Startups: Start Green, Stay Green

By June 23, 2011

The majority of big business executives still hold the misguided view of ‘green’ initiatives as luxurious public relations tactics rather than opportunities to operate more efficiently (although they’d only admit it behind closed doors),but startups are characteristically lean, and consequently ‘green’, by nature. After all, it’s pretty easy to telecommute and use less paper when you can’t afford an office or printer. Making environmentally responsible decisions when you’ve raised your millions takes discipline though, and it’s something many once starry-eyed entrepreneurs lose sight of when their bootstrapped baby grows up.

Let’s focus on efficiency (limiting consumption and waste) instead of renewable energy projects, since most companies don’t own or manage their office space to take on solar or wind power installations even if they wanted. As companies grow to provide more tools for employees and require greater resources for operations, new opportunities arise to make sustainable business decisions. To the thrill of salivating sales reps and despair of battle-scarred investors, newly funded startups can quickly lose sight of how and where their dollars are being spent. Part of an entrepreneur’s responsibility for managing their company’s financial growth is setting policies to control the expansion of its carbon footprint. Here’s a rundown of the usual best practices.

Garbage: People will mindlessly dump their trash into a single bin if that’s what’s available, but they will thoughtfully sort out items that can be recycled or composted if it’s an obvious and easy alternative. If your building doesn’t have a trash sorting program, talk to the property management company demanding an alternative, as it’s more of an expectation than an inconvenience in this day and age. Then, provide clearly marked bins with easily distinguishable examples (apple cores, paper, bottles, etc.) of what goes where.

Paper: Recycling is a good third step. The first should be creating as close to a paperless office as possible by storing the majority of documents in the ‘cloud’ or a local server if you must, discouraging the practice of printing emails and presentations that can be read on a screen, and making double-sided printing the default for all devices.  Buying comparably priced paper that is produced from recycled materials is the second step.

Power: Lighting, HVAC and IT are the three biggest sources of energy consumption in that order. Many office leases include utilities, so even the most well-intentioned executive can take on an ‘out-of-sight, out of mind’ perspective when they don’t see a bill. Resist. If possible, talk to your property management company about putting motion sensors on all lights, and let employees know that you expect them to turn off the lights when vacating a room by posting notes next to all switches and doorways. Make sure thermostats don’t blast the AC during off hours, and encourage turning it off altogether in favor of a breeze when weather permits. Computers, monitors, printers, scanners and just about everything else that touches the internet should be powered down (airlines, thank you for that term) during off hours as well, ideally through sensors that detect usage, but at least through reinforcing a policy communicated in as many ways as possible.  In-house servers should have load-minimizing mechanisms as well, and any worthwhile hosting facility should at least acknowledge green practices in their literature, if nothing else because it just makes sense for them to stay competitive.

Water: It deserves a mention, but unless you control the purchasing decisions for low-flow toilets and sensor-driven flushes and sinks, there’s not too much you can do. Get a water cooler that links to the main water supply instead of needing those annoying tank replacements. Wash your hands…just not longer than needed.

Commuting: The benefits of encouraging employees to work from home or get themselves to the office by way of walking, running, biking or carpooling are varied and well-documented. Employees are usually more productive working remotely where they can deal with personal matters quickly without disguising distractions. Healthier workers that drive less, cost less for health insurance, time off and parking. Carpooling helps team members that may not otherwise interact to build bonds. The ability to work from home is a benefit that reduces turnover. Take the leap of allowing employees to work remotely at least part-time, and don’t neglect the counter-intuitively positive impact it can have on culture along with the cost savings.

Volunteerism: Offer employees an allotted number of days per year to receive full pay for volunteering to help an environmental organization…or just about any non-profit. They will become loyal ambassadors for your company.

I know planning for green policies seems like one of those “good problems to have” that you’ll get to when the time comes. Unfortunately, like most problems, they pop up when you least expect it and take more work than you think. Your startup is off to a good start making use of limited resources and wasting as little as possible. Stay that way.