The Costs and Benefits of Being Green

Published on Monday, 9 June 2014 09:59:10    Written by Marc
Sometimes being green pays quick returns. Other times, you need a little patience. As environment issues take more of the spotlight, large companies, especially public ones, seem to be constantly striving to make themselves look green. This is especially true if the nature of their business is generally seen as the opposite of green. Take the coal industry, for example, or paper manufacturing. These are not the types of industries that we usually call green, yet if you look at the messages they show people, they look so green. You might think they are actually improving the environment.

Eco City concept. Ecology Little tiny planets collection.Unfortunately, very few companies in the world have a net positive impact on the environment. This is a fact. Just about everything we consume, including the air we breathe, does come at an environmental cost. While the goal should be to minimize the environmental impact, it will be impossible to reduce it to zero. Even if you have a product that is completely recyclable, you will still need some water and energy for the recycling process, and then more in order to transform the product into something else.

Some say that the energy for such a process could come from renewable sources, but there will still be an environment impact for the creation of that energy producing equipment, be it solar panels, wind turbine, or others. There is also the environmental impact to dispose of the equipment at the end of its normal life. This is even not counting the environmental impact of maintaining the equipment, as people have to drive to the equipment to service it and replace components from time to time. In the end, there will always be an environmental impact. However, if we can minimize it, we will have done a lot towards getting to a zero impact world.

Although there is a cost of being green, there are numerous benefits for companies to take the green highway. First, they would contribute in their way to reduce their environmental impact. If every company took steps in that direction, over time we would probably see a substantial reduction in overall pollution. This not only includes carbon emissions, but also everything else.

The problem these days is that too many companies see this as a fad. Being green tends to become more popular when the economy gets better and tends to become less popular when cracks in the economy start to show. This happens because many companies associate green with a cost, not with a net benefit. When the economy turns south, the first thing companies do is to cut unnecessary expenses, mainly those that do not bring in an immediate benefit to the company. A little like maintenance, which often sees the budget getting a little, squeezed when times are harder.

However, when done right, companies should not be forced to choose between profits and working towards improving their environmental impact. This can be done in parallel. The trick is to be able to identify what can be done without incurring large expenses, while still having a positive impact on the environment and then improving the process.

A few years ago, I was working in a company where we were using large amounts of ink and solvents for printing processes. Because we were printing on paper, we were one of the industries seen as non-environmentally friendly. However, it is impossible to make a physical book or a newspaper without using these components. Therefore, we decided to reduce our impact. By forcing our suppliers to work together in finding solutions to come up with and supply products, we were able to reduce significantly the environment impact and were able to make great progress. Soon, many of our products were water based (for solvents), or using vegetables (for inks), and our suppliers for paper were producing papers, which were compliant with the standards we had requested them to be.

It took time, but the results were significant and the company is still working today towards improving their environmental impact, finding new ideas each day to improve themselves. Instead of spending a fortune trying to become instantly green, we looked for ways to improve gradually and at zero or very little cost. We also initiated an energy saving program, which we rolled out company wide. For this, we did the same thing. We started by looking at areas where we could save energy quickly and with little or no investment. Then, once we made some progress, we looked for energy saving measures, which had a very short payback (one year), and later on, we were looking for longer paybacks (two years and more). We did this gradually, and over time, the company saved millions of dollars annually in energy costs.

Companies and organizations need to realize that working towards improving their environmental impact can actually be economically beneficial for them. Sometimes it can pay quickly because some ideas with immediate savings can arise, but sometimes you need a little patience in seeing a significant improvement. In addition, when done right, over the longer term, the benefits of being green can vastly overweight the costs, both for the companies and for everyone else.