Green Up Your Agency

Are you part of the 51% of small businesses that plan to be greener in 2016?

According to the Office Depot survey that uncovered that statistic, it’s up from just 34% in 2013. Considering the Small Business Administration estimates that 28 million small businesses provide 55% of all jobs in the U.S., there’s big opportunity for improving sustainability across the country.

“Although you may think what you’re doing in your business may not impact the world as a whole, consider that there are more small businesses than larger ones,” says Nancy Nicklow, president of Huff Insurance, a full-service agency based in Pasadena, Maryland. “If we’re all practicing good green practices, it’s going to make a difference.”

Won’t sustainability cost your agency more money? Going green and saving green don’t have to be mutually exclusive—and your green initiative can be just as unique as your business.

“It’s important to define what environmental responsibility or sustainability means to you in the context of your business,” explains Jennifer Woofter, president of Strategic Sustainability Consulting in Washington, D.C., which works with companies to improve their environmental and social practices. “A great place to start is reducing what you can: energy use, water use and waste. On the flip side, that also includes increasing the positives, or bringing in things that are going to enhance environmental impact and results of your business.”

Going green “is really anything that’s an improvement over the status quo, that’s greener than you had been initially,” agrees Paul Smith, founder of GreenSmith Consulting in Portland, Oregon, which helps companies with their green business strategies, marketing and messaging. “It’s not all or nothing—it’s a matter of changing your business to be more ecologically sensitive, but also price sensitive. It’s a balance.”

In short: Find the green business strategies that make sense for your business, and take it one step at a time. Here are three manageable, cost-effective ways to get started.

1) Print less. Going paperless not only cuts down on waste, but also gives customers the convenience of accessing their information online. After implementing an e-signature program, Huff Insurance increased its close ratio by about 20%.

“It was an easier, faster way,” Nicklow explains. “If the client is presented with quotes from two different agencies that are relatively close in premium and coverage, they’re going to go with the easiest one to get the policy in effect.”

Reducing or eliminating paper can also simplify processes in the long run. Just make sure you allow for a transitional period as you figure out the right infrastructure for your office. It took Turrentine Insurance in Alexandria, Louisiana about five years to make employees understand the benefits of going paperless.

“For our agency, going paperless was the largest undertaking we’ve ever done, because everybody was so used to having something to hold in their hand and they didn’t want to let that go,” says Russ Turrentine, vice president. “After six months to a year, they all came back and said ‘You were right—this is easier, and we’re much happier than we were before.’”

Adopting an imaging system that digitized documents enabled Turrentine’s agency to become almost completely paperless. Despite the cost of the initial investment, the agency now saves significant money on printing and postage costs, as well as filing cabinet storage space.

“You also save your people time in not having to get up from their desk and grab a file every time somebody calls,” Turrentine adds. “Some of our long-time customers remember when we had to find a file. We never knew who had it, so we had to find in a stack on someone’s desk. Now everybody has access to everything right at their computer.”

“The end consumer today doesn’t understand the age-old idea of ‘Let me pull a file folder,’” agrees Joyce Sigler, vice president of Jones & Wenner Insurance Agency in Fairlawn, Ohio, which has reduced postage costs by 95% over 10 years of paperless operations. “The world has transitioned people to this immediacy. The electronic transmission of data gives us the ability to be proactive rather than reactive.”

Want to go above and beyond? Printers use a lot of ink, and those cartridges require frequent replacement and disposal. They can be recycled, but most people don’t do it. Try using a refillable ink cartridge like Epson EcoTank, which lasts up to two years. “It’s designed to be simple enough for an individual to refill rather than an office supply company having to do it for you,” Smith points out. “For a small operation, it’s practical because you don’t have to refill your ink cartridges all the time.”

“Another easy thing you can do is set your printers to print double sided by default,” Woofter adds. “Make people take the extra step to print single sided rather than double sided. It’s about making it easier for people to make the greener choice.”

2) Reduce energy. Because energy accounts for a significant portion of operating costs in a typical office building, even simple changes can cut your energy bill and reduce your carbon footprint.

Woofter suggests reducing your lighting needs by maximizing your use of daylight through simple steps, such as situating desks near windows and using energy-efficient track lighting or office lamps rather than overhead lights. “That saves energy and daylight also gives you a mental boost, unlike those awful fluorescent lights,” she says.

After investing $1,000 to replace all the lightbulbs in the office with LEDs, Huff Insurance is saving about 5%—up to $360 a year—on its electric bills. “The lightbulbs are supposed to last 10 years,” Nicklow says. “We should be seeing a return on that investment.”

Adjusting the temperature in your office can have similar results. “Raising the temperature a couple degrees in the summer or lowering it in the winter can go a long way toward reducing your energy,” says Woofter, who also suggests amending the office dress code so employees can dress more temperately, such as allowing sleeveless tops in the summer. “The key isn’t to take things away. You want to be able to add some things back in.”

3) Work smarter. According to Woofter, a major part of your agency’s environmental footprint is the energy and carbon emissions associated with commuting to and from the office. But if your company allows employees to work from home periodically, or encourages them to use public transportation or rideshare programs, you can dramatically decrease their environmental impact.

For meetings that don’t require in-person collaboration, consider video conferencing, which can save on travel time, costs and carbon emissions. Make the idea more appealing with an easy video-conferencing tool that doesn’t require software installation. Smith recommends an inexpensive solution called Zoom that displays the image of the person speaking during the video conference.

Beyond travel, little details can also go a long way in creating a sustainable business culture. For example, bringing your lunch creates less waste than eating out. Make dining in the office more attractive to employees by providing real dishes, coffee cups, cutlery and bulk reusable dispensers for condiments rather than disposable items. Consider switching to fair trade coffee and tea in the break room—Woofter says the price has gone down significantly in the last decade. “These are small changes that employees can see around the office,” she points out.

At a time when “going green” is no longer novel, be realistic and genuine in your approach. Marketing your agency’s commitment to sustainability during the sales process or in a blog post is a great idea, but make sure you emphasize you’re learning as you go along.

“Don’t overpromise, and don’t say ‘We’ve gone green!’” Smith cautions. “It’s sort of a false statement because it’s an ongoing journey. Be transparent and be relatable. This is a process.”

Margie Monin Dombrowski is an IA contributor.

Next-Level Green

Technology is working hard to provide exciting new ways to go green at the office. Paul Smith, founder of GreenSmith Consulting in Portland, Oregon, shares a few innovations on the horizon that could change the way you work.

  • Conflict-free smartphones by Fairphone are designed for users to fix, update and recycle all on their own.
  • 3D printing could enable businesses to create their own office furniture and replacement parts.
  • Some companies are already marketing products made of recycled plastic from the Great Pacific “garbage patch,” a vortex of marine debris discovered in the late 1980s that contains high levels of plastics, chemical sludge and other trash trapped in the ocean by currents of the North Pacific Gyre. —M.M.D.