Greening Main Street Businesses

Download Main Street News PDF - 2009/04

Although the U.S. Green Building Council and local governments have focused extensively on the design and development of sustainable retail spaces, relatively little attention has been paid to the impact of business operations on the environment. In part, this is because LEED and most other green certification programs focus primarily on physical design and, therefore, on the buildings in which businesses locate, rather than on the businesses themselves. In part, it's because the retail industry is dominated by national chains and franchises whose sustainability programs benefit from economy of scale and aren't directly transferable to independent businesses.

The Farmer's Diner in Barre, Vt., buys only locally grown produce.

Credit: The Clue Group, LLC

But small businesses have an enormous impact on the environment. As a group, small businesses are major consumers of electricity, natural gas, and heating oil. Retail businesses whose merchandise is shipped to them from wholesalers and manufacturers outside the region also have a relatively large carbon footprint due to the amount of fuel spent on air and truck transportation. And, finally, any business whose customers arrive primarily by car is also likely to have a significant negative impact on the environment.

Fortunately, there are many things main street businesses can do to make their operations more environmentally friendly and many of these actions cost little or nothing. In general, the actions a small business can take fall into one, or more, of the following categories:

  • Physical space: Making the space within which the business operates more environmentally friendly. Some of these actions might be the responsibility of the building owner, but others are under the business owner's control, such as using LED or compact fluorescent light bulbs and putting lighting on timers.
  • Dealing with waste: Recycle or repurpose as much as possible.
  • Packaging: Minimize the amount of packaging the business receives from vendors and passes along to customers.
  • Supplies: Use non-toxic, low-impact products to operate the business.
  • Merchandise and services: Obtain items locally when possible, and sell environmentally responsible goods and services.
  • Reducing use of fossil fuels: Encourage employees to walk, bike, or use public transportation, and find local or regional suppliers.

Offering a sustainable business certification program is an excellent way to educate your district's business owners about environmentally friendly business practices and to publicly recognize and promote those who use them. Several national for-profit organizations offer small business green certification, but so far none of these programs has gained traction.

On the other hand, a growing number of towns, cities and regions are developing their own green business certification programs. California's Bay Area Green Business Program, for example, awards certification to San Francisco Bay Area businesses if they comply with applicable state and local environmental regulations and meet program standards in four broad categories: conserving water; conserving energy; reducing waste; and preventing pollution.

To obtain certification, businesses must meet minimum standards in each of these categories, in addition to several recommended or industry-specific standards. Some municipalities now offer incentives to encourage businesses to obtain certification or give bonus points to green-certified businesses when awarding contracts. (Also see "eco-Andersonville: Green Businesses Certification" on page 16.)

Resources, published online by Greener World Media, Inc., provides research reports, case studies, daily news stories, and information on a wide array of environmental sustainability topics for business owners. The website contains a subsection specifically for small businesses.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency provides extensive information on environmental regulations affecting small businesses, funding sources, and other resources.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's "ENERGY STAR for Small Businesses" Program offers free technical support by phone or e-mail; provides how-to guides and case studies; offers awards for small businesses that boost their environmental sustainability; and provides guidance on energy-efficient equipment, appliances, and services. Its website provides specific information for several types of small businesses, including grocery stores, restaurants, and small manufacturers.

The Natural Resources Defense Council's website includes a special section on "green business", with a series of green business guides.

Speaking of green businesses, the consumer market for green goods and services is enormous – and growing almost exponentially. Consumers are looking for products made from recycled materials, for products that will help them recycle and repurpose things they own, for products that will help them conserve and generate energy, and for a range of green-related services. Main street businesses interested in adding a new product line or two should consider something environmentally friendly.

40 Things A Business Can Do

Many of the environmentally friendly improvements businesses can make in their operations are specific to the type of business. Grocery stores, for example, might switch to more energy-efficient refrigerators and freezers; laundries might use equipment that filters and reuses water rather than discarding it, and restaurants could buy local produce, instead of shipping it in from greater distances. But there are also a number of things that almost all businesses can do to operate in a more environmentally sustainable way. Here are 40 easy ideas:

1 Put storefront window display lights on timers to provide lighting until 10:00 pm or so instead of leaving lights on all night.

2 Replace incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent or LED bulbs.

3 Reduce the amount of packaging used for customers' purchases.

4 Recycle the boxes and packing material in which merchandise is shipped to the store.

5 Offer a small discount to customers who bring and use their own bags.

6 Ask product manufacturers and wholesalers from whom you buy merchandise to reduce the amount of packaging they use for their products.

7 Offer in-store recycling for products you sell.

8 Offer in-store workshops on sustainability related to your business. For example, a clothing store might offer a workshop on making messenger bags out of discarded clothing.

9 Use a programmable thermostat.

10 Buy as much of your merchandise and as many supplies and services locally as possible.

11 Install LED exit signs.

12 Use occupancy sensors to activate light fixtures in storage rooms, bathrooms, and other rooms and spaces that are vacant for long periods of time.

13 Use motion sensors to activate interior and exterior security lights.

14 Recycle any byproducts your business produces.

15 Install high-efficiency toilets.

16 Develop a written environmental vision statement and make it available to your customers.

17 Develop a written sustainability policy and require your employees to become familiar with it.

18 Ask your suppliers and service providers to share their sustainability policies with you. If they don't have one, ask that they develop one.

19 Provide incentives to encourage employees to commute to work by public transportation, carpooling, biking, or walking.

20 Provide a secure space where employees can store their bicycles during the workday.

21 Provide showers and lockers for employees who bike, run, or walk to work.

22 Use recycled paper.

23 Offer deliveries on foot or by bicycle within the Main Street district.

24 If your community has a "Buy Local First" program, participate in it. If it doesn't have one, help start one.

25 Buy renewable energy through utility companies. If your utility company does not offer renewable energy, buy energy offset credits.

26 Use power strips with on-off switches and turn the entire power strip off when the items plugged into it aren't being used.

27 Use Energy Star-rated equipment.

28 Use non-toxic cleaning supplies.

29 Use double-sided copying to conserve paper.

30 Recycle toner and inkjet cartridges from computer printers, fax machines, and copy machines.

31 Donate unused, nonreturnable items to local nonprofit organizations rather than throwing them away.

32 If your business uses cars or trucks, switch to hybrid, electric, or other vehicles that minimize use of fossil fuels.

33 If your business has more than one location, use conference calls or web-based video calls to minimize the need to drive to meetings.

34 Use low-Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) paints, coatings, adhesives, and sealants.

35 When you have items printed, specify that your printer use low- VOC inks.

36 Sell products made from recycled and/or re-sourced materials.

37 Use electronic media – e-mail, phone calls, websites – instead of printed flyers or letters to reach your customers and promote your business.

38 Use your storefront window display to promote sustainability and sustainable uses of your business's products and services.

39 Help customers reduce the amount of time they spend driving by learning about products and services offered by other businesses in your commercial district. When a customer asks if you know where they can find an item your business doesn't offer, refer them to another store in the district.

40 Replace paper towels in employee restrooms with reusable cloth towels.