Special Reports

Corporate exec finds working "green" saves greenbacks

Following last week's column on reducing waste, an online commenter wondered why individuals should collectively bear the burden for maintaining the earth.

"Why don't corporations, who produce the excess waste take any responsibility to reduce so much waste?" said the person posting under the name Lucixir. "Maybe it is because they are solely interested in maximizing profit above all else?"

The short answer: many are probably doing more than you.

That's what I learned this week, listening to Ken Perdue, regional environmental initiative manager for Staples —the office products company dealing in all that paper, plastic pens and electronics. You know, one of the big box stores we're supposed to hate.

Perdue spoke to the board of Green Biz Wichita about how he travels around the country showing other businesses how Staples works to reduce waste and in doing so expands profits.

"What's interesting is as businesses we think these practices will cost us more," Perdue said. "But when we talk to the workers they all say, no, we've tried it at home and we know it costs less and saves us. So what we've done is said let's combine the knowledge of the workers and put it into business practice and that's how we get sustainable change."

So far, Perdue said such environmental counseling helped save $60,000 or more to the Bank of Oklahoma and Grand Crowne Resorts in Branson, Mo. Those are two of the most recent businesses where he's helped "Green Teams."

Businesses can save thousands of dollars, Perdue said, by just reducing paper, printer and toner cartridges and save energy.

Wait, doesn't Staples sell those items? They're asking their customers to use less of what they sell?

Yes.

"It seems kind of counter intuitive doesn't it?" Perdue said. "We talk a lot about economy and ecology. When we go in and show businesses how to cut costs and reduce their environmental impact, we find they're more willing to do business with us in other areas."

Staples, meanwhile, cuts costs by saving fuel and energy and by recycling materials to cut its trash bills.

The company also saves on energy by generating more than half of its power through renewable resources. Its buildings are solar powered.

Still, Staples isn't the largest retailer in terms of saving energy. Worldwide, the Kohl's department store chain holds that title. In a survey of energy efficient companies, Kohl's and Whole Food Markets each generated 100 percent of their energy from renewable resources.

Staples also has profited from selling more than 3,000 environmentally friendly products, including ink pens made from recycled plastic water bottles, notebooks with sugarcane paper, computer flash drives of bamboo and calculators from old ink and toner cartridges.

It wasn't as easy as pushing a red button, however.

In the 1990s, the Sierra Club began putting pictures of the company's founder and its chief executive on cards, accusing them of killing the forests.

"We could have either pushed back and fought the Sierra Club, but instead we chose to look at our practices and change them," Perdue said. "That's the reason we go around and talk to other businesses, so they don't have to go through the same growing pains we went through."

Staples' vendors originally pushed back. Smead's, the largest maker of file folders, said it couldn't make its product with more recyclable materials at the same cost. When Staples, the largest seller of those folders, said might switch vendors, Smead's found a way. They began making file folders using 30 percent recycled materials, which cost less to make.

"Because of the way they redefined their manufacturing process, it had a trickling effect throughout the industry," Perdue said. "Now, every file folder I know about on the market contains 30 percent post-consumer waste. So it shows how one practice can really have a global impact."

Small changes created big savings.

By asking manufacturers of office paper to bind their boxes with one plastic strap instead of two, Perdue said the company estimates it's saved the 100,000 pounds of plastic.

Delivery trucks, meanwhile, can't go over 60 mph.

"If you ever get behind a Staple's truck, and you're running late, it's the worst truck to get behind," Perdue said.

Capping the speed has saved Staples 1 million gallons of fuel over two years.

That kind of savings changed the way Perdue drives. If you're in a hurry, you don't want to get behind his Mini Cooper, either.

"On my car there's a mileage rating of 38 miles per gallon, but when I drive capping my speed at 60 — and that's not in a 25 mph speed zone — I get 52 to 54 miles per gallon," Perdue said. "I also ride horses and raise dogs, so I have a truck that gets 17-18 miles per gallon. When I top speed it at 60, I'm getting 24 to 26 miles per gallon."

In this instance, the actions of a corporation changed how an individual conserves natural resources.

Maybe this will inspire us to cut down on our waste, too.

And slow down while we're at it.

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