Just Because You Have a Recycling Program…

…doesn’t mean you’re a “green” company.

Maura McCarthy, Blu Homes co-founder, blogs about how to stop greenwashing and start implementing smart, efficient, sustainable practices that benefit your company—and the planet. Originally published in Inc. on April 20, 2012.

Overnight, it was everywhere: every company was suddenly “green.” Descriptions of so-called sustainable practices abounded on websites and in marketing literature, bolded and underlined and screaming for attention. Companies scrambled to flaunt their commitment to the environment and “out-green” their competitors.

It’s gotten to the point where it feels strange when a company doesn’t make mention of its environmentally sustainable programs.

Sure, we all want to feel like we are contributing to the greater good, but a closer look reveals that much of what is out there is nothing more than a half-hearted attempt at keeping up with the (Mother) Joneses. And the media is catching on. No longer are companies being judged on outward, consumer-friendly, neatly-packaged green initiatives, but rather on their core practices.

So what about your company? On a scale of pastel to emerald, how green are you? Are you guilty of “greenwashing?” Here are three tell-tale signs you may need to rethink the way you’re addressing your commitment to sustainability.

Your green initiatives are run by your office manager.

If your environmental efforts come down to things like what kind of compostable cup to buy, then they don’t amount to a fundamental and significant green program—and are certainly not worth flaunting to your customers and partners. Common practices for many companies include double-sided printing, in-office recycling programs, and of course the ever-popular email footnote: “please think of the environment before printing this message.” Let’s face it: these are all just part of the new “normal.”

In reality, we should all be using smarter utensils, recycling, and conscious of waste in our day-to-day lives in (and out of) the office. No company or individual should be getting extra “green” credit for doing the bare minimum. The true significance of efforts like these does not lie in their effects (great strides for carbon emission reductions will not be made by a manufacturing company’s occasional order of cups made from old yogurt containers, after all), but in the awareness they bring about.

The Fix: If you’re doing the minimum when it comes to demonstrating your commitment to the Earth, it’s time to stop all the back patting and self-congratulating. You can celebrate your accomplishments once you’ve made a real commitment to (and investment in) finding ways to streamline your internal processes that will reduce waste on a larger scale. Continue recycling, by all means, but truly committing to environmentalism means a more fundamental change. Read on.

You aren’t seeing any savings or benefits from your program

Smart green practices don’t need to cost more. The most effective ways to be truly green are often truly efficient, too. And efficiency is as good for your business as it is for the Earth. So if you aren’t reaping any benefits outside of being able to check the “does the bare minimum in green” box, you can do better. If you’re doing it right, going green should actually save you some green.

The fix: Look at sustainability from a different perspective. Rather than asking, “Which CSA box should we subscribe to?,” ask “How can we produce more product using less natural resources?”

Remember, the first of the “three Rs” is Reduce, so that’s always the best place to start before moving down the line to Reuse and Recycle. Being environmentally conscious has a lot more to do with consuming and expelling less things than it does with adding more special, earth-friendly, often over-hyped products to our processes. For example, at Blu, we have come up with ways to ship 1,000 sq. feet of house on a single truck instead of the typical 500 sq. feet. The work put into crafting this technology meant not only fewer carbon emissions, but also drastically reduced shipping costs for us to pass on to our customers. A green win-win.

You’re focusing your marketing campaigns on your green efforts.

Once upon a time, having a website was nifty and novel, too. But not for long—businesses caught on, and soon it was a necessity. Good luck finding a company that gets credit for being tech-savvy by simply being online. So it goes for green.

When Blu first started out, we thought a lot about how we could make a splash beyond the environmental awareness built into the ethos of our company. Should we buy carbon offsets, as we’ve seen other companies vow to do? Hire a whole “green team” of employees solely responsible for developing novel products and ideas? Instead, we decided to use our internal resources as wisely as we use the Earth’s. For us, that meant focusing on and strengthening the systemic green value of our processes and materials—as opposed to slapping another coat of shiny green paint onto our exterior image. Our thinking: Do green right and for real, and the marketing value will follow.

The fix: Start by reassessing your business’ internal structures and processes that could benefit from change…and then think about the marketing piece. Increasing productivity and efficiency can be far more effective in attracting shrewd consumers and improving your bottom line than flashy green media campaigns screaming for attention. Let your business do the talking instead. Customers will value a company willing to make bold changes to run cleaner, faster, and thus greener.

The bottom line: It’s time to redefine “green.” Consider it an almost selfish proposition: something that will benefit the planet and the future of our children—and serve you and your company in an important way. Because what’s the use of a sustainable company if the business itself isn’t sustainable? Replace “green” with “efficient,” and you’re on your way.

Moving forward, we need environmental awareness that is built into the DNA of companies looking to be more efficient and cost-effective. That’s where the big environmental payoffs lie…not in our compostable forks. By all means, continue your recycling programs and reduce your printing and other in-office waste. But we cannot afford to let sustainability be a fair-weather trend for organizations today, big or small. To benefit your company and the environment both, take a hard look at the processes central to what you do. It’s there that small changes can really make a huge imprint…and a smaller footprint.

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