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Currents Fall 2009: In the green

As a word and as a concept, “green” is becoming ubiquitous.

As a word and as a concept, “green” is becoming ubiquitous.

There are green laundry detergents, green roofs, green pet food and even green ski products.

Maybe your business is looking to jump on the green bandwagon or to polish its environmentally friendly credentials.

But is going green financially worth it?

The answer is that every business must make that decision based on its needs, resources, mission and facilities, midstate experts said.

“It’s certainly a tightrope walk,” said Mary Renner, president of Lancaster County-based Laser Plus.

Green isn’t monolithic. The label can encompass everything from low-flow toilets to a fleet of hybrid cars. Some things, like the abovementioned toilets or nontoxic paint, are becoming more common as building codes evolve.

There are a range of green certifications — from the oft-cited Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), which itself has several levels, to the one offered by the National Association of Home Builders.

And each environmentally friendly modification likely presents options at different price points, such as the decision to use a white roof (which lowers energy costs because of its reflective property) rather than a more expensive vegetated (green) roof, which also helps control runoff and air pollution.

All of this can be dizzying.

But taking some steps toward becoming more energy efficient is within reach of most businesses and can save both the environment and the electric bill, said Marita Skacel, professional development manager for the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce & Industry.

To help area businesses on the path to green, the chamber recently began offering two certification programs: Green Seal, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental standards program; and Green Plus, in partnership with the North Carolina-based Institute for Sustainable Development.

Firms trying to go green can start with small changes, such as using energy-efficient light bulbs, and encouraging employees to carpool when practical and to turn out the lights and switch off computers before leaving, Skacel said.

An energy audit to determine weaknesses is another simple step, she said, as is reducing paper usage by printing on both sides, using recycled paper and buying products with less packaging.

On the next level are actions that will probably cost more up front but will provide energy savings in the future, she said. This second tier includes replacing machines with more energy-efficient versions and retrofitting heating and ventilation systems, Skacel said.

Beyond that are large-scale changes that may not be practical for every business and are significantly more expensive to install than their conventional cousins, such as vegetated roofs, solar-panel arrays and geothermal heating and cooling systems.

“We want to be reasonable with resources. Sometimes you have to look at what balances out.” Skacel said. “Renewable energy may make sense for one person, but it may not for another if it’s going to bankrupt their businesses.”

An example of this push-and-pull is Wagman Construction Inc.’s new headquarters in downtown York, which the company wants to get LEED certified.

The offices include features such as a lighting system that dims when natural light is available, recycled content used to make cabinets and other furniture, and the use of carpet glue, paint, caulk and sealants that are low in volatile organic compounds.

These features demonstrate the company can practice what it preaches, as well as filling market demand for green buildings, said Eric Menzer, the company’s senior vice president. A similar strategy is planned for Codo 28, the company’s latest mixed-use project.

Wagman balanced its desire to go green with costs and the company’s mission. Therefore, it decided it didn’t want to add things like a vegetated roof or to power the building with renewable energy, he said.

Those features might make more financial sense for a group whose mission or particular facility is a closely tied to environmental stewardship, Menzer said.

Besides just becoming more environmentally friendly, going green can form the foundation of a firm’s business model, as it is with Lancaster County’s Laser Plus.

The business sells recycled toner cartridges and rebuilt printers, both of which cost less than new products and work just as well, with the added bonus of keeping tons of waste out of area landfills, Renner said. Laser Plus also services machines and consults with businesses on how to increase energy efficiency.

The tricky part has been convincing customers that recycled or reused doesn’t mean lower quality, she said.

“I think it’s an attitude adjustment,” Renner said. “I hope people don’t shut down from all of the white noise. (Going green) is not as difficult as it seems.”

About 65 percent of the firm’s business comes from green products, and it’s the first business in the state to receive Green Plus certification, she said.

No less a corporate juggernaut than Walmart also has been taking steps to make its business greener, including adding floors that require soap and water instead of wax, using natural lighting, buying some of its power from renewable-energy generators and rolling out incentives to encourage consumers to chose more sustainable products.

As an example of the latter, the company set a goal of only stocking concentrated laundry detergent by 2011. That doesn’t just save water, energy and packaging, spokesman Steven Restivo said. It also makes financial sense because it costs Walmart less to ship and allows the retailer to place more of the smaller containers on one shelf.

“For us,” Restivo said, “We see both an environmental impact and a bottom-line impact for our business.” 

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