The carbon-neutral SME

SMEs are dismissive of the potential problems associated with climate change and confused as to what to do about them. But there are simple steps you can take now. By JAMES BENNETT.

By James Bennett

Despite the high level of recent debate over climate change, carbon trading and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, a recent survey conducted by international business coaching organisation Shirlaws found that only 2.5% of SMEs believed that “reducing environmental impact” would be a key challenge over the next five years.

Small business’s apparent willingness to dismiss concerns about the environment may have something to do with the fact they are not sure what to do about it. The latest Commonwealth Bank-CCI Survey of WA Business Expectations found that 44% of respondents were unsure about the most appropriate way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

SME attitudes towards environmental issues are in stark contrast to those of the big business. Numerous large companies have publicly committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and supporting other initiatives to help solve climate change.

In March, National Australia Bank announced it wants to become carbon neutral by September 30, 2010. NAB will aim to reduce the greenhouse gas impact of its operations to zero by improving energy efficiency and use. If emissions cannot be avoided, it will purchase carbon credits to offset any emissions.

NAB chief executive John Stewart says: “Global warming is clearly one of the most concerning issues of our time. Across the world people are becoming more and more engaged with climate change, and there is real momentum for all of us to reduce our impact, both at home and at work.”

So if a big bank can become carbon neutral, surely many of Australia’s smart, flexible and innovative small businesses can follow suit. The good news is that there are a number of quick and cheap changes you can make to cut your company’s greenhouse emissions, and plenty of free online tools to help you do it. 

Where to start?

The first step in NAB’s carbon neutral push is to work out exactly how much energy it is using and where savings and efficiency gains could be made. That’s a good place for SMEs to start too.

There are many places to get an energy audit done. Some of the large electricity suppliers will do it and there are also a number of environmental consultants that specialise in measuring and reporting on a company’s greenhouse gas emissions. A good example is Energetics in New South Wales, which helped television program Sunrise become Australia’s first carbon-neutral TV show.

One of the best free tools can be found at the website of the Federal Government’s Greenhouse Office. Its energy audit tool includes 11 modules on topics such as lighting, ventilation systems, office equipment and building insulation.

There is nothing overly technical about the audit and it will help you pinpoint areas you can cut greenhouse emissions. Simply print off the module, walk around your workplace and answer the questions in the module to get a good idea of how much energy you are using.

Then follow the kit to produce an energy efficiency action plan. Each module contains short tips to follow and a page of resources that can provide more information.

It is important to note that improving your business’s environmental impact requires a holistic approach. Cutting electricity and gas usage is one part of the solution, but your company’s energy requirements are likely to be a lot bigger than that.

For example, if your business uses hazardous chemicals, they will require specialised handling, transport and storage, which will invariably involve extra energy use.

Think about the raw materials you buy – do certain suppliers use less energy in their manufacturing processes than others? Consider your supply chain – can you make changes that will reduce the level of greenhouse gas emissions your logistic systems creates? 


The key to becoming carbon neutral is to reduce the amount of energy you use, and that means cutting electricity and gas usage. There are plenty of cheap and easy ways to do this.

Start by using energy-efficient light globes, which are now readily available in most supermarkets. Think about the electrical appliances you use in your business.

Can machines be turned off when they are not in use? Could office equipment be turned off at the powerpoint at end of the day, rather than being left on standby overnight? Is the office refrigerator an old energy eater?

The next step is to buy GreenPower, which is environmentally friendly energy (usually hydro, solar, biomass or wind energy) that has been accredited by the Federal Government.

Most big energy suppliers offer GreenPower as part of their product range, and there is even a new energy retailer (Jackgreen Energy) that only sells environmentally friendly power.

GreenPower prices have come down markedly in recent years as competition has increased. You may also find that switching to environmentally friendly electricity will give you a free marketing tool – companies that use GreenPower for a certain percentage of their energy bill are allowed to use the GreenPower logo.  


The other big source of greenhouse gas emissions in Australia is the transport sector, particularly motor vehicles. There are a number of ways to get your vehicles emissions down.

Simple ideas include organising car pools for staff, ensuring vehicles are maintained and running efficiently and getting staff to reduce their speed on the road (which will reduce fuel use).

If you want to take things a step further, consider adding a hybrid car to your fleet, such as Toyota’s Prius or Honda’s hybrid Civic. Another option may to be sign up to the program offered by Greenfleet, a not-for-profit organisation that seeks to naturalise vehicle emissions by planting trees. For $40 per vehicle per year, Greenfleet will plant 17 trees on your behalf. The organisation can also offset carbon usage in the office or for staff air travel.

Virgin Blue is the first Australian airline to offer passengers the option of buying carbon offsets on its flights. Customers pay a fee for the offset (typically about $1) and Virgin gives the money to the Australian Greenhouse Office’s approved Greenhouse Friendly abatement projects. 


Most offices have paper recycling programs, but there are plenty of other consumables that can be easily recycled. Everything from printer ink cartridges, mobile phones and white goods to batteries, oil, furniture, gas cylinders and computer parts can be used again. Go to for a directory that lists recycling centres by location and product.

Another good way to reduce paper usage, and save on stationery and postage costs, is to organise with customers to use email for communications, invoicing and payments.


It is impossible not to mention a few water saving ideas in a time of severe drought. Companies that use water as part of their production process, such as manufacturers or rural businesses, should examine ways to use recycled or rain water. There are even government grants to help fund water-saving initiatives.

But every business can do its bit to conserve water by checking that pipes are not leaking, using grey water in the office toilets and installing a water tank.


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