CHICAGO (TheStreet) -- When it comes to running an environmentally responsible business, it may seem the big guys have all the advantages. Large corporations can afford to build LEED-certified offices, hire sustainability consultants and explore alternative energy sources.
Small businesses usually have to make smaller shifts. Adding a recycling bin to your office snack room, replacing leaky warehouse windows or encouraging employees to bike to work are all modest ways to show employees and clients you're mindful of your company's environmental footprint.
Small businesses going green often have to make small shifts, such as bringing in recycling bins. But free help is available to take the next step.
But what if you're ready to take more significant steps? There are plenty of energy-efficiency consultants who will give your office a full green makeover -- if you can afford it. But there's also an ever-growing network of nonprofit advisers who will help you sort through your options for free.
Thanks to a recent SBA initiative -- the Energy Audit and Energy Efficiency Program -- small businesses across the country can get help assessing and improving their energy use. The program is being implemented through Small Business Development Centers in each state (to find the closest location to you, visit the
Local nonprofit groups and government agencies are also stepping in. In California, the
advises small businesses on specific steps they can take to lessen their environmental impact. Each of the nine counties in the San Francisco area has its own local coordinator, to make the services as accessible as possible.
The program started in 1996 by targeting auto repair shops, since they were businesses with a relatively high negative impact on the landscape. Since then, 2,200 companies have been certified as green, and the program has developed checklists and standards for a variety of industries, including hotels, restaurants, landscape design firms, custodial services and small manufacturers. (Since this is Northern California, they also have recommendations for wineries.)
While it's no surprise to see such programs in the Bay Area, similar initiatives are springing up in areas not traditionally thought of as centers of environmental activism. Take the North Texas Small Business Development Center Network, which serves businesses in the Fort Worth area. Its "Planet Performance" program uses customized assessments to make specific recommendations based on a company's size, industry and financial status. Follow-up sessions keep businesses on track and work out kinks along the way. The center is also developing a local networking group for environmentally friendly business leaders to meet and exchange ideas.
In Minnesota, companies are encouraged to work with the state's Department of Employment and Economic Development. Its Green Enterprise Assistance program works on a number of different fronts, from advising clean-energy startups to helping existing businesses become more efficient. It also acts as an information clearinghouse, steering companies toward the best local resources.
Other advisory programs are available through business schools, which have seen growing interest in environmental issues. For example, the University of Nebraska at Omaha's MBA program now offers a concentration in sustainability, while students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's business school can earn a certificate in Business, Environment & Social Responsibility.
Professors and students at these and other schools are reaching out to local businesses. The Nebraska Business Development Program, based at the University of Nebraska, offers a variety of free services, including workshops on eliminating unnecessary paperwork and putting together an internal "green" leadership team, as well as access to pollution prevention experts.
In Wisconsin, the business school helped spearhead a program called Green Masters, which recognizes state businesses for their commitment to earth-friendly practices. Companies who choose to participate are asked to take at least one action in 10 different sustainability areas and are awarded points according to how much they accomplish. The top 20% of all participating companies earn the status of "Green Masters."
Promoting your business as green can be a powerful marketing tool, but only if you show customers you're walking the walk. That's why getting the right advice is critical. If you can get that guidance for free, why not see what you find out?
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Elizabeth Blackwell is a freelance writer based in Chicago. She is the author of Frommer's Chicago guidebook and writes for The Wall Street Journal, Chicago and other national magazines.