Going green can help small retailers stand out from competitors, but few seem to be focusing on becoming more environmentally friendly.
An MIT Sloan Management Review study released last year found that while most big retail chains already have green initiatives in place, only 9 percent of businesses with fewer than 1,000 employees have embraced sustainability as a core value.
That small percentage may reflect two of the major challenges small retailers face: their landlord and their budget. When you don’t own your store and don’t have a lot to spend, it’s hard to make expensive changes that could bring big energy savings, such as adding insulation or installing skylights.
But going green doesn’t necessarily have to be costly. Here are 12 easy steps you can take to reduce your carbon footprint and cut waste:
1. Switch to energy-efficient lighting. You may be able to reap some cost savings and reduce energy use by trading incandescent or older fluorescent light bulbs for newer light-emitting diode (LED) or compact fluorescent (CFL) lights, says Chris Lynch, director of the Business Environmental Program at the University of Nevada-Reno. "If you have five years left on your lease, the savings could pay for the project before the lease ends."
Be on the lookout for grant programs that might help with the initial costs. At Mugshots Coffeehouse & Café in Philadelphia, owner Angela Vendetti applied for a 2010 energy-reduction grant through the U.S. Department of Commerce, which covered half the $4,176 bill for energy-efficient lighting in two of her three shops. She estimates energy cost savings will let her break even on her share of the lighting costs within two years.
2. Clean greener. If you purchase your store’s cleaning supplies, it shouldn’t cost much to simply switch to less-toxic products as you run out of current stocks, Lynch notes. Or you can make your own. Simply using a combination of water and distilled vinegar can give you a home-made cleaning spray in no time.
3. Buy used fixtures. A great way to both recycle and save money is to scavenge for salvaged fixtures -- ideally ones made of natural materials -- rather than spend big for new shelving made from metal or petroleum-based plastics, says Julie Gabrielli, owner of the green-business consulting and architectural firm GOfor Change. Where Gabrielli lives in Baltimore, she points to men’s apparel store Sixteen Tons, which uses antique wood cabinets and shelves throughout its store.
4. Create a living wall. Improve air quality with a wall full of indoor plants placed under air-conditioning vents, recommends Gabrielli. This is an especially good move at indoor malls, where air can be recirculated and stale.
5. Make bags and receipts optional. Gabrielli recommends getting rid of plastic bags and substituting reusable or recycled paper bags. Then, ask customers if they need a bag at all. Also, ask them if you can save a tree and email the receipt. The bonus: You capture emails for future marketing.
6. Buy energy-efficient equipment. If you're purchasing a new fax machine, computer, printer or other equipment, compare Energy Star ratings and buy the most efficient item, advises Jennifer Kaplan, author of Greening Your Small Business and owner of the consulting firm Greenhance. She also notes that countertop point-of-sale machines use a lot of electricity, but you could reduce energy consumption by switching to mobile payments on smartphones or tablets paired with a device such as Square.
7. Turn it off. Many businesses leave cash registers, computers and other devices on day and night. Instead, shut everything off each night, says Kaplan, to avoid sucking "vampire power" to dormant equipment.
8. Turn it down. Put timers on lights in sporadically used areas such as bathrooms, says Kaplan. Also, see if you can use less overhead lighting during the day, at least in parts of the store near windows.
9. Stock green. Examine the materials lists on the merchandise you sell for petroleum byproducts, metals and other nonreplenishable materials, says Kaplan. Investigate whether similar products made from renewable resources are available. Take a look at where goods are made, too. If possible, switch to products made closer to your store to reduce the environmental costs of transportation.
10. Cut packaging. Encourage existing vendors to ship products in less elaborate packaging and consider switching to suppliers that are less wasteful, Kaplan says. For the waste you do receive, try to expand your recycling efforts and compost if you have a restaurant.
The critical final step for any green initiative is training, says GoforChange's Gabrielli. Make sure workers understand your policies for reducing and managing waste and cutting electricity use, and put it in writing. Get staffers' ideas and incorporate them into the plan, too. "Ultimately, there need to be a set of guidelines," Gabrielli says.
The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.