Way to grow

Way to grow

Simple changes can make your business more environmentally responsible while boosting revenue and reputation. By Silke Colquhoun

Greening your business is back in the spotlight. In the early years it was a ‘nice-to-have’ for South African companies, giving those who did it a warm, fuzzy feeling. It came with quite a bit of ‘greenwashing’ – pretending to care for the environment – and tree-hugging, before all the focus shifted towards the financial bottom line. Then Corporate South Africa realised that having an environmental conscience makes a lot of business sense, as the concepts of renewable energy and ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ save costs and increase profits in the long run.

Today, a couple of steps further in our journey towards sustainability, greening is no longer a stand-alone effort, but has been incorporated into the so-called ESG (environmental, social and governance) strategy. Economists are arguing that the destinies of ‘planet, people and profit’ are all deeply intertwined. Therefore, taking action is not an option but an imperative.

Arnold Smit, Director of the Centre for Business in Society at the University of Stellenbosch Business School, says: ‘The current development trajectory is simply not desirable and will result in very poor ESG outcomes for all. Businesses and government cannot afford to ignore the risks, as this will result, and is already resulting, in energy, water and food implications for the citizens.’

So, there you go. But how do you make your company environmentally sustainable?

‘Greening your business is more about understanding the resources your business uses, and the impact of your business practices on the environment, than just recycling and changing the light bulbs,’ says Claire Thwaits, who heads up the sustainability activities at the University of Pretoria’s Gordon Institute of Business Science.


The best way to start understanding these issues depends on the size and nature of your business. A large manufacturer with a complex supply chain may commission a ‘life- cycle assessment’ to find out its environmental impact from a cradle-to-grave perspective.

This includes all activities related to the making, packaging, transporting, selling, using and disposing of a product or service.

Thwaits adds: ‘Organisations that have a significant emissions output, such as refineries, smelters or power plants, will find a carbon-footprint assessment worthwhile. For the rest of us, it might be more practical to begin by looking at the most important resources your company relies on to run its everyday operations.

‘Ask yourself questions like: Do staff travel long distances to reach the manufacturing plant? Would it be more cost-effective and reliable for the company to send one bus to a single residential area every day to transport staff, than to expect 60 cars to travel to your factory? A single bus produces far less pollution via emissions. Recently, the 2015 Sandton EcoMobility World Festival highlighted the social benefits of reducing traffic congestion, as well as the environmental benefits of public transport.’

The single most dramatic impact will come through reducing your energy consumption, courtesy of the steeply rising electricity tariff. The Green Building Council South Africa states that the average green office building consumes 34% less electricity than a standard building. While a green office costs slightly more to set up, the return on investment is higher. Existing office buildings can be retrofitted with off-grid energy generators such as solar photovoltaic roof panels to become a lot more energy efficient and save cash.

Even small changes, such as reusing ink cartridges or not printing out emails, will save you rands. Thwaits says, ‘Sometimes all it takes is a little bit of common sense. Simple activities all add up. Often all you really need is for someone to point out the obvious.’

You don’t have to go this route alone. There are a number of sustainability professionals who help companies of all sizes in drawing up environmental management plans. There’s also hands-on assistance from service providers such as Mpact Recycling – the leading paper recycler in SA – which collects about 450 000 tonnes each year. The average office creates 1 kg of paper waste a day, says the firm, whose services include the collection of recovered office paper and the performance of confidential shredding. In addition to the environmental benefits, recycling reportedly creates work for about 100 000 people nationwide.


Another pressing challenge in Africa is water consumption. Thwaits, who has also co-edited a book on firms with strong sustainability leadership, called Behind the Green Veil, explains: ‘When Avis Car Hire did a water assessment at their airport car-
washing facilities, the then-CEO was very startled at the huge amount consumed per car. A water recycling system was designed and implemented within the wash station that not only saves precious potable water, but energy, time and money – providing
a quantifiable return on investment to the Avis business.’

South African Breweries (SAB) promotes water efficiency too. The environmental manager at SABMiller Africa, Muzi Chonco, says: ‘Since 2009, we have reduced water consumption by more than 20% within our breweries, from 4.5 litres of water per litre of beer to 3.6 litres. We have also further committed to reduce water use to around 2.89 litres of water per litre of beer by 2020.’

At the same time, Woolworths has built its reputation, as well as its product lines, on responsible behaviour. It advertises the volume of its reduced carbon emissions, water consumption and lighting efficiency on the walls of all of its branches, where customers can also follow the stories of organic farmers and suppliers. The group focuses on issues such as water, energy, waste, sustainable farming, transformation and social development too.

‘Every employee within the organisation understands the concept of what it means to be a responsible retailer,’ says Thwaits. ‘I think their success started with individual champions within the company, but at the same time, there is something to be said for companies that support a proactive and responsible attitude among all their staff.’

This underpins the theory that greening your business can start with a single small action that a single person believes in and repeats every day.

You could be that person.

Photography: Gallo/GettyImages
December 2015/January 2016

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