Running a profitable business is hard. Running a profitable business that is carbon accountable is even harder.
But just because our current free-market economic system doesn’t make it easy to run a sustainable operation doesn’t mean your business should surrender to the climate crisis. From both a humanitarian and business standpoint, it makes a lot of sense to take a stand against climate change by negating your company’s carbon footprint.
Carbon footprint explained
Before you can reduce your business’s carbon footprint, you need to understand what exactly it is.
“A company’s carbon footprint is all the greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) generated from the company’s operations,” said Chris Bolman, CEO of sustainability management company Brightest. “That includes office energy consumption, vehicle fuel usage, receiving materials from suppliers, shipping customer orders as well as other emissions sources, depending on the business model. This is commonly called an emissions or carbon ‘inventory.’”
Did you know?: You can calculate your business’s carbon footprint with a carbon footprint calculator.
How to reduce your business’s carbon footprint
While it’s inevitable your company will generate emissions, there are strategies you can embrace to help reduce your business’s carbon footprint. Below are some first steps business leaders can take to make their company more carbon accountable.
1. Move toward zero waste.
The current way we conduct business ― that is, through production, transportation, consumption and disposal of materials ― accounts for a large percentage of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Implementing a zero-waste approach is a short-term, powerful action that can pay off immediately for the climate.
Moving toward zero waste begins with an assessment of your business’s current waste generation, management and disposal. During the audit, you can identify where waste is being generated, how often and where it goes. From there, you can set waste diversion, prevention and reduction goals and institute policies to achieve them. When developing waste-reduction strategies, focus your efforts on reducing, reusing and recycling ― in that order.
Other ways to incorporate a zero-waste approach into your business include going paperless whenever possible, donating old electronics and office furniture, and using eco-friendly, green packaging material that is reusable, compostable or recyclable. Refiling and recycling ink and toner cartridges should be a priority in an office’s zero-waste strategy too as these vessels are incredibly resource-intensive to manufacture and take thousands of years to decompose.
2. Harness renewable energy sources.
Renewable fuels have become more prevalent over the last several years, largely due to climbing oil and gas prices and growing concerns about climate change. Given the finite nature of fossil fuels and the likelihood of international climate change regulations being enacted in the near future, companies should start measuring and reducing their energy consumption now. This will not only yield environmental benefits but also give your business a competitive edge when climate policies go into effect.
While taking action may require an initial investment, harnessing green energy sources like solar power will save your company money in the long term. [See our small business guide to energy conservation.]
If you’re seeking to buy or lease renewable energy equipment for on-site installation at your workplace, solar panels are the most obvious and likely the most practical option. In addition to providing your property with clean, sustainable power, installing solar panels may qualify your business for a federal tax credit.
If you don’t own your property or have limited space, you can look into purchasing renewable energy from your power supplier. Some power companies offer the option to buy “green” service for a small premium in exchange for electricity generated from renewable sources. Depending on the part of the country you’re in, you may also be able to choose your own electricity supplier. In states that allow competition among electricity generators, you can opt to work with a supplier that specializes in producing energy from renewable sources.
3. Cut business travel emissions.
Be it air, car or train, modern transportation modes are among the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions. In the U.S., the transportation sector accounted for 27 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions in 2020, according to the EPA. By reducing emissions and expenses related to business travel, you can minimize your company’s impact on the environment while potentially increasing your bottom line.
If you don’t think there’s such a thing as business travel emissions, just ask the GHG Protocol, an organization tasked with measuring such emissions. Large corporations like IBM have adopted standards from the organization to help measure their carbon footprint. Travel companies themselves even help to cut down on emissions.
Encourage your employees to bike to work by providing a space for them to change and shower. Facilitate carpooling among colleagues with commuter-matching programs and incentives like preferred parking spots. When flying, book the more fuel-efficient economy seats on direct flights.
Of course, the best way to reduce business travel emissions is not to travel at all. Consider allowing employees to work from home to cut commuter emissions. Whenever possible, hold virtual meetings and training sessions rather than traveling to in-person get-togethers. This would also include paying to have a single speaker come to your location instead of sending multiple people off-site for training.
4. Educate and engage employees.
One of the most impactful ways to make your business more carbon accountable is to actively engage your employees in the cause. Disheartened by bleak forecasts and jaded by constant corporate greenwashing, it’s easy for individuals to give into climate despair, the sense of powerlessness that keeps us from addressing problems with the environment in a meaningful way.
To combat environmental discouragement and help empower employees to see their own power to affect positive change, educate your team on carbon accountability by making it personal. When employees understand why they are being told to change long-time habits, they are less likely to resist new eco-conscious policies. [You can make your company eco-friendlier with cloud-based computing.]
To inspire your team members to take ownership of their carbon impact, encourage input on workplace energy-saving ideas at staff meetings and by setting up suggestion boxes. Consider instituting a corporate matching program where you financially replicate employee donations to eco-friendly nonprofits. Enroll your team in an environmental subscription service like Forest Founders, which enables users to use a personal dashboard to track and negate their carbon footprint by planting trees through a network of nonprofits like the National Forest Foundation. Carbon-tracking subscription services can help gamify the process of carbon accountability so your employees can witness the power of their own environmental impact firsthand.
5. Weatherize your space.
Another way to reduce your business’s carbon footprint is to take changing weather and the seasons into account.
“Implement temperature controls to make sure heating and cooling are timed properly and in accordance with the air temperature outside. By doing so, overheating or cooling can be reduced,” said Rene Delgado, founder and president of The Indoor Golf Shop. “It’s crucial to maintain a cool nighttime temperature.”
Thermostats that are locally controlled must be programmed or removed and replaced with more advanced options. To ensure your boiler is running as effectively as possible, make sure it receives regular maintenance. Install window film to further control your office’s temperature. These let light in but deflect heat during the summer.
“You get the advantages of natural light without having to use more air conditioning. In the winter, this film can be turned around so that heat is reflected into the space,” Delgado said.
Why you should reduce your business’s carbon footprint
Beyond dwindling resources, there are other practical reasons to enact policies that reduce your business’s greenhouse gas emissions. For one, as the climate emergency escalates, international governments will likely begin to introduce more stringent environmental policies ― meaning that if you can neutralize your carbon footprint now, your company will be ahead of the game. In addition, research has found customers prefer eco-friendly brands and has linked a positive impact on the planet with employee satisfaction and morale.
Major corporations like Microsoft, Google, Lyft and Salesforce are already committed to going carbon neutral, as are smaller companies like Burt’s Bees and Diamond Foundry. Joining them as a pioneer toward sustainability can benefit your bottom line.
“Consumers are more likely to pay a premium for sustainable products. Eighty-five percent of consumers have shifted their purchasing behavior toward being more sustainable in the past five years, 60 percent rate it an important purchasing criterion and 34 percent of consumers, especially younger consumers, will pay a premium price for a more sustainable product or service,” Bolman said, citing data from Simon-Kucher‘s 2021 global sustainability study.
Aside from consumer behavior changing, investors and regulators care about sustainability as well. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is looking at regulating climate disclosure, and the European Parliament passed a big law requiring many companies doing business in Europe to start reporting their sustainability metrics.
“Getting ahead of this is good for your brand and can save costs, but also de-risk potential investor or regulatory issues,” Bolman said.
Key takeaway: According to a 2021 study from EY, 74 percent of investors surveyed said they are more likely today to divest from companies with poor environmental, social and governance performance than before the COVID-19 pandemic.
George Mazzella, director of business development at green banking alternative Aspiration, also noted that if companies can effectively reduce their carbon footprints, they will help slow down the current climate crisis that we face today.
“Aside from the obvious ‘because it’s the right thing to do’ argument, businesses can also see an increase in their financial performance by adopting more sustainable practices,” Mazzella added.
Nature and capitalism don’t have to be at odds. By minimizing your business’s carbon footprint, you can cut energy costs, improve employee morale, strengthen your company’s reputation as a leader in sustainability and even increase your revenue ― all while protecting the resources and planet we need to operate and thrive.
Jennifer Post contributed to the writing and reporting of this article.