CUT YOUR COSTS while doing something good for the environment? For small-business owners, that may sound like an oxymoron. After all, only multibillion-dollar behemoths like Cisco Systems can afford to commission the construction of “green” office buildings, right?
However, it is possible to get the best of both worlds — just maybe not on such a grand scale. Not only can small-business owners take advantage of some pretty generous tax benefits by buying energy-efficient technologies, but they can also find some easy ways to cut those skyrocketing energy bills.
By simply changing the light fixtures to compact fluorescent lamps and opting for new energy-efficient heating and cooling equipment, for example, small businesses can cut about 25% to 30% from their energy bill. For a 10,000-square-foot office, that’s a savings of about $4,000 a year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star Small Business program .
Improving energy efficiency at your business can also help shrink your tax bill. To take advantage of the full deduction, a building owner or tenant would need to reduce their energy costs by 50% or more. But keep in mind that those energy-efficient measures need to be up and running by the end of next December. For more information on this energy-efficiency tax deduction consult the EPA’s Energy Star web site .
Of course, to be successful, green office programs require a solid commitment from business owners and staff members alike. At Ideal Bite , an eco-friendly media company based in San Francisco, co-founders Heather Stephenson and Jennifer Boulden offer their 17 employees various incentives for following green guidelines. For instance, employees receive a $20 stipend each month for using public transportation or energy-efficient vehicles. Additionally, Ideal Bite pays to offset each employee’s most “egregious” energy-wasting activity each year through the purchase of “green tags,” or renewable energy certificates, which represent the generation of renewable energy. “It is just one $240 payment a year per employee to clue them into the idea of cutting their paper use,” says Stephenson. “All of those things we ask them to do save us a lot of money, too.”
Here are a few tips turning your small business a brighter shade of green:
Get audited. Start by “pin-pointing where you could save,” says Todd Larsen, the corporate responsibility program director for Co-op America, an environmental not-for-profit in Washington, D.C. Basic energy audits usually involve a detailed inventory of electrical equipment such as air-conditioning and water-heating units, as well as an evaluation of the company’s current energy-usage policies.
Small businesses can hire an auditor like Johnson Controls, or they can contact their local utility. San Francisco-based Pacific Gas and Electric Company, for example, will conduct energy audits for business customers for free. For less involved jobs, consider doing your own audit. Here’s a checklist you can use as a reference.
Give old technology a boost. “Rather than throwing [old equipment] away, upgrading it is really one of your greenest steps,” says Paul McRandle, deputy editor for the Green Guide, a green-living publication in New York. For example, you can increase your current computer’s memory capability or available random access memory, or (RAM), by installing new hardware and make repairs when needed. “We know that electronics are ending up in places like China where things are getting ripped open and harmful materials [such as cadmium and mercury] are poisoning people.” By extending your office technology’s life, he says, “you are keeping that equipment out of the waste stream.”
If your PC is beyond all hope, then make sure to purchase technology that can be easily upgraded. For instance, McRandle suggests buying desktop computers with expandable memory slots. Purchasing refurbished computers and other office equipment is also an option. However, if you’re going to make a large outlay your best bet is to purchase newer energy-efficient products.
Buy certified products. When you do go shopping for new equipment, try to look for Energy Star-certified computers. One thing to be aware of is that, even in Energy Star equipment, harmful materials may still be present. For desktop computers, notebooks and monitors minus the poisonous properties look for a certification from the Portland, Ore.,-based Green Electronics Council’s Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, or EPEAT .
Reduce when possible. Ideal Bite’s Stephenson recommends starting with paper. Simply reducing your default margin settings in Word documents will create big savings. And, according to Inform Inc., an environmental research organization in New York, using both sides of a piece of paper can help offices cut annual paper usage by 20%. So if an average U.S. office worker uses 10,000 sheets of paper each year and a box of 5,000 sheets costs about $35, that’s a savings of $70 per employee. Multiply that by 100 employees and you’ve just saved $7,000.
Skipping paper paychecks via online payroll is another affordable way to cut paper use. Palo Alto, Calif.-based PayCycle, for example, will set you up with paperless payroll in less than an hour for $24.99 to $42.99 a month based on the package you choose. Intuit charges $29.95 a month for its web-based payroll service.
As you cut back, check for wasted energy sources. Stephenson recommends setting computers to sleep mode after five minutes of idle time and powering them down at night. Additionally, she urges businesses to be mindful of “phantom loads” — that is, the power that’s lost when electronics remain plugged in while not in use. For home-office equipment, according to the EPA, as much as 40 watts of energy are lost for each piece of equipment. To counter this problem, plug machines into power strips that can easily be turned off at night.
Go virtual. Do you really need to fly to Chicago for that presentation? Probably not. In fact, a great way to reduce your business’s travel costs, while also reducing your “carbon footprint” — the amount of carbon or other greenhouse gases you emit by using fossil fuels like gasoline — is to set up virtual meetings.
Collaboration tools such as web- and videoconferencing via companies including Cisco’s WebEx, IBM’s Lotus Sametime and Citrix’s GoToMeeting can provide a budget-friendly and travel-free compromise. Prices usually range between $40 and $50 a month or as much as several hundred dollars a year. (Many also offer per-user pricing.) You can also virtually share documents and files with your colleagues using services such as InstaColl or Dropload. Also, RealVNC Ltd. and eBLVD provide a number of such solutions, including the ability to share screens. (Also see Business Travelers Seek Ways to Cut Costs, Aggravation .)
Recycle responsibly. Don’t just toss that old ink cartridge. There are much more earth-friendly ways to get rid of used supplies and equipment than the garbage can. Hewlett-Packard, for example, will take back used HP inkjet or LaserJet cartridges for free. HP will also take in computer equipment from any manufacturer for a fee of $13 to $34 per item. Both Dell and Apple offer to recycle your old computer equipment, no matter the manufacturer, for a fee of $15 and $30, respectively. However, at Dell, they’ll take back Dell-branded equipment for free, while Apple will only take equipment back for free when you buy a new Mac.
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