How can businesses reduce their carbon footprint?

Nic Redfern, Finance Director, KnowYourMoney.co.uk

Over the last decade, attitudes towards the environment have changed; governments, businesses and consumers have all generally accepted the responsibility of taking environmental concerns into their own hands and playing their part to help save the planet’s precious resources.

This is particularly true in business, where this responsibility is often driven not only by climate change legislation, but also by pressure from customers and stakeholders to be environmentally conscious. According to a global survey by Nielson, 81% of consumers feel strongly that companies should actively help to improve the environment.

There is no benchmark for how large a company has to be in order to have a positive impact on the environment, however. Startups and SMEs all have an important role to play in reducing their carbon emissions and lowering their carbon footprint. What’s more, adopting greener work ethics isn’t just good for the environment – it can also help businesses cut their expenditure and improve their cost-efficiency.

What is a ‘carbon footprint’

The term has been used feverishly in recent years, but what do we mean when we talk about a business’ carbon footprint? To use its widely-accepted meaning, a carbon footprint is the best estimate of the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced to directly and indirectly operate a business.

Businesses, however, come in all shapes and sizes – from manufacturing companies to legal firms, there is a wide variation in what the term means in a practical sense. Those offering a product will likely need to assess the emissions produced in the process of its manufacturing. Meanwhile, services-based businesses like legal firms should look inwards to see how their daily operations, such as electricity consumption, are affecting the environment.

The scope for lowering a carbon footprint is wide in each instance, and below I have outlined some general practices that can be adopted by companies regardless of what sector they’re based in.

Energy Management

Wasteful energy use causes pollution that could be easily avoided, particularly through increased CO2 emissions. All businesses should be therefore be exploring effective energy management solutions to reduce their carbon footprint, not least because there is significant potential to both save energy and reduce costs.

Effective energy management includes everything from procurement to usage and monitoring, so it’s important to have an energy management in place to determine how energy usage will be managed throughout an organisation. The Low Carbon Hierarchy, as advocated by the Carbon Trust, can give businesses an idea of how to make effective changes – the third step, carbon offsetting, is better reserved for larger companies, but the first two principles can easily be implemented by startups and SMEs.

Two key principles: reduce and replace

The first step is to reduce energy consumption by cutting down usage and putting energy efficiency measures in place. This involves tackling wasteful behaviours and investing in technology upgrades. What this means in practice can vary between businesses, but it comes down to small changes in behaviour; for instance, switching off appliances that are not in use (rather than leaving items such as computers running on standby mode), and using energy-efficient lightbulbs.

The following step is to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy, or if this is beyond reach, simply switching to cleaner energy providers. Indeed, lowering a carbon footprint doesn’t have to be overly complicated – a number of leading energy providers like E.On offer renewable energy solutions that are easy to transfer to. Utilising the help of comparison websites allows businesses to explore their options, compare tariffs, and choose a provider that meets their needs.

Even better, many of these are backed by REGO – or Renewable Energy Guarantee of Origin – certificates, which guarantees that the origin of the energy supplied is renewably resourced and leaves businesses in no doubt that they are doing their part for the environment. And not only can businesses find tailored energy solutions, they also stand to benefit from cost savings by switching to cheaper alternatives.

Make the most of technology

In a similar vein, it can be helpful to explore how readily available technology can be used to drive down carbon emissions. The rise of technological innovations means that businesses can lower their carbon footprint through minimal effort. The key is to spread awareness about environmentally damaging business practices and promote alternative solutions that are less harmful to the planet.

The benefits of cloud computing

To offer an example, many employees might be unaware that their daily consumption of paper translates to environmental damage, but the fact that the pulp, paper and print industry accounts for 3.1% of Europe’s total energy consumption should offer some indication of the harm it can cause.

The advent of cloud computing is a natural solution to this problem; instead of printing out hard copies of documents and keeping physical notes, businesses are encouraged to utilise the many benefits of storing data in computerised management systems. Beyond reducing reliance on paper records, cloud computing also offers convenience and cost reductions – documents can be accessed by employees from their personal laptops and smartphones, from any location and at any time. What’s more, it reduces the need to purchase resources like ink and paper.

Reconsider your travel

Cloud computing has also paved the way to a new phenomenon – remote working. The ability to access information remotely means that employees can conduct their daily tasks from home, without it having an impact on their productivity or quality of work.

But how does this relate to carbon emissions? Working remotely means that employees don’t necessarily have to commute to and from work every day, cutting down their use of cars and public transport. Indeed, it’s very easy to overlook indirect contributions to carbon emissions beyond the remit of the office walls, but behaviours like this have a big role to play in contributing to pollution.

Xerox recently experimented with the power of this new-found connectivity to drive down the business’ greenhouse gas emissions. It designed a Virtual Workplace Programme to both run a productive company and help protect the environment. The result was an emissions reduction of 40,894 metric tonnes by encouraging 11% of its workforce to take the opportunity to work from home full time.

As a more general point, I would encourage all businesses to think creatively about ways they can leverage technology to make small changes and become greener. After all, the accumulation of minimal changes can together have a dramatic impact on a business’ overall carbon footprint – not to mention saving them money in the long run.