What Can You Do To Green The Country?

This morning I found myself thinking about inaugurations past. In particular, John F. Kennedy’s 1961 Inaugural Address. That, along with meeting Auden Schendler Executive Director of Sustainability at Aspen Ski Company a few weeks ago, got me thinking about my ideas of greening small businesses.

What would happen if we reframed the issue: ask not what the country can do to green you; ask what you can do to green the country?

We all know that in order to be a green business we have to walk the walk, as well as talk the talk.  And, walking the walk needs to be more than greening your individual business. Changing your business practices is only one piece of the greening puzzle. Just because you can’t afford to install solar panels right now, doesn’t mean you can’t make a big difference. In fact, the time you invest in making a difference may be as valuable to environmental progress as installing CFLs. What if every small business owner in America got involved?  Joined a green business organization? Strengthened their green requirements for suppliers? Provided customers with greener alternatives?

What if every small business owner looked for the levers—the things they could do to move others to be greener—to make a broader impact on the environment than their own business alone could effect. In other words, look for ways to influence others. Schendler calls this approach “asymmetric warfare.” Like when ASC, which only spends about $30,000 a year on Kleenex banned the brand from the resort, the CEO of $32 billion parent company, Kimberly Clark, reached out to them. As a result, ASC was able to begin an environmental dialogue with a company 160 times its size.

Now ask yourself: Can we influence our suppliers to be more environmentally responsible?  Can we influence our customers to be more environmentally responsible? I bet you can.

Scott Hauge, president of Small Business-California (SB-Cal), a nonpartisan, grassroots, small-business advocacy organization and vice chair of advocacy for the National Small Business Association (NSBA), the oldest small-business advocacy organization in the United States, recently said to me: “if every small business owner spent 15 minutes a month writing letters to elected officials it would make a huge difference.”  No doubt, letter writing campaigns (especially to elected officials you have supported) make a difference in aggregate.  But, letter writing is also only a small piece of the puzzle. In terms of leverage, joining a membership organization with active environmental advocacy activities is letter writing on steroids. As new environmental laws that impact your business are proposed and introduced, a good membership organization—which, in some cases, will be a trade association—will be a source of valuable information and guidance. Conversely, and just as importantly, if the membership organizations to which you belong are not aggressively advocating for green public policy changes, let them know you think they should be. Or, better yet, get involved in the organization. Work to ensure that your interests are represented and that you have a venue from which to comment on proposed legislation; use your influence as a business to drive policy change from within a membership organization:

•    Join a green trade association and push for greater advocacy.
•    Join or start a green task force within your trade association.
•    Join a national or local small business organization that has a green agenda.
•    Sign up for the National Small Business Association’s Action Network advocacy email alerts that let you know how and when to send letters to your elected officials about important small business environmental issues and then mobilize others to do the same.
• Sign up for the Center for American Progress’ Energy & Environment RSS feeds and their issue alerts.
•    Put a “Write to Congress” web sticker on your website so visitors can use the interactive banners to support small business issues, or write letters to officials and the media.

As business owners we collectively have significant leverage—if we act.  So, ask not what your country can do to green you; ask what you can do to green the country.

Photo: Aradyne Flags

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About the Author

Jennifer Kaplan writes regularly about sustainable food and wine, the intersection of food and marketing and food politics for EatDrinkBetter.com and is the author of Greening Your Small Business (November 2009, Penguin Group (USA)). She was been named one of The 16 Women You Must Follow on Twitter for Green Business. She has four kids, a dog, a hamster and an MBA - find her on .
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