollars on a programmable thermostat, but until then turn it up when you leave.

2. Print on both sides of the paper. This can cut your paper consumption by as much as 50% at no additional cost. Not only does this save paper, it saves ink and creates less wear and tear on your printer resulting in significant savings over time.

3. Scan and email instead of faxing. This is another great way to save paper, ink, and fax machine wear.

4. Recycle. Many communities provide for recycling at little or no cost. This can include paper, plastic, and aluminum. Here in Jacksonville, you can not only recycle, but you can help put under privileged citizens to work by using Shred It First Coast.

5. Get an energy audit. Locally, JEA and FPL both offer energy audits at no cost to you. These can be invaluable when you want to learn how to save even more on energy costs and many of their suggestions involve little or no cost solutions. They may even help fund some of the changes through their small business incentives programs. To find out more about these programs, go to to the Conservation Center and search for “small business.”

For pennies on the dollar you can also:

6. Caulk your windows. It may cost a couple hundred dollars on a 2,500 square-foot building, but it can save around $250 a year, an almost immediate payback.

7. Replace light bulbs. The same goes for replacing existing bulbs with compact fluorescents. This can cost $136 dollars, but save you $200 each year.

8. Decorate with plants. Decorate indoor work spaces with inexpensive hardy plants. They improve air quality and create a more inviting décor.

9. Use power strips. Use a power management strip on all of your electronics. This reduces energy emitted from electronics while they are not in use but still on. Some electronics cannot be simply cut off so this may be a good option for them. You can buy one for less than $100.

Improvements as reinvestments

It’s a good idea to look at these improvements as reinvestments into your business. That way you can measure your return on investment (ROI) as a profit/loss sheet item and feel better about the initial outlay. Like the contestants on “The Biggest Loser” that see their efforts translate into falling numbers on the scale, as you see the savings start to add up because of your efforts you will be more likely to continue down the road to sustainability.

Remember, long-term success in weight loss has more to do with your mindset than almost anything else so it is important to think about sustainable business practices as a permanent part of your business plan.

Lose the fear

Is cost really the issue, or is it more the fear of change? The fact is, most of us take our environment for granted. We have become complacent thinking that being eco-friendly is best left to extremists and tree huggers. This type of thinking does more to harm your business than help it grow.

Consumers want to buy products from evolved businesses. They want to feel good not only about the products they buy, but the services they use and the places they get them. Sustainability is now commonplace and expected. If you choose not to at least attempt to adopt more sustainable practices, you are missing the boat and may eventually be overtaken by the wave of businesses that will.

On “The Biggest Loser,” almost every contestant eventually realizes that they have put up roadblocks to their own success because they have let fear of change control them. They have to shed complacency to move forward into a better and more rewarding future.

As a small business owner, you may need to overcome psychological roadblocks that say that greening your business isn’t practical or possible because of the cost. The real cost is in losing a whole segment of new consumers that want to support honest, sustainability efforts locally.

Start small, start smart, but start now so you don’t get left behind.

Helen Rake

Helen Rake is president of the Northeast Florida Green Chamber. She can be reached at 904-493-7500 ext. 9,, or through

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