Greening Your Organic Business:
How to Minimize Your Impact on the Planet While Maximizing Your Bottom Line
By Nancy Hirshberg
Kermit the Frog was right: It isn’t easy being green. Chances are, however, if you’re in the organic industry, managing your business in an environmentally sound manner is a core value for you, as undoubtedly it is for your customers.
Through the operation of all businesses—from the largest organic manufacturers to the three-person office—we all impact the environment. We use natural resources, such as petroleum, water, trees and mined minerals. We use energy that generates emissions that cause global warming, smog and acidification of lakes and rivers. We create waste that is land-filled or incinerated, further impacting the environment. Even with the best intentions we all leave our mark, but it’s possible to lessen our impact through environmentally and financially sound changes to the way we do business.
The benefits of greening the workplace are well documented—decreased costs from using less energy or materials, increased customer loyalty, reduced employee turn-over, even greater stock performance. The challenges of being a responsible corporate environmental steward are great, as well. Limited capital and financial resources and fast growth can strain human resources, resulting in “business as usual,” which are most likely not the most environmentally sound practices.
So what’s a business to do?
Stonyfield Farm began in 1983 with a mission to prove that environmentally responsible businesses can be profitable; doing business and making things does not have to damage the environment. Twenty-two years later we certainly don’t have all the answers but we’re definitely profitable and we’ve learned a few things on our quest to minimize our business’ impact on the planet. Here are a few tips that we’ve learned on our journey that may help you green your business.
Getting Started: Understand Your Impact
Traditionally, when businesses think about the environment the first thing that comes to mind is compliance with environmental regulations, such as those that regulate the storage of toxic materials, air emissions and wetland development. It’s a good initial thought. As a very basic first step you need to make sure you’re following the law. State environmental agencies generally provide small businesses assistance that can help them with a regulatory compliance audit, while larger companies can pay consultants to perform regulatory compliance audits. Getting your compliance in order is worth the investment. It would be a shame to have all of your proactive environmental activities overshadowed by negative press for a basic noncompliance.
Being a good corporate environmental steward, however, goes far beyond compliance. Compliance means you’re not breaking the law but is hardly a measure of corporate environmental responsibility. The next step beyond compliance is to understand how your business affects the environment. What is your impact on global warming, waste generation, toxics released into the environment and resource use, such as water, timber and fossil fuels?
Often, companies will skip this step of taking account of their total company impact and go directly to working on specific projects, such as setting up an employee recycling program. While all activities to reduce environmental burden are steps in the right direction, taking the time to understand your company’s environmental impact may save you time and money, more effectively reduce your environmental burden and help you prioritize limited resources. Key to understanding your company’s environmental impact is setting up systems to measure and track resources, such as energy use, solid waste generation and water use. Most of this information can be obtained from invoices and production data.
Measuring your use of energy (and subsequent global warming causing gases), solid waste and other resources gives you the information to make informed resource management decisions. An “eco-audit” that examines all the ways an entity affects the environment, whether completed by a consultant or internally, is a great way to see the big picture. These audits give you the information to help you prioritize activities to align your environmental objectives with business success.
In the case of Stonyfield Farm, we focused a great deal of effort on reducing our manufacturing facility energy use. Implementing energy-efficiency practices, such as hot water heat recovery systems and installing energy efficient motors, saved us money and reduced our contribution to global warming. However, when we completed an eco-audit of our entire operation’s impact, we were surprised to learn that the environmental burden of our packaging was far greater than our facility energy use. While we still continue to devote a great deal of effort to reducing our facility energy use, by reducing the amount of material in our packaging, we have had a more positive effect on the environment—and saved substantially more money.
Getting to Work
There are several key areas that present opportunities for reducing your company’s environmental impact, including solid waste prevention, energy and water reduction and materials use.
Solid Waste. Waste is a measure of inefficiency. Everything going into the dumpster was paid for when it came into the facility, whether it’s raw materials waste generated through the manufacturing or packaging processes, or trashed office paper and miscellaneous debris. Waste is not simply an environmental factor-—it’s lost profits.
The first step in reducing waste is to evaluate your waste stream. What’s in it? Why is it there? The most effective way to get that information is by performing a dumpster dive. No, you don’t actually jump into your dumpster and start digging around. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA) might have a few things to say about that practice if you did. But you can set up a safe system for evaluating all of the materials that are going into your dumpster over a period of time.
Although we have an extensive recycling program at Stonyfield Farm, we did our own dive, which included setting up a work station near the bin where we could safely sort, categorize and weigh all of the waste before it went in. We found a number of surprises, including the fact that many recyclables were ending up as waste. We identified additional opportunities for diverting cardboard to recycling and waste yogurt product to hog farmers. This meant decreased costs of disposal, increased revenues from cardboard recycling and more happy hogs!
While recycling and re-use of materials is a great strategy, the solid waste hierarchy teaches us to reduce, reuse and recycle in that order of priority. The first order of business is to reduce what waste is generated by preventing excess materials from coming into the facility. If you can reduce the amount of “stuff” you use, it saves money and the resources that it would have taken to make, buy and ship the material in the first place—not to mention your handling and disposal costs. For example, by switching incoming flavor ingredients from pails to reusable totes, we have been able to prevent the use of thousands of pails annually, create an ergonomically safer work environment and save thousands of dollars. Similarly, by moving from cardboard cases to spot packing, you can move up the hierarchy, from a recyclable to upfront reduction by preventing the need for the packaging.
Look into your supply chain to find ways to prevent the need for materials. If you can’t eliminate their use, then seek ways to re-use or recycle them, which is better than sending them to the landfill or incinerator. The U.S. EPA WasteWise program is a great resource to learn more about waste prevention (www.epa.gov/wastewise).
Energy. The use of energy—whether to run factories, fuel distribution or power employee travel—has an environmental cost. Burning petroleum creates emissions that contribute to climate change and smog. Nuclear power creates waste products that are with us for thousands of years. Being a corporate environmental steward means finding ways to reduce use of nonrenewable and polluting forms of energy and making cleaner, renewable energy, such as solar and wind, a larger part of your energy portfolio.
The key ways companies use or drive the use of energy are to power their offices or production facilities, to distribute finished products, and by extension, to get employees to business destinations (i.e., sales trips, industry conferences, etc.) or to the office or facility each working day (i.e., commuting). There are three primary routes you can take to minimize the impact of your energy use on the environment: use less/increase efficiency; use cleaner forms, such as solar, wind and biodiesel; and offset your emissions.
Energy audits are relatively inexpensive and can deliver a wealth of information on ways to reduce your facility’s energy use. Often, your electric utility will provide free audits.
Along with our efforts to reduce energy use and associated greenhouse gas emissions, in 1996 Stonyfield Farm was the first manufacturer in the U.S. to “offset” 100 percent of the CO2 emissions from its facility energy use. Offsets are off-site activities that either remove existing carbon from the atmosphere or prevent additional carbon from being released into the atmosphere. Opportunities to offset emissions can be realized through a wide variety of projects including reforestation, energy efficiency, fuel switching and methane recovery.
Reducing energy use associated with distribution of finished products is more challenging. Greenbiz.com recommends that you purchase or lease vehicles with the highest-possible fuel economy or use alternative-fuel sources such as biodiesel or hybrid technologies. Keeping tire pressures at optimal levels, maximizing loads and tuning vehicles regularly all contribute to increased efficiency, decreased fuel and emissions, and lowered costs.
Energy associated with employees commuting to work is not often the greatest impact area but it provides a way for all employees to participate in companywide efforts to reduce energy use and contribute to a cleaner environment. You can encourage alternative transportation through incentives for car-pooling or using mass transit, bicycling or driving energy-efficient vehicles, such as hybrid cars.
Materials. When Stonyfield Farm completed an analysis of our company’s environmental impact, we were surprised to learn that two areas of our supply chain—our packaging and our milk—were associated with some of our highest environmental burdens. We could run our plant as an environmental model but still have a significant environmental burden from the impacts associated with the manufacture of our packaging, milk production and other ingredients. The supply chain and the making of the “stuff” we use results in waste generation, energy use, resource use and toxics used in their manufacturing.
When thinking about the supply chain, it’s important to look at lifecycle impacts; in other words, what are the impacts of that material over its entire life from “cradle to grave?” Think of a yogurt cup. The environmental impact of that cup is not simply that when the consumer is done eating the yogurt it becomes waste. The cup was made from a nonrenewable resource, petroleum, that was extracted from the earth. It took energy—which caused emissions—to extract it, refine it, manufacture plastic polymer, and mold it into a cup. There were inputs of toxic materials, air emissions from associated energy used to make and transport the materials, and water used in each manufacturing step. Even if the cup is eventually recycled and made into a toothbrush handle—as Stonyfield Farm does through a partnership with Recycline—the environmental impacts from the manufacture of the cup do not go away. In fact, the environmental impacts from the manufacturing of the yogurt cup are far more significant than those associated with the “end-use,” whether the cup is recycled, land-filled or incinerated.
What does this mean to the organic processor? First, any time you can use less “stuff” it’s a win for the environment, not to mention your financials. The making of “stuff”—packaging, ingredients, and supplies—has environmental impact. Second, you have an important opportunity in “designing for the environment” (DFE). DFE means that you incorporate environmental considerations over the lifecycle into the development of the product. By using DFE, you can identify opportunities throughout the lifecycle to improve the environmental performance and reduce the cost of the product.
Consider the yogurt cup example again. The University of Michigan Center for Sustainable Systems completed a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of Stonyfield Farm’s packaging. While consumer feedback urged us to create a more recyclable package, the LCA pointed us in a different direction. By using a lighter but less recyclable plastic resin we could significantly improve the environmental performance of the packaging. The LCA gave us the tools to make an informed decision, and the data to back it up (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Sample recycling rate chart.
Fortunately, as an organic processor you’re a giant step ahead environmentally because much of your supply chain or ingredients are environmentally preferable to their nonorganic counterparts. Studies have shown that organic can contribute to decreasing human induced climate change because it takes carbon out of the atmosphere and puts it into the soil. Additionally, according to the Center for Sustainable Systems, 40 percent of agricultural production energy goes into making chemical fertilizers and pesticides that are prohibited in organic production.
Motivation for Change
Our customers feel good knowing that their shopping dollars are supporting a company that is trying to reduce its impact on the environment. But implementing these strategies does not happen without a commitment from top management and a team effort by all employees of the company. It also does not happen overnight. Implementing strategies to decrease your environmental burden pays off in multiple ways. Stonyfield Farm has realized millions of dollars in savings from reducing energy use, packaging and solid waste.
Smart and efficient use of our natural resources pays not simply through reduced costs and customer loyalty but through the satisfaction of knowing that you’re protecting the earth’s resources for our children and future generations. It’s the organic way!
Nancy Hirshberg is the Vice President of Natural Resources for Stonyfield Farm, Inc., the nation’s leading organic yogurt company and recipient of numerous environmental awards (www.stonyfield.com).