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Climate leadership Article | 10-minute read

7 low-cost ways to lower your business’s carbon footprint

Small changes have a big impact on greenhouse gas emissions.
woman next to a subway, watching as it passes by

There are multiple reasons why Canadian business owners are seeking ways to cut emissions, from reducing operating costs to elevating their reputation in the eyes of customers and employees.

“Motives vary. Small businesses are as unique and diverse as the people who own them,” says Marianne Griffith, a certified energy auditor and the interim Executive Director of the London Environmental Network (LEN). The LEN administers the local chapter of Green Economy Canada, a pan-Canadian network of more than 250 businesses moving toward a net-zero economy.

“Trade with Europe has forced some firms to have a statement on greenhouse gas emissions to be part of a sustainable supply chain,” Griffith says.

Global supply chain disruptions and increased sustainability awareness, meanwhile, is leading customers to locally and ethically sourced products, Griffith says.

As a result, firms are looking for B Corp or similar certification to help prove their sustainability credentials with savvy customers and help them recruit employees in a competitive labour market.

“Young staff are demanding more from employers,” Griffith says. “They want to work for companies aligned with their values.”

Beyond a reputation for improved sustainability, cutting emissions directly affects your bottom line in a good way.

Start by measuring your emissions

The first step to cutting your emissions is knowing where to focus your attention, Griffith says.

Companies will generally begin by scheduling an energy audit to set a baseline. An energy auditor will come into your business, examine your energy consumption and costs, and take a look at your building’s envelope to identify potential improvements. A thorough report follows, giving you a roadmap to reduce energy consumption, and in turn, your carbon emissions.

Ideally, the audit will use the GHG Protocol, which is internationally accepted.

“If you’ve already made improvements, you can set the baseline up to three years prior to the day of the audit,” Griffith says.

Seven low-cost ways to lower your emissions

Having completed an energy audit, Griffith says that the next step is to target what she calls the “low-hanging fruits,” easy and low-cost or no-cost ways to reduce your carbon footprint. You can also communicate your intention of reducing carbon emissions to staff to encourage their input and get everyone working toward the same target.

1. Program thermostats effectively

Griffith points to the example of a children’s play centre in London, Ont. that was looking for ways to reduce energy and costs. She helped the owner program the thermostats so the building was only heating or cooling when people were in the building, reducing energy output and saving her hundreds of dollars annually.

“She saw the difference almost immediately,” Griffith says. “It’s significant when you’re not overheating or cooling the space in the hours when no one is there.”

2. Implement smart workstations or “turn off” policies

Most machines draw power even when you’re not using them. Having machines that shut down when they’ve been idle or lights that dim when there isn’t any movement can make a nice dent in your energy consumption.

If you can’t install automated equipment, educate employees about the necessity of turning off lights, computers and power bars when they’re away from their desks or workstations.

“It sounds almost too simple to make a difference,” Griffith says. “But businesses waste a lot of energy by leaving lights and machines running.”

And if you haven’t already, said Griffith, replace all light bulbs with LEDs for significant energy savings, even when the lights are on.

3. Go low-flow

Just like at home, installing low-flow toilets and smart taps in the workplace can significantly lower your water consumption and associated costs.

“One London company, McCabe Promotional, reduced water consumption by 10% just by upgrading toilets in high-traffic staff washrooms,” Griffith says.

4. Create transportation incentives

Often the single largest emitter of greenhouse gases for businesses is your employees’ daily commute.

Beyond maintaining remote work options, it’s possible to encourage greener transportation. In some cases, companies offer a monetary incentive for employees that choose public transit over driving their car to work. If that doesn’t seem viable, look at ways to encourage a pedestrian commute.

“Installing bike racks and making sure there are shower facilities on site can be an incentive for staff to choose an active commute to work,” Griffith says.

If your business doesn’t have space for showers, partnering with a local gym to use their facilities can be the answer.

5. Install air curtains

We’ve all heard it from our parents growing up: “There’s no point heating the outdoors!”

Air curtains installed over doorways prevent hot or cold air from escaping across the threshold. Also known as air doors, these inexpensive and unintrusive machines create an air seal each time a door opens, holding the heated or conditioned air in the right environment.

If you have a high-traffic entryway from outdoors into a shop—or need to prevent air flow between an office and a warehouse, for example—air curtains are a quick and easy way to reduce energy costs and emissions.

6. Manage your garbage

Most businesses embraced recycling and other waste management measures decades ago. But of the three Rs—reduce, reuse, recycle—reduction is the most overlooked and can have the highest impact on your carbon footprint.

You may want to consider investing in a full waste management audit. But encouraging employees to use reusable mugs and plates instead of disposable ones or swapping out paper towels in the washrooms for high-efficiency hand dryers can already start to make a difference.

7. Choose green suppliers

Closely examine what your business is buying and who they’re buying from. It’s possible to find sustainable alternatives.

When purchasing services and products for your business, choose certified B Corp or carbon neutral suppliers, which helps to reduce carbon emissions across the supply chain.

“If your business uses plastics for consumer-facing packaging, consider shifting toward compostable alternatives,” Griffith says.

Other ideas to reduce your carbon footprint

Once you’ve tackled the no-cost or low-cost carbon reduction measures, the next phase of your net-zero business plan may require some investment. Despite upfront capital costs, investing in sustainability can often save your business money after a time.

Invest in energy retrofits

An energy audit will show you where doors, windows and insulation can be replaced to create a tighter seal for your building and reduce energy needs. Replacing aging elements with high efficiency products will lower your heating and cooling costs in the long run.

Switch your fuel source

At some point, every business needs to replace their furnace or air conditioning system. When that time comes, consider shifting your primary fuel source to a renewable energy option.

“If you’re on propane or gas, look at when those systems are set to be replaced, and opt for geothermal or an air source heat pump,” Griffith says. As heat pump technology continues to improve, your utility bill could come out lower than what you are currently paying for oil and gas.

“Initially you pay more per unit of energy,” Griffith says. “But as carbon taxes and electricity rates increase, especially if you combine an air heat pump with solar, you will pay less or on par with what you do now.”

Drive electric

Griffith points to one small business in London that compared the cost of paying mileage for employees with purchasing electric vehicles (EVs) for staff to drive to client appointments. With the price of fuel ever-increasing, it was a no-brainer for them to make the switch to EVs.

Likewise, small businesses that maintain a fleet of gas-powered delivery vehicles may find it’s worth the investment to swap for an electric fleet.

Offer incentives to employees to use EVs by installing a charging station at work.

Build a blue roof

A blue roof is a roof adapted to store rainwater. Valves are installed on stormwater drains to control flow during a rainstorm. The idea is to prevent storm pipes from backing up, which can cause flooding damage to the building and send untreated water into rivers and lakes.

In a pilot project, the London Food Bank installed a blue roof on its warehouse. The water it collects is used to water plants in their greenhouses and community gardens. Not only have they reduced their reliance on city water, but the rainwater collection means they don’t require bulk water delivery during the growing season.

Join like-minded businesses

Some of the best net-zero innovations for small business will come from your own network. The best way to stay on top of green initiatives is to get involved.

“Most communities have an environmental organization for entrepreneurs,” Griffith says. “Start with something simple, like engaging your employees in a community event—maybe tree planting as a team-building exercise.”

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